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.
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.
"To be honest with you, now the team gets to focus on what they're doing. Is it a distraction to me or the coaching staff? We'll deal with it. Sometimes, it takes the pressure off the players, people asking the coaches the tough questions and not the players."
It's typical of Shanahan that he would see a positive in the whole situation. His attention to detail is legendary. There's speculation that Reeves is trying to play mind games with him, but Shanahan is probably too focused to fall for that.
Broncos safety Tyrone Braxton said: "It's the little things that make a difference when it comes down to a crucial game. He instills in all his staff being prepared."
A victory in this game would not only leave Reeves in his rear-view mirror, but it also would bolster Shanahan's reputation as one of the best -- if not the best -- coaches in the game.
Veteran 49ers line coach BobbMcKittrick said Shanahan "might be the best coach I've ever been around."
"I think I've worked with some of the finest coaches there ever have been," McKittrick said, noting that he has worked with Bill Walsh, George Seifert, Dennis Green and Mike Holmgren.
"I don't want Holmgren to think I don't think he's any good. I just think Mike is a touch above all of them, because he's in-depth in more areas than anybody I've ever seen."
Shanahan has the knack of being a firm disciplinarian without alienating his players.
Defensive tackle Mike Lodish, who'll be the first player to play in six Super Bowls, said: "He tells us the way it's going to be. He says, 'This is the way it's going to be and this is what we have to have happen to win.' And if you don't get it done, you're out."
Shanahan's offensive coordinator, Gary Kubiak, who played for Reeves, said: "Guys want to bleed for him, and that's part of coaching."
Carmen Policy, the Cleveland Browns president, who was in San Francisco when Shanahan was there, said: "Mike has got a rare combination of toughness, football expertise, naked intelligence, street sense and tremendous people skills.
"Now think of it for a moment. When do you see all these attributes rolled into one individual, and especially an individual who picks football as his vocation? It just doesn't happen."
In Shanahan's case, it happened.
Mike Shanahan file
Born: Aug. 24, 1952, Oak Park, Ill.
College: Eastern Illinois University.
Personal: He and wife Peggy have two children, son Kyle and daughter Krystal.
Colleges: Played quarterback at Eastern Illinois, but lost a kidney in the spring game of his junior year, ending his playing career. Began coaching career at age 21 at Oklahoma, serving as offensive backfield and receivers coach in 1975 and 1976. Held assistant's jobs at Northern Arizona, Eastern Illinois, Minnesota and Florida from 1977 to 1983, before joining NFL ranks.
Et cetera: Is only AFC coach to have won a Super Bowl as either a head coach or assistant with more than one team. Has guided Denver to franchise-record three straight seasons with 12 or more wins.
NFL coaching career 1984-1987: Denver Broncos receivers coach (1984); offensive coordinator (1985-87). 1988-1989: Los Angeles Raiders head coach (fired after four games in 1989). 1989-1991: Broncos quarterbacks coach (1989-1990); offensive coordinator (1991). 1992-1994: San Francisco 49ers offensive coordinator. 1995-present: Broncos head coach.
Year Team W-L Pct.
1988 L.A. Raiders 7-9 .438
1989 L.A. Raiders 1-3 .250
1995 Denver 8-8 .500
1996 Denver 13-3 .813
1997* Denver 12-4 .750
1998** Denver 14-2 .875
Totals 55-29 .655
Playoffs 6-1 .857
*-Won Super Bowl XXXII **-Won AFC title
Pub Date: 1/25/99