On Aug. 2, 1976, Gary Kubiak walked off a plane and into the rest of his life. Just 14 years old, he absorbed the enormousness of the Kansas City Chiefs’ Arrowhead Stadium, the exhilaration, the screaming fans, the red and yellow seats, the white scoreboard staring from above the top deck as if it were a robot raising its hand.
Kubiak caught his breath as he jogged onto the field for the preseason game. He knew how lucky he was to be a ballboy for the Houston Oilers, throwing training camp passes to Earl Campbell and Mike Barber at Sam Houston State. The players treated him like one of their own, knowing he was a rising high school football star. But this — well, this was different.
The experience resonated in a way that makes Kubiak smile 39 years later.
“That was the first pro football game I ever went to. (Coach) Bum Phillips took me to Kansas City that day,” Kubiak said. “I still remember as a kid going into the stadium, chasing the balls. That was my first day. I was part of pro football.”
On Friday, Kubiak enters training camp in his 22nd season as an NFL coach but his first as the boss of the Broncos. He inherits a team with Super Bowl aspirations. He landed the job in part because a pair of numbing playoff exits overshadowed four consecutive AFC West titles by the John Fox-coached Broncos.
General manager John Elway sought a head coach who could inspire the Broncos to “never stop kicking and screaming,” especially in big games, which haunted Fox’s tenure.
“Hopefully you have that mindset every day, every week, not just one week. There’s no substitution for playing hard,” Kubiak said. “You have to compete all the time, not just when you think it’s appropriate.”
He relishes the pressure that comes with high expectations.
“I was part of this organization for many years. I know where they expect to go, that they expect to win Super Bowls,” Kubiak said. “It’s something you want to be part of. Does it make it tougher? I don’t know. People can say what they want to say, but this is why I do what I do. That’s why I love to go to work every day.”
The job found Kubiak in January when Fox and the Broncos mutually parted one day after a stunning home playoff loss to the Indianapolis Colts. Kubiak, 53, was content to stay with the Baltimore Ravens as their offensive coordinator, after eight seasons as coach of the Houston Texans. He told the Chicago Bears and offensive coordinator, after eight seasons as coach of the Houston Texans. He told the Chicago Bears and New York Jets — and anyone else who would listen — that he wasn’t interested.
Then Elway, his roommate when they were players, called.
“He’s always had strong feelings for Denver. He spent so much time there, time he enjoyed,” longtime NFL coach and mentor Mike Sherman said of Kubiak. “Going to Houston was home. But when you think of his career, really Denver is going home. This is kind of a unique opportunity to end it where it started.”
Kubiak will stand in the middle of the field Friday at Broncos headquarters at Dove Valley, surveying the buzz of activity from his familiar spot with hardly anyone noticing him. He coaches football because he enjoys the grind, embraces the challenge. It’s difficult, uncomfortable and liberating.
Like the truth.
What he thinks
Kubiak doesn’t have a problem telling people what he thinks. Consistency and honesty are staples in his life. They remain the central themes when talking to people who watched him grow from a record-setting quarterback at Houston’s St. Pius X High School to a Texas A&M star to a reliable backup with the Broncos, and a reason they predict he will succeed with Denver.
“As a coach, when you get kids, you spend a lot of time trying to smooth out problems,” said former Texas A&M coach R.C. Slocum. “With Gary, he didn’t have any rough spots. He’s always been mature with a great value system from Day One.
“I first met him when he was 17, and he hasn’t changed a bit. What you see is what you get. Try to find someone who has a bad word to say about him. You can’t. He could have ridden off into the sunset, but there’s nothing that would mean more to him than to come back to the Broncos and have a great run.”
Had Kubiak embarked on his second head coaching job elsewhere, shrugged shoulders would have greeted the announcement. He went 63-66 in eight seasons with the Texans (including 2-2 in the playoffs), turning a 2-14 team into a two-time division champion. He didn’t fail as much as he didn’t finish the job, undermined by awful quarterback play in 2013, which led to his firing.
In other cities, he’s Kubiak. In Denver, he’s “Kubes,” well-known for saving the Broncos in a Monday night game at Washington when Elway had the flu from, as legend has it, chipped beef on toast from President George H.W. Bush’s table at the White House. And again in 1992 when Elway rallied the Broncos past the Oilers in the playoffs, a breathtaking comeback that required Kubiak to handle a low snap setting up David Treadwell’s 28-yard field goal with 16 seconds left.
Few would argue Kubiak’s merits as a brilliant offensive mind, a man who learned from Mike Shanahan, Bill Walsh and Alex Gibbs. Kubiak has been creating mismatches for three decades, camouflaging repetitive zone-blocking schemes with multiple personnel groups and formations. He owns three Super Bowl title rings as an assistant with the San Francisco 49ers and Denver, where he helped Elway transform seamlessly from electric to acoustic in his final two seasons as a player.
Kubiak will be heavily involved in the Broncos’ offense. He looks to establish the run to open the field for play-action passing. The idea is to ease the pressure and reliance on quarterback Peyton Manning the way Kubiak did when he ran the Broncos’ offense in Elway’s final two championship seasons.
“It should only help a quarterback when you run the ball,” Kubiak said. “It’s what you have to be doing if you want to be a physical football team.”
During his 20 seasons as an offensive coordinator or head coach, Kubiak’s running game averaged a ninth-place NFL finish, including eighth last year with Baltimore. The Broncos ranked 15th in rushing last season.
