ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — Dan Reeves, the former Broncos head coach who helped usher the team to new heights in the 1980s, has died, his family informed the Broncos.
Reeves was 77.
The first head coach inducted into the Broncos Ring of Fame, Reeves led the Broncos for 12 seasons, and during that time, he helped the team reach new levels of success and set a standard for years to come as Denver reached three Super Bowls in a four-year span from 1986-89.
While the Broncos had been to the Super Bowl once before Reeves' arrival in Denver, his leadership and success helped turn the Broncos into perennial contenders as one of the NFL's top franchises. During his time in Denver, the Broncos won 60 percent of their games (110-73-1) and five division titles, the most of any coach in franchise history, and the team had just two seasons with a losing record.
Reeves, who later was head coach of the Giants (1993-96) and Falcons (1997-2003), was twice selected by the Associated Press as NFL Coach of the Year (1993 and 1998). He also participated in nine Super Bowls, winning one as a player and one as an assistant coach with the Cowboys.
"The Denver Broncos are deeply saddened by the loss of legendary Head Coach Dan Reeves, who passed away this morning at age 77 at home in Atlanta," the team wrote in a statement. "One of the winningest coaches in NFL history, Coach Reeves set the foundation for the Broncos' decade of dominance in the 1980s and championship tradition for years to come.
"A 2014 Broncos Ring of Fame inductee, Reeves led the Broncos as head coach from 1981-92 and was instrumental in the franchise becoming a perennial contender. With competitiveness, consistency and a style all his own, he guided the Broncos to three Super Bowl appearances, five AFC West titles and six playoff berths.
"The only coach to lead an AFC team to three Super Bowls in the 1980s, Reeves captured the AFC Championship three times in a four-year period from 1986-89. He led Denver to appearances in Super Bowl XXI (1986 season), XXII (1987) and XXIV (1989), ushering in a new era of Broncos football on the national stage.
"Reeves coached the Broncos with integrity, character and toughness along with sincere appreciation for his players and coaches. His time with the Broncos was part of a remarkable 39-year career in professional football in which he appeared in the Super Bowl an astonishing nine times as a player or coach.
"Our hearts and deepest sympathies go out to Dan's wife and high school sweetheart, Pam; his children Dana, Lee and Laura; his grandchildren and great grandchildren; and the entire Reeves family."
Flip through photos from Dan Reeves' time in Denver, from his first years leading the team to being inducted into the Ring of Fame.
The path there had not come easily for the Americus, Georgia native.
Growing up on a 275-acre farm demanded hard work from everybody in the family, and as Reeves told Sports Illustrated in 1967, he would rise at 5 a.m. and often work until 11 p.m., plowing the land, baling hay and feeding the pigs and cattle.
In high school, the promising young quarterback received little attention, landing just one scholarship offer from South Carolina. Other schools would come running with late offers after Reeves excelled in a high-school all-star game, but he remained loyal to the Gamecocks.
In his years in Columbia, Reeves was twice an All-ACC selection, but he knew there would be no future for him at quarterback in pro football. Dallas gave him a shot after he went undrafted, and he earned a spot on the roster as a special-teams player, even though he had not played that phase of the game in college.
But as injuries piled up in the Cowboys' backfield, Dallas eyed an opportunity for Reeves. In his second season, he started all 14 games at running back and tied for league lead in total touchdowns with 16.
"I would be a liar if I said I wasn't surprised by the season I had," Reeves told Sports Illustrated. "It was like a dream to me. I was lucky to stick as a rookie. How could I expect to have a year like that?"
After suffering a significant knee injury, Reeves' playing career entered its twilight and his coaching career began. Following a few years as a player-coach, Reeves turned to coaching full time for Tom Landry and the Cowboys and quickly became a promising protégé.
In 1981, Reeves got his first shot to lead an NFL team, as Broncos owner Edgar Kaiser made him the youngest head coach in the league at just 37.
That first year, Reeves got results immediately. Denver topped the defending Super Bowl champion Raiders in the season opener and proceeded to go 10-6.
Two years later, the Broncos made the move that would alter the course of the franchise and the NFL, as Kaiser engineered the trade to acquire the top pick in the 1983 NFL Draft, John Elway. For the next decade in Denver, that head coach and quarterback pairing defined the organization and a run of success that was unmatched in the 1980s.
As Elway developed into a future Hall of Fame quarterback, he and Reeves helped marshal the team to six seasons with 10 or more wins over an eight-year span, including runs to Super Bowls XXI, XXII and XXIV.
"I think that Dan had a lot to do with our success, as well as my success, when we went to three Super Bowls," Elway said in August. "Obviously, coming in as a rookie, [I] struggled a little bit my first year, but we kind of went to the running game my second year and we kind of built over the years to where we became a very good football team in my fourth year and were able to win a lot of football games. I think [even] my second year we went 13-3. So we won a lot of football games, and that was the bottom line.
"Dan was a big benefit to my career from the fact that he worked me in and slowly, gradually, year by year, we continued to do more and more offensively, which allowed me to grow as a quarterback."
Reeves' ability to identify great coaches further shaped the course of the Broncos, as he gave Mike Shanahan and Alex Gibbs their first NFL coaching jobs in 1984. Gibbs, who passed away in July, was an innovative offensive line coach for more than a decade in Denver, and Shanahan would become one of the most influential offensive minds in league history as he led the Broncos to their first Super Bowl victories.
After Reeves and the Broncos parted ways, he would return to the Super Bowl as head coach of the Falcons in 1998. All told, Reeves' nine Super Bowl appearances as a player or coach ranks third in NFL history, behind only Bill Belichick and Tom Brady.
Given that track record, Reeves has received consideration for induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame and was a finalist for the Centennial Class in 2020.
"Dan was a winner," Elway said. "When you look at the success that he had while he was in Denver as well as the success he had in Atlanta — going to three Super Bowls here and one in Atlanta, obviously unfortunately didn't win any of those — but I think when any … head coach gets to four different Super Bowls with two different teams, it proves that he's a winner.
"Dan was very unique in how he approached the game and growing up under the tutelage of Tom Landry, he carried that through. I think that a lot of times that doesn't carry through with coaches, but Dan did a tremendous job and was a heck of a football coach. [He was an] offensive mind and did a heck of a job with getting great players in here."
In 2014, Reeves earned what he would call "the biggest honor" of his career as he became the franchise's first head coach elected to the Ring of Fame. His time in Denver always held a special place in his heart.
"So many great memories," Reeves said after hearing the news. "My family basically grew up, my three children, they only had to move one time from the time they got into school and the time they went to college. That wouldn't happen with many football coaches."