ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — Paul Hackett spent 18 years in the coaching ranks before he earned a head-coaching opportunity.
At 42, Hackett was named the head coach at the University of Pittsburgh. After three years at Pitt and five seasons back in the NFL as the Chiefs' offensive coordinator, he took the reins as the head coach at the University of Southern California.
As Hackett looks back now at his two stints leading programs, he considers himself fortunate to have had those opportunities during his nearly four decades as a coach. But he also said the pride he felt when his son Nathaniel was named the Broncos' head coach this week far outweighs the satisfaction he got from his own accomplishments.
"This is much better," Paul told DenverBroncos.com. "This is much better. … This is the height of our profession, the height of our business. The finest athletes, the finest technology, the finest strategy — this is the very, very top. The last three years as a family, we've just loved everything that [Packers head coach] Matt LaFleur did, everything that the Green Bay Packers did for Nathaniel. We've just loved it. Now, to have a chance to be in charge, it's great."
Paul was asleep when he and his wife got a call after 2 a.m. on Thursday from Nathaniel to share the news, but the call jolted them awake.
"He woke us up and we were just beside ourselves," Paul said. "We did not sleep the rest of the night. Just marveling at how wonderful this opportunity is."
Paul, who spent nine years as an NFL offensive coordinator and helped instill the principles of offensive football in Nathaniel, believed his son's opportunity would arrive at some point. While he wasn't sure when Nathaniel would be tapped for a job, Paul said Nathaniel's work with quarterbacks at each of his stops made it a possibility. Whether with Syracuse, the Bills, Jaguars or Packers, Paul said he's seen his son do "really, really extraordinary things with that position."
And while he told his son to have patience as he waited for his opportunity, Paul always hoped it would happen.
"We were thrilled," Paul said. "When you have a lifetime in football like our family does, 25 years in pro football for me and now Nathaniel in pro football for [almost] 15 years, it's always that goal that you look at. You don't want to talk about it too much, you just sort of feel it ahead of you. The fact that the Packers have had such a wonderful past couple of years, it was just exciting that someone recognized it and was able to give him this opportunity. This is the height of our profession. He's got a lot of youth and enthusiasm, and we as a family are just totally thrilled. I couldn't be prouder."
Nathaniel's career in coaching is far from a surprise. While Paul said his son was never pushed toward football, he grew up around locker rooms. Those days, his father said, were when Nathaniel started to develop his ability to make connections. As a coach's son — moving from city to city — there was hardly another option.
"I think that because of the atmosphere he grew up in, as you can imagine, we moved every three years almost," Paul said. "He was with all kinds of different teams, all kinds of different schools. He was always pressed into situations that were about meeting people, meeting new people, different kinds of people. The theme being football. He was always sort of a natural. A great confidence having been around the finest athletes in the world in the game of football was part of his life from a very young age. I remember Andre Rison coming to Kansas City and the two of them kind of just sort of checking it out. And Neil Smith and Derrick Thomas. It was just what he did. He loved it."
And, of course, there were the lessons Nathaniel learned from his father himself.
"My dad is one of the best men I've ever met," the Broncos' new coach said during his introductory press conference. "Growing up as a coach's kid, you see a lot of stuff. He'll tell a lot of people, 'I'm sorry I put them in the locker room,' and he'll apologize every now and then — but it was amazing. I loved my dad and what he was doing; I loved his work ethic. It was always great when dad came home. It was about being with dad. He's the best. Just seeing the ups and downs of this profession was something that was valuable for me [and] for my kids and for us to stay strong and be together with my wife and my kids. He taught me [that] there is going to be adversity, and just like we talk about adversity with the team and how we try and how we triumph over that, [you have to] do that with your own family. It's almost like the training started super early when there was some adversity stuff throughout his career. He's definitely affected me as a coach."
While both Nathaniel and Paul have found success as offensive play-callers and quarterback whisperers — Paul led five top-15 scoring offenses as an NFL coordinator — Paul said his son is the more patient of the two. He also believes that when the pressure is on, Nathaniel has an ability to stay calm. Both men, though, thrive as teachers — and Nathaniel learned several years ago from his father what it took to teach at the highest level.
"I remember I brought him in when I was at Buffalo, and I asked him to just watch me, critique me and tell me how I can be better and how I can be a better coach from a developmental standpoint," Nathaniel said. "It was a good idea at first and then it got really bad when he came to dinner with 20 pages of notes. I was feeling really good about my coaching style until he started giving me all of the advice. It was one of the best things that happened to me. It changed a lot of the things that I did. He was in everything from how I presented meetings, on the field — it was great. I think that's also why I want to do things here to be able to help coaches get that and [help them find out] how they can develop and how they can learn how to teach better. He's done so much for me."
His father, who chuckled as he remembered that story, said the key to teaching is far from complicated.
"I've always said this," Paul said. "'It's not what you know, Nathaniel. It's what they know.' And what you can get them to know is the key to this game of ours, particularly at the quarterback position."
As his son begins his tenure as the Broncos' head coach, Paul noted that it's also important for his son to also remain true to himself.
"I think you have to follow your heart," Paul said of his advice to his son. "You have to be yourself. The thing you don't want to do is try to be a head coach like somebody else, try to be like somebody. When you've been 15 years coaching and you're in your 40s, you've established who you are, what you are. Nathaniel's very comfortable with who he is and I think I will say trust yourself. Be yourself and trust yourself."
Of course, it's easier to find success when one has the right opportunity — and Paul said he senses his son has found that in Denver. He believes his son and General Manager George Paton are "talking the same language." As a father, he said, that's wonderful to see for his son.
And, yes, even after five seasons as the Chiefs' offensive coordinator, it won't be difficult to throw himself behind the Broncos.
"Without a doubt," Paul said of cheering for the Broncos. "This is my son. Without a doubt. I'm going to be all in. We had some great battles. The [John] Elway-[Joe] Montana Monday night game was the one that I remember the most. … That's one of the great football games of all time. There's great history. Coming to Mile High and the crowd screaming and yelling at us. …
"This is a whole new era. This is about my son now. I'll probably be more nervous now."