As for play-calling, Kubiak says: “That’s something I’ve been doing my whole career. I love it. That’s where my competitive juices flow, calling the game.”
And yet, there is that record with the Texans — under .500. It raises questions about whether Kubiak is running from a cliché about nice guys and where they finish.
“He treats you the way you wanted to be treated. It creates the false narrative that he’s strictly a player’s coach, that he’s too easy on guys. That couldn’t be further from the truth,” said veteran offensive tackle Eric Winston, who played for Kubiak in Houston. “He shoots straight. It’s not about him. That’s the thing. Some coaches yell just so they can be seen yelling. It’s never about him. He’s not coaching for attention. He’s coaching to win.
“In our meetings, they were some of the most uncomfortable I have ever been in. He holds players to a high standard. Sometimes you want to be as small as you can in that chair. If you don’t hear your name, it’s a great day.”
Slocum gave Kubiak his first coaching job, at Texas A&M in 1992, after his playing career ended in Denver. He knew he couldn’t keep his former quarterback long because he was too talented, something he showed while coaching running backs such as All-American Greg Hill.
“Players loved him. And he didn’t think he had all the answers,” Slocum said. “As a head coach, you have every right to be demanding, but you don’t have the right to be demeaning. Gary leads with class.”
Kubiak brings a reputation for rolling up his sleeves. On a typical morning, he shows up at Dove Valley at 5 a.m. Even after he suffered a mini-stroke in 2013 during a nationally televised game, Kubiak never considered leaving coaching. He changed his diet, and when he was supposed to be taking it easy, he would leave Texans headquarters, then sneak back in to do more work.
“He gets things done. If you are there, you are there to work,” said Sherman, who helped Kubiak understand how to watch game film at Texas A&M and later joined his staff in Houston. “You aren’t there to tell stories and play games. There’s no wasted time. That’s Gary. You always know where you stand. There’s no hidden agendas, which is why his assistants are so loyal to him.”
When a new head coach arrives, the franchise gives him the opportunity to redecorate. The Broncos’ team meeting room featured multiple slogans the past few years. Kubiak replaced them with a single saying in huge, bold letters across the back wall: “Be accountable.”
“People ask if he can be stern enough,” said Hall of Fame tight end Shannon Sharpe. “I was in meetings with him for seven years. He knows what to say and when to say it. He lets you know when you don’t make a play you should have. But he will also be the first to admit his mistake. He will say, ‘I have to do a better job. That’s on me.’ As a player, you can’t help but respect that.”
Six months into Kubiak’s tenure here, Broncos president Joe Ellis referenced the meeting room when asked for an anecdote. To him, it captures Kubiak.
“Simple, straightforward, honest, that’s Gary,” Ellis said. “That’s who he is as a leader in his dealings with everyone in the building.”
Elway formed a strong bond with Kubiak, first as a roommate. Kubiak joked that his most important job was to take calls and tell people, “John’s not here.” They competed at everything, from cards to pingpong.
Kubiak learned early how to lead. He began his freshman season at St. Pius X High School in Houston standing 5-foot-9 and weighing 135 pounds. He wore size-11 cleats, foreshadowing a growth spurt. But opportunity couldn’t wait for his body to sprout. With the Panthers struggling through a clumsy season, coach Rene Hancock had Kubiak start the second half in a game against Beaumont Kelly. Kubiak completed 14-of-17 passes for 179 yards.
Four years later, Kubiak left St. Pius as Texas’ all-time prep passing leader with 6,190 yards, winning three consecutive titles at a time when high school running backs Eric Dickerson and Craig James were stealing the headlines.
“When he broke the record, one of the officials stopped the game,” Hancock told reporters a few years ago. “I sent the managers out to get the football. The officials said no — they wanted me to come get the football. I congratulated Gary, and Gary looked up into the stands and said, ‘Can I go tell my parents, “Hi”?’ That touched me. It was equally important that he go tell his parents. That’s what Gary is like. That’s the kind of person he is and the kind of leader he is.”
Kubiak and his wife, Rhonda, have three sons — Klint, Klay and Klein — and all three played college football. Klein now is an intern with the Broncos, Klay is a teacher, and Klint is the wide receivers coach at Kansas. It brings Kubiak back to his days as a ballboy. Oilers owner Bud Adams was a Kansas graduate, and Kubiak’s presence at practice sure wouldn’t hurt the Jayhawks’ recruiting efforts.
“I guess that is kind of how I got the job. I don’t know if that was legal or not,” Kubiak said. “I don’t think they were too mad I went to A&M. Klint’s at KU, so they got a Kubiak eventually.”
The Broncos did too. With Kubiak pegged at one point as Shanahan’s successor, the Texans prevented a move. Kubiak’s team was on the rise when the Broncos fired Shanahan after the 2008 season. Houston is Kubiak’s hometown. But Denver, in many ways, is home. When he steps onto the practice field this week, Kubiak will be in full view, eyes staring at drills, looking for ways to improve.
He is a coach. In a complicated world, it’s that simple.
“There’s a ton of things that people should know about him,” Winston said. “I think there was an unfair characterization of how it ended in Houston. I really thought if we had a healthy quarterback in 2011, we could have won it all. With (Kubiak), no one has anything negative to say. It’s not because they are scared. It’s because he’s as genuine a guy you will find in this league. You respect it, especially when you are away from it. He will make the Broncos better. He teaches guys how to be professionals, how to be men. He will win games and have a profound impact on lives.”
Article originally published in The Denver Post
Used with permission from author Troy E. Renck
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