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Sacco Sez: A history of Broncos coaching searches


General Manager George Paton is presiding over an exciting time in team history in his search for a new head coach. He has said he will cast a wide net in his search for just the right man to lead the Broncos on the field, and the reported preliminary list of no fewer than 10 names suggests just that.

With that on our minds, I thought we might take a brief look back in time at previous Broncos coaching searches. 

In the early years of the franchise, one could barely call them "searches."

The team's first head coach was Frank Filchock, who had coached in the Canadian Football League, where he had first met Broncos general manager Dean Griffing. Griffing turned to his friend to be the Broncos' first head coach, and it worked out about as well as one might expect from a year wearing used uniforms and without a significant playbook of any kind.

Two years later, the Broncos actually conducted interviews for the position and came away with Jack Faulkner, a lifelong football man who earned American Football League Coach of the Year honors in 1962. Faulkner was also general manager, and he publicly burned the old mustard and brown uniforms (literally), put the Broncos in orange and blue, developed a playbook and had early success.

But even in the early years Broncos fans wanted to win, and Faulkner did not make it through his third season with the team.

After a couple of internal promotions and interim head coaches, Denver owner Gerry Phipps singlehandedly conducted his own search committee and hired Lou Saban to a 10-year contract as general manager and head coach. This was regarded as a massive hire then, as well as now.

Saban had won two AFL titles with the Buffalo Bills, and with the Broncos, he presided over the first significant foundation-building in franchise history.

While he did not have a winning record, there was no questioning Saban's leadership or authority, nor his willingness to demonstrate those qualities on a moment's notice. He once hired a public relations director and said one of his main jobs would be to physically restrain Saban from going after the officials postgame. I actually witnessed the PR man doing just that on one occasion. Temper, temper, Lou.

The Broncos' ownership did its first actual search involving interviews with multiple candidates in 1972, with the result being that two-time Rose Bowl winning coach John Ralston of Stanford University was hired to a five-year deal.

Interestingly, the concept of knowing individuals before hand, which can be important in any hiring process, was again a factor in the next head coach.

When Ralston left, new general manager Fred Gehrke reached back to the days when he had been the director of player personnel for the Broncos and a man named Bob "Red" Miller had been the offensive line coach. Miller had since moved on to hold that role for the New England Patriots, and Gehrke hired his old friend. Interestingly, Miller's background had been on offense, yet he is well known as the leader of the "Orange Crush" defense, showing that coaching and leadership principles transcend to the whole team, not just to one side of the ball.

An ownership change from the Phipps brothers to Edgar F. Kaiser Jr. precipitated Denver's next head coaching hire, with Kaiser hiring the hottest assistant in the NFL at that time, Dan Reeves of the Dallas Cowboys. Reeves proved to be a great hire, as he was the only AFC head coach to take three teams to Super Bowls in the 1980s.

Of course, he had John Elway as his quarterback, giving Reeves a massive head start toward success. We all know that head coach and quarterback are two of the biggest keys to success in the NFL, but I humbly suggest that an overall organizational plan is just as vital to a team's success as the mere presence of two highly talented and motivated individuals.

One of the hires that Reeves made early on was of a young (and even younger looking) assistant from the University of Florida, Mike Shanahan. Shanahan's intellect and overall leadership qualities were obvious immediately to Reeves, owner Pat Bowlen, quarterback John Elway and all the rest of us, as well.

After just a couple of years in Denver, Shanahan was wooed heavily by the University of Kentucky, and I remember reading the contractual terms in the papers. At the time, they were fantastic figures. Then one Sunday morning I got a call from Mike (and why he called me, I still have no idea).

"Jim, this is Mike," the conversation began. "I have turned down Kentucky and am staying here in Denver."

Great, I thought, but added the question, "Just reading the terms in the paper, how could you turn that down?"

Mike said, "I just have always had it in my mind to be a head coach in the National Football League. I want to keep working in that direction."

Boy, did he work in that direction.

When he and Pat could not get together on terms following Dan's departure, Mr. B hired Wade Phillips.

But even then, on the day that Wade was hired, Mr. B asked me to call Mike in San Francisco to let him know that the door was still open for the future. That turned out to be two years and one 49ers world championship away.

Pat hired Mike in 1995, and history was written, and it turned out to be Hall of Fame history for many, including the future induction of Mike Shanahan, in my opinion.

Since then, there have always been coaching searches involving committee thought, resulting in John Fox, who was very good, as well as some that did not work out for one reason or another.

And of course, there was the hiring of John Elway's former roommate, Gary Kubiak.

Gary was from the Shanahan-Elway tree and guided us to Super Bowl 50. His was a memorable hire, and his time here was great, having been on seven of our Super Bowl teams, including three as a quarterback. As a coach, he had a role in all three of our victories, two as offensive coordinator, as well as that magnificent triumph in Super Bowl 50.

Now, new history is being made, as Paton is at this very time focused entirely on the hiring of a new head coach.

I have the fullest confidence that the decisions George Paton is making will be a part of the process — a vital, critical part — that will take Broncos Country back to championship glory.

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