ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — When Mark Schlereth thinks about what made Alex Gibbs great, what comes to mind first aren't the things that made Gibbs an acclaimed football mind in the football world. Not the zone-blocking scheme, and not the way he maximized the potential of smaller linemen.
What he thinks about most are the characteristics that made Gibbs such a good coach, the traits that made him easy to connect with from the very start of their working relationship beginning in 1995.
"I instantly loved him," Schlereth said Monday of the former Broncos offensive line coach, who died Monday. "… He was just such an intelligent guy, such a quirky dude."
At that point, Schlereth was six years into his 12-year career. He had already been part of one generational offensive line in Washington known as "The Hogs" and had won a Super Bowl. He'd had firsthand experience to understand what made a team successful, and as he got to know Gibbs, he saw exactly why success would soon follow in Denver, too.
"He was a huge culture builder within not only the football team, but especially within our offensive line and our meeting rooms, and he was a hard ass," Schlereth said. "That guy would chew you out, cuss you out, say awful things to you all of the time, but he had a way of developing camaraderie and accountability toward one another that was unmatched during my career, the way he did it. …
"From the very first meeting, he talked about we were going to be the toughest group, smartest group, the hardest-working group, and that he was not going to, you know, he was never going to ask us to do anything he wouldn't do himself from a work standpoint, effort standpoint, all those things."
Sometimes that went beyond the typical jurisdiction of an offensive line coach, but the ultimate goal of making a successful and operational offense meant that everyone had to be accountable, regardless of position.
"I think the one thing that was interesting about the way he coached it was everybody was responsible," Schlereth said. "I mean to the point where we were in a meeting and if John Elway didn't carry out a fake, John Elway's getting ripped in front of the team by Alex Gibbs. …
"You always had to have that kind of good cop, bad cop in your coaching staff, and there's no question that Alex was the enforcer with all positions. I don't care who you are. Rod Smith? You do something wrong and he's going to chew your butt. Eddie McCaffrey, Terrell Davis, it didn't matter who. Alex was gonna let you know about it."
Even with the fiery and at times combative nature Gibbs displayed, the heart he showed endeared him to players, including Schlereth.
"I was just like, 'Man, I love this guy. I love the honesty,'" Schlereth said. "And one thing about Alex — and you could probably get a lot of different opinions about him as a coach — he's one of the most authentic people I have ever been around. He is who he is, and if you don't like it, that's on you. But he is not changing for anybody. And I've always really appreciated and respected the way he lived his life."
That may not be surprising to those who have seen videos of Gibbs on the sideline during games or heard him at a Broncos practice. But while his approach to life was set, those principles included a surprising flexibility and willingness to listen and incorporate feedback into his process.
Schlereth recalled how usually he was one of the first players into the building to get treatment before the start of the work day. It wouldn't be too long after that before Gibbs came down and sat down with him to seek out his perspective as a veteran player, especially when Gibbs was in search of ways to install a new play that head coach Mike Shanahan had devised.
In that example, Schlereth said he would run down the responsibilities each position on the line had, the footwork he'd use and the adjustments he'd made and found beneficial.
"He'd be the first to admit the things he didn't know, and that was OK, because he was always in search of higher education — higher football education," Schlereth said. "And so it was always a great give and take. He would tell you, 'Everything I know about football I stole from someone. I stole that information from somebody. And so if you think there's a better way to do it, I'm open to suggestions.' There was a great give and take in our room of information, because we were all so dialed in and all so together as a group, that we could have those conversations. … We just had a very close relationship as a coach, player and just as guys who truly loved football."
Beginning with that 1995 season, the Broncos entered a new era with Shanahan leading the way. Gibbs' attention to detail in some of the smallest facets of the game and his innovative blocking scheme helped give the Broncos a punch in their rushing attack that they had not had previously, and with a young running back named Terrell Davis handling most of the carries, they reached levels of success that have not been matched in franchise history.
Gibbs' coaching style contributed not only to the Broncos' team success and culture, but also their identity. They were more than just a talented team; they were a team to fear.
