ENGLEWOOD, Colo. --It became official Monday morning: Gary Kubiak is no longer the head coach of the Broncos.
The morning after he told his players of his decision to step down, an announcement from the team put the final punctuation on a two-season head-coaching stint that saw the team get over the hump to win its third world championship.
Kubiak departs with a 24-11 record as head coach that barely scratches the surface of his impact on the Broncos, which extends over 22 seasons stretched over four decades. His association with the Broncos began nearly 34 years ago, when they used the first pick of the eighth round in the 1983 NFL Draft to select him.
Go behind-the-scenes after the final Broncos victory of the year. (Photos by Eric Bakke)
One-hundred and ninety-six selections separated Kubiak from John Elway, the No. 1 overall selection who would soon head to Denver via a blockbuster trade with the Baltimore Colts. But the two would forever be bonded -- first as roommates, with Kubiak the reliable backup to Elway, then as assistant coach and player, and finally as coach and general manager.
Kubiak spent nine seasons with the Broncos as a player, 11 as the offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach under Mike Shanahan, and, finally, a two-season stint as head coach in which he guided the Broncos to the sport's ultimate prize: a victory in Super Bowl 50. Six of the Broncos' eight Super Bowl appearances -- and all three of their world championships -- came with Kubiak as a part of the organization.
It all culminated in the 24-10 win over the Carolina Panthers last February that saw Kubiak's ultimate dream achieved -- a world championship as head coach of an organization that he considered his football home.
"There was no doubt when I got off the plane that I was home," Kubiak said when he became the Broncos' head coach.
That's part of what makes this moment so difficult for both Kubiak and the Broncos.
"It's hard to leave a job when that's your dream job. That's what you wanted to do. That's what you love to do," added cornerback Chris Harris Jr. "So when you have to step down and go away from that, man, that's tough for him. So we wanted to send him out happy."
From start to finish as head coach, Kubiak put his stamp on his football "home." Upon being hired, he wasted no time doing so, overhauling the coaching staff and bringing aboard Wade Phillips, his defensive coordinator in Houston, to handle the defensive reins.
It was a match that was integral to producing a world championship. With the defense intact and poised for a season that would put it among the greatest defenses in the Super Bowl era, Kubiak focused on getting the most out of sure-fire Hall of Famer Peyton Manning in what proved to be his final NFL season.
Manning missed six full games late last season, but Kubiak made one of his most astute calls when Manning returned, inserting him in the third quarter of the regular-season finale against San Diego with the Broncos bogged down by turnovers and trailing, 13-7. Manning rallied the Broncos to a 27-20 win that clinched the No. 1 seed in the AFC playoffs, and the Broncos rode him and their defense all the way to a championship.
Kubiak's in-game adjustments also played a crucial role in the Broncos' Super Bowl run. In comeback wins over the Chiefs and Bengals, Kubiak adjusted from the original offensive game plan, emphasizing the no-huddle, shotgun-based attack that had been incorporated into the offense from previous years. In both cases, the Broncos used the tempo adjustment to rally from 14-0 deficits for wins over postseason teams.
The Broncos will begin a search for Kubiak's successor immediately. Their next coach will have a tough act to follow.
"He was only with us for two years, and to have that much success, it's going to definitely be hard," said Harris. "I think Elway will do a great job. I think whoever he brings in is going to be great, but they're going to be inheriting a lot of talent."
For two years, Kubiak extracted the most from his talent, seeing the team through Manning's retirement and free-agent departures that were a natural outgrowth of trying to sustain success in the salary-cap era.
Now that task will pass to another head coach. That next man up will have a tough act to follow, given that Kubiak took this franchise back to the NFL's peak.