This time, K.C. coach packs team, not vans

Cunningham `loved' Baltimore, recalls move

October 19, 1999|By Vito Stellino | Vito Stellino,SUN STAFF

Like most Baltimore football fans, Gunther Cunningham has vivid memories of that snowy March night in 1984 when the moving vans arrived at the Owings Mills complex and carted the Colts off to Indianapolis.

An assistant coach under Frank Kush, Cunningham was on the inside that night, packing his belongings.

"We got called into Jimmy Irsay's office and he said, `You guys have got to pack.' I looked out the window and there were the police dogs. I felt like a thief getting away in the night. It was such an eerie sight," he said.

"It was kind of a tough deal for me. I loved that city [Baltimore]. Frank [Kush] always told me the city's important in football. I love the working-class towns where they support their football. I always say if the truck drivers like what I'm doing, I'm OK. They're the real fans," he said.

After toiling for three decades as an assistant, Cunningham got his first head coaching job in one of those cities this year -- Kansas City.

The Chiefs play at Arrowhead Stadium, one of the loudest outdoor stadiums in the league. They don't have any of those pricey club seats where the fans ignore the football game and watch the Ryder Cup. The Chiefs' fans wear red and come to cheer for their team.

It's one of the best home-field advantages in the league, and it's not surprising that Cunningham is 3-0 at home and 0-2 on the road.

He comes back to Baltimore Thursday night for the first time since the night the Colts left.

There's no secret about what the Chiefs' game plan will be. Cunningham's an old-school coach who wants to run the ball.

And then run the ball again.

And run it again.

And again.

In an era when most teams tend to pass about 55 percent of the time, Cunningham wants to run about 60 percent. He's averaging 39.3 runs a game for 151 yards and is fourth in the league in rushing offense.

Kansas City is 74-5 in the 1990s when it runs the ball more than 30 times.

Cunningham figures running the ball makes an offense tough and wears down the defense.

"I told the people here in town we're going to run it and when it gets cold, we're really going to run it," he said.

"Somebody said this is a boring team and they run the same plays over and over again. The more they talk that way, the better I like it."

He added: "Every defense wants to rush the passer. That's what makes them tick. You tell them they've got to play the run and they say, `Oh, gawd, get somebody else in there.' Guys have actually said that to me."

That's why the Chiefs-Ravens game looks like a fascinating matchup of elementary football.

The Ravens' strength on defense is stopping the run. Cunningham, though, isn't likely to try to get cute to fool the Ravens. He's going to challenge them strength for strength and run the ball.

He's going to run it even though he doesn't have a franchise-type back to carry the load.

Kimble Anders, who tore an Achilles' tendon in the second game, is out for the year. Cunningham's other runners have been Bam Morris, Rashaan Shehee and Donnell Bennett.

Morris pulled a hamstring early in the year and Shehee suffered a hip pointer in the last game, so the Chiefs have had to rotate their backs. But they've continued to run.

The other thing Cunningham's teams stress is to hit the quarterback and test him. They gave Drew Bledsoe a pounding in the last game, but he kept going.

"That son of a gun is a lot tougher than I thought he was," Cunningham said.

Cunningham's old school approach probably goes back to his upbringing.

He was born in Germany in 1946, in the rubble at the end of World War II. He lived with his grandparents in a farmhouse that had no running water.

His mother cleaned houses at an American military base where she met his stepfather, an enlisted man who moved the family to America when he was 12 and didn't speak much English. He has never been back to Germany.

He doesn't know anything about his biological father.

"My mother and I never talked about my real dad and I never asked her. I had a real hang-up about it for a long time. It was 27 years before I told my wife. She said, `I always knew.' Somebody said that's why you always look so intense. Maybe it is. Maybe I've got a chip on my shoulder," he said.

Cunningham said it was emotional for him when his stepfather said in a recent ESPN interview, "I'm real proud of my son."

His stepfather had never told Cunningham that. He was a stern military father who stressed his son always had to do better.

Cunningham's upbringing probably explains his work ethic. He's one of those workaholic coaches who sleeps three or four hours a night and is in the office at 4 a.m.

Don't worry about him burning out.

"I've been doing it this way for 30 years," he said.

He's trying to get Kansas City back on track after last year's meltdown, when the team lost six straight games following a 4-1 start. The Chiefs were embarrassed in a Monday night loss to Denver when some players were involved in scuffles. Schottenheimer turned in his resignation at the end of the season.

Cunningham is still close to Schottenheimer, and feels frustrated he didn't do more last year to help his mentor. But his message is that the team had 9 1/2 good years and one bad half-season under Schottenheimer, and he wants to put last year to rest.

"I'm not a genius. A lot of guys want flamboyant offensive guys throwing the ball all over. They question what Gun knows about offense. We're eighth in the NFL [in offensive yardage]. I must know something," he said.

Meanwhile, Cunningham has trouble believing a man from his background can be a millionaire NFL head coach.

"Only in America," he said. "I'm very patriotic. I get goose bumps when they play the national anthem."

Next for Ravens

Opponent: Kansas City Chiefs

Site: PSINet Stadium

When: Thursday, 8: 20 p.m.

TV/Radio: ESPN, Ch. 2/WJFK (1300 AM), WLIF (101.9 FM)

Tickets: Sold out

Pub Date: 10/19/99

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