"You could line up the Russian army, but we're going to run it against them," Schlereth said.
And when the Broncos sometimes went away from that, Gibbs was not afraid to make himself heard.
"Alex was a guy that you could hear him while you were in the huddle, screaming at Mike," Schlereth said. "I mean, screaming at him. Cussing at him about running the football. … Alex was the guy that was not only an enforcer with the players, but he was an enforcer on the coaching staff. … Get out of sync, and you're going to hear about it. And I mean vitriol like a fistfight, like you've got to pull him off. Like a crazed wolf — that's who he was. Anyhow, he helped — really, truly — helped create the identity and the culture of our football team that won those championships."
One of the other ways Gibbs contributed to the culture, at least within the offensive line room, was with something that came to be known as the kangaroo court.
The kangaroo court, which applied just to the offensive linemen, would fine its members for any violations in speaking with the media, among other things. It became a quirky and somewhat infamous local side story as Denver went on its back-to-back title runs.
"If there was an article written in the Boston Globe and Tommy Nalen thought he was going to sneak [something] — Alex had spies all over the country that would send in the newspaper," Schlereth said. "They'd FedEx overnight the newspaper clippings. …
"If I did something for the Anchorage Daily News, he'd find a way to get it and he'd have it in the meeting room. So you thought you could get away with it with your local paper or you did something for the University of Idaho or Spokane Tribune or whatever. That son of a gun would find it and he'd have it. Like, he would have the physical [copy] — not quotes, like faxed over. He'd have the actual paper. It was incredible."
Fines were mostly just distributed for speaking with the media, but it occasionally included other faults, as even the head coach soon discovered. Once, after naming Gary Zimmerman a game MVP for his performance in a Monday night win over the Raiders, Shanahan received a $310 fine for "kissing up" to the veteran tackle, Adam Schefter reported in 1996. Zimmerman, a co-creator of the kangaroo court, was not exempt and was himself fined for receiving the honor.
Then, near the end of the season, the kangaroo court would pool the money it collected for a group outing. Before Super Bowl XXXIII in 1999, they used the funds to rent three white limousines and pay for their nearly $1,900 bill at Joe’s Crab Shack in Miami Beach.
Though a league-wide media policy revision later outlawed the no-talking policy in 2007, the camaraderie built by it in the Broncos' offensive line room lasted quite some time.
"It was in jest and in fun, but it was just another game within the game," Schlereth said. "One of Alex's big things was to create this environment where we were completely committed to one another. Completely sold out for one another. That was part of the game."
Shaping that bond may have been Gibbs' biggest impact on his players. The on-field success made quite an impression on them, but it pales in comparison to the other things he did, like an end-of-week tradition where the conversation departed from the bounds of football.
"One of the things I enjoyed more than anything, was on Friday afternoons, we'd shut down the meeting a half-hour early, and he'd put a topic on the board," Schlereth said. "It was a life topic. We'd have a discussion. Part of that was building the culture of our room."
Football may have brought these men together from their roots that ranged from Alaska (Schlereth) to rural Georgia (Tony Jones), but the opportunity to connect people from such different backgrounds for more than just the sport was invaluable for Gibbs.
"You've got guys that are coming from different parts of the country, different schools, different economic backgrounds and social backgrounds," Schlereth said. "He just wanted us to be really tied together, to really understand that even though we may have some differences and we grew up in different parts of the country and had different experiences, we've got to be in this thing together. So, let's embrace the fact that some of those differences are what makes us great together as a group. It was really cool. We were just very tightknit."
Those bonds remained well after Schlereth's and his teammates' playing days were done. Before Gibbs passed away due to complications from a stroke, several of his former players made their to his Phoenix home to visit with the man who had so impacted their careers and their lives.
"He was a great coach and an incredible teacher of the game, but it was more than X's and O's," Schlereth said. "It was life lessons. … He was a great coach, a great X's and O's guy, great understanding blitz and rotation and where guys are lined up, things that give you an advantage, ways to kind of cheat the game to be better at what you're doing. But he was a great teacher of life lessons. He was just a phenomenal coach."