In a coaching class of his own

Broncos: Mike Shanahan has learned to put a positive spin on both the ups and downs of his NFL career.

Super Bowl Xxxiii

January 25, 1999|By Vito Stellino | Vito Stellino,SUN STAFF

Mike Shanahan knows how to turn a lemon into lemonade. When Shanahan was fired as offensive coordinator after the 1991 season by Denver Broncos coach Dan Reeves -- the same coach he'll match wits with in Super Bowl XXXIII Sunday -- he turned it into a growth experience.

He got a job running the San Francisco 49ers' offense in 1992, and it changed the way he approached practice sessions.

"I always came from programs where you beat your guys up consistently," he said. "And you wanted the roughness level -- who was the toughest guy on the block?"

With the 49ers, the philosophy was not to leave your game on the practice field.

"You go into an environment where they never even hit the second half of the season and they had the best November and December record in the history of pro football," he said.

Shanahan decided he liked that approach.

After helping the 49ers win the Super Bowl after the 1994 season, Shanahan got the call to return to Denver. He replaced Wade Phillips, who coached the team for two years after Reeves was dismissed a year after he had fired Shanahan.

Shanahan brought the San Francisco practice philosophy back with him to Denver, and it helped him build the Broncos into the team that has replaced the 49ers as the best in football. They're at their peak in the playoffs and have won six straight in the postseason, including last year's Super Bowl.

When the Broncos play the Atlanta Falcons in Super Bowl XXXIII, Shanahan has a chance to join a select list of coaches who've won back-to-back Super Bowls.

Only Vince Lombardi, Don Shula, Chuck Noll, who did it twice, and Jimmy Johnson have pulled off the feat.

Not that one more Super Bowl will be enough for Shanahan.

"I have no doubt Mike will win more," said owner Pat Bowlen. "Mike, in my mind, is clearly the best in the league."

Bowlen has enough confidence in Shanahan to let him virtually run the franchise. He answers only to Bowlen.

One Denver columnist never refers to Shanahan by name. He simply calls him the Mastermind. It's not exactly meant as a compliment, but it sums up his laser-like intensity and attention to detail.

"Sometimes, two people can work so well together that two are better than one," Shanahan said of teams with a general manager and a coach.

"But sometimes, there are situations where egos are involved. Somebody's in charge of the college draft. Somebody's involved in free-agent acquisitions. The coach is in charge of football and wants to get rid of so-and-so, but he can't because there are struggles within the organization.

"I'm going to make mistakes, but when you make the final decision, you say, `I made a mistake. Let's move on.' You never have to cover yourself," Shanahan said.

Tougher days

Shanahan learned what it was like the other way in 1988, when he was hired to coach the Raiders, where owner Al Davis calls all the shots. Shanahan resisted doing some things the "Raider way" and lasted 20 games before being fired at 1-3 in 1989.

Davis still owes him $400,000 on his contract, which he has refused to pay. Shanahan once tried to needle Davis by suggesting he give it to the Oakland public schools.

"I wasn't nearly the coach I am now," he said. "It was a great experience for me, because I learned what I wanted. I knew if I was ever presented with a head coaching job again, I wouldn't take it if I couldn't control my own destiny."

Not that Shanahan was convinced that he was going to get a second chance.

"It really hurts," he said of being fired. "There's a lot of second-guessing. You can second-guess yourself, if you could have handled it differently

"Bottom line is, when it happens that quick, it usually goes beyond football. Somebody's relationship, either with the owner or the general manager, usually, is, ah not there."

Shanahan was worried that the Raiders experience might have ruined his career.

"I think that's what everybody thinks," he said. "Very seldom do you get a second shot, at any level. You've got to go back, be a coordinator, you've got to have success -- and hopefully one day you might get another chance. But it doesn't happen overnight."

Considering what has happened since, the coincidence is that the man who revived his career is Reeves, who brought him back to Denver as an assistant coach.

Shanahan doesn't seem eager to discuss his departure from Denver. If Reeves hadn't gone public last week with his complaints about Shanahan, the Denver coach would have stuck to his story that it's all in the past.

Once Reeves went public, Shanahan denied Reeves' charges that he had tried to undermine him and seemed puzzled about why Reeves made it an issue again.

"I thought we were going to take the high road on this. Hopefully, we still can. Unfortunately, I have to answer some of these questions again," Shanahan said.

A positive spin

Although beating Reeves in a Super Bowl would be the sweetest win of his career, Shanahan is too analytical to get as emotional about it as Reeves is. He even sees an upside to it.

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