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Coordinator Gary Kubiak looks to turn around struggling Ravens offense

The vacation was a long time coming, a much-needed respite after a difficult couple of months. But not long after Gary and Rhonda Kubiak arrived at their destination, they were interrupted by the buzz of Gary's phone.

Gary listened to the voice on the other end and knew right away that their getaway was over before it even had started.

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"I told my wife, 'We've got to turn around and go home,'" he said. "She was like, 'You're kidding me?' I said: 'We'll hold off. We'll do this after the season this year.'"

Kubiak spoke to Ravens head coach John Harbaugh about the team's offensive coordinator vacancy for a little while that January night. Within hours, he was en route to Baltimore for a formal meeting. By early February, he was spending late nights at an Owings Mills hotel, designing a playbook the Ravens hope will jump-start an offense that had fallen on hard times.

It has been quite a whirlwind. Kubiak suffered a mini-stroke in November, collapsing on the field during halftime of a Houston Texans game. He was fired as Houston's head coach — his dream job — about a month later. He had been under contract through 2014, so he was still getting paid.

Why did Kubiak want to be back in the NFL grind so soon? Why not sit out the season and become a top head-coaching candidate in 2015? Why not at least finish a vacation?

"I don't think Gary could function if he wasn't around football," said former Denver Broncos Pro Bowl running back Terrell Davis, who played under Kubiak from 1995 to 2001.

The Ravens' third offensive coordinator in as many seasons, Kubiak, 53, is in his 30th year in the NFL, a football lifer by any definition. He played nine seasons in the league, spending his entire career in Denver backing up Hall of Fame quarterback John Elway. He was a quarterbacks coach or offensive coordinator — first with the San Francisco 49ers and then with the Broncos — for 12 years.

The Texans, who play a short drive from where he grew up, hired him as their head coach in 2006, and Kubiak directed the Texans to AFC South titles in 2011 and 2012. But a year later, in the midst of a two-win season, he was let go.

"You understand that it's part of the business," Kubiak said. "We failed last year, and that's part of my job, but to get right back to work and to be part of the grind every day and to be with these players and coaches, that's what you enjoy doing. That's what makes you who you are in a lot of ways."

Career reincarnation

When Harbaugh named Kubiak the Ravens' offensive coordinator in late January, the head coach declared it a new era for the team's offense. For Kubiak, it was more of a career reincarnation. Unburdened by the administrative and media responsibilities that fill an NFL head coach's day, Kubiak is back focusing on what he loves most: teaching football.

"His only responsibility is to make sure his 25 or 26 guys on his side of the ball are ready to practice and play every day," said former Ravens and Broncos tight end Shannon Sharpe, who played with and under Kubiak. "Gary Kubiak is now getting to do what Gary Kubiak does best — that's coach football. It's a perfect situation for him."

Kubiak grew up in Houston as a football-obsessed kid who served as a ballboy for the Oilers during the Earl Campbell and Bum Phillips era. Bum's son, Wade, later became Kubiak's defensive coordinator in Houston, but his early memories of Kubiak are of a young kid with a strong right arm and an insatiable desire to be around the game.

"We had this kid that was helping us, and we kidded our third-team quarterback that [Kubiak] was already better than him," Phillips said. "That's when we first noticed Gary."

Others in the area would know the name soon. Kubiak went to St. Pius X High School, where he met his future wife, Rhonda, in ninth grade. She was a cheerleader, he on his way to becoming a record-setting quarterback. Kubiak has said that if he never had made it as a coach in the NFL, he would have been happy going back to coach St. Pius. He loved the game and the city that much.

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He stayed relatively close for his college years, playing at Texas A&M, where he inspired teammates with his toughness and leadership. Jackie Sherrill, who coached Kubiak for one season, recalls a game against Southern Methodist in which his quarterback dislocated his hip. He was told Kubiak would miss up to six games. He missed one.

"He's extremely smart, and he carries the persona of being very nice and easy to communicate with, but underneath, he's awfully tough," Sherrill said. "I wish I had coached him for four years because if I had, he probably would have all the records at Texas A&M."

A player-coach

Kubiak was taken by the Broncos in the eighth round of the quarterback-rich 1983 draft. The Baltimore Colts took Elway with the first pick that year, but Elway, unwilling to play for the woeful team, forced a trade to Denver, essentially relegating Kubiak to a career as a backup.

Kubiak started five games in nine seasons, but he won over the Broncos with his football mind.

"When I got into the league in '90-91, he was the quarterback of the quarterbacks," Sharpe said. "Most of my reps were taken with Kub in practice. He'd ask me: What was I thinking on this play? Why would I do this or that? He didn't talk to you like a normal player. He talked to you like a coach."

Kubiak and Elway were roommates and best friends. Four years after Kubiak's playing career was over and one season after he coached 49ers quarterback Steve Young to maybe his best season in the NFL, the two reunited again, albeit in a different capacity.

"I was a young kid, [Broncos head coach Mike Shanahan] names me coordinator, and I had to go in there and coach John, my beer-drinking buddy for five years," Kubiak said. "It was very difficult, but it made me a better coach. John made me a better coach. He challenged me every day."

As an assistant, Kubiak was known for his steady demeanor and his almost maniacal preparation. Davis said the Broncos offense was so prepared for opponents that "it was like cheating." During Kubiak's time as an assistant, the Broncos won two Super Bowls and led the NFL in scoring.

Sharpe said Kubiak had an ability to relate to every player. He often referred to them in public by their jersey number, not their name. He shielded them, taking the blame when the offense played poorly. He rarely yelled or raised his voice, though when he did, it got everybody's attention.

"When someone [who] doesn't say much yells at you, you get the message loud and clear," said Davis, an NFL Network analyst. "We'd come in there on Mondays and you'd expect to hear from Mike, you'd expect to hear from [offensive line coach] Alex Gibbs. When you heard from Gary, you knew it was real."

Home, heartbreak

The Texans job represented a dream fulfilled for Kubiak, who rebuilt his hometown franchise from hopeless afterthought to contender. He took over a team that went 2-14 in 2005. They went 8-8 two years later.

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After back-to-back playoff appearances, the Texans were considered a Super Bowl hopeful in 2013. But everything that could go wrong did, and a Week 3 loss to the Ravens started a losing streak that lasted for the rest of the season. Quarterback Matt Schaub, who made two Pro Bowl teams under Kubiak, regressed badly, and nobody took the losing harder than Kubiak.

"It was very tough to watch him go through the situation that he had to deal with," Schaub said. "I could definitely see it [wearing] on him. We all felt it, myself, everyone in the locker room, but nobody more than the head coach sometimes. You're only human for that to wear on you."

Heading into halftime in their Nov.3 game against the Indianapolis Colts, the Texans led 21-3 and had just played one of their best halves of the season. But as he began to jog to the locker room, Kubiak stopped, bent over with his hands on his knees and collapsed to the turf. He was loaded onto a stretcher and taken to a local hospital.

Kubiak later learned he had suffered a transient ischemic attack, which occurs when blood flow to the brain is blocked by a clot or narrowed blood vessel. Such an attack, characterized by symptoms such as dizziness and disorientation, can be a prelude to a stroke.

"It sure made me think, 'Oh, hell, what did I do to myself? What did I put myself through?'" Kubiak said. "It probably made me realize that I was doing some things that weren't very smart, personally. I think I learned a lot from that standpoint, but that's our nature, that's what we do. We're coaches, and you give it everything you have to put people in situations to be successful. It got very difficult there, and I should have handled it a lot better, but I did what I did."

Kubiak felt like himself again two weeks after the incident, and he received a doctor's clearance to return to coaching Nov.17. But he was fired Dec.6 with three games left in the season.

"For him to go out the way he did, I think it was kind of wrong, honestly, with all the work that he put in and how he progressed the franchise," said Ravens tight end Owen Daniels, who spent the past eight seasons with Kubiak in Houston. "But hey, he's here now, and we're all happy that he's here."

A rebirth

About 21/2 hours before the Ravens' preseason game against the Washington Redskins last month, Kubiak was running laps around the field with quarterbacks coach and longtime friend Rick Dennison. Those who know Kubiak best talk about how refreshed he is, how much healthier and happier he looks.

"He had the health issues that he dealt with, and I think that probably made him take a step back and look at things differently," Daniels said. "He's a lot more relaxed and a lot less stressed. You could see it being in Houston, from day one of camp to the end of the season, it was a pretty drastic wearing down with all the hours [coaches] put in. But you can see now, he's free, he's enjoying what he is doing."

The starting offense performed well in the preseason, and Kubiak's demanding style has been embraced by quarterback Joe Flacco, who said the new offensive coordinator has "gained everybody's trust." Kubiak and Flacco went out to dinner, and the quarterback appreciated that they barely spoke about football, talking instead about their respective families.

Kubiak and his wife have three sons, all with football backgrounds. Being back home and around family is plenty appealing to Kubiak, a private man who is loath to talk about himself. The way he sees it, there will be plenty of time for that.

"I had some people say, 'Oh, take a break.' I'm like, 'Take a break?' I haven't taken a break in 30-something years. That will come down the line," he said. "I don't know what the hell I would have done with myself if I wasn't working."

Kubiak had long respected Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti, general manager Ozzie Newsome and Harbaugh. When he arrived in Baltimore and had dinner at Harbaugh's house, he realized they shared many coaching philosophies.

If Kubiak helps turn around the Ravens' offense, his stay in Baltimore might be short. Daniels and Schaub have little doubt that Kubiak will be a head coach again. But after what he's been through the past 10 months, Kubiak isn't looking past today. He's having too much fun living in the moment.

"I came here to win, and I know I have a lot to give as a teacher still," he said. "I just feel very fortunate that this organization gave me this chance. ... I just want to be the best damn Baltimore Ravens coach I can be for John and Steve."

jeff.zrebiec@baltsun.com

twitter.com/JeffZrebiecSun

Baltimore Sun reporter Childs Walker contributed to this article.

Gary Kubiak at a glance

Age: 53

Hometown: Houston

College: Texas A&M

Playing career: Kubiak played nine seasons with the Denver Broncos, backing up Hall of Fame quarterback John Elway. He started five games, winning three, and threw 14 career touchdown passes and 16 interceptions.

Coaching career: Running backs coach for Texas A&M (1992-1993), quarterbacks coach for San Francisco 49ers (1994), offensive coordinator-quarterbacks coach for Broncos (1995-2005), head coach of Houston Texans (2006-2013). His record as a head coach is 61-64. He won three Super Bowls as an assistant coach.

Personal: Gary and Rhonda Kubiak have three sons: Klint, Klay and Klein. Klint played defensive back at Colorado State and is an offensive quality control coach with the Minnesota Vikings. Klay played quarterback at Colorado State, while Klein played wide receiver at Rice.

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