To the outside world, every Super Bowl week looks like total craziness — huge throngs of media descending on the two teams, creating America's grandest annual display of testosterone and magnifying every silly question or brash quote to national headlines. But there's another side to Super Bowl week, and it's nothing like what most fans might think.
During the buildup to the NFL championship game, buses transport hundreds of credentialed media to the team hotels for sessions with the head coaches. Those briefings are followed by an hour or so each day, with all players and even assistant coaches required to sit at stations (small elevated podiums for stars, roundtables for everyone else) and answer questions.
During my years at the Gazette (1977-2001), I was able to cover the Super Bowl 12 times, including six Denver appearances and six others when the Broncos weren't involved. Aside from the actual spectacle of the games themselves, my favorite memories are those rare chances to converse with assistant coaches and lesser-known players, all enjoying the thrill of a lifetime.
In late January of 1998 and 1999, before the Broncos' two Super Bowl victories, that included sharing in some lengthy visits with Gary Kubiak.
Kubiak always had been a pleasure to cover during his nine years (1983-91) as backup quarterback to John Elway, providing sharp perspectives that made it clear he was destined for bigger things. But when Kubiak became an assistant coach , that access ended. Head coach Mike Shanahan, not his staff, talked to the media. Assistants were off-limits — except during Super Bowl weeks.
I'll never forget sitting at Kubiak's table, usually with just one or two others, at San Diego in 1998. He talked about the Broncos' team chemistry, possible strategies, comparisons between Elway and Green Bay's Brett Favre, and about his own background — always totally casual and open, like talking to an old friend.
Another angle came into play in 1999, because University of Colorado head coach Rick Neuheisel had just bolted to the University of Washington. CU followers saw Kubiak as the perfect replacement, which made him a daily target before that Super Bowl against Atlanta. Kubiak did his best to address every question as diplomatically as he could, though the Super Bowl came first.
I admired how Kubiak handled that situation — though he later turned down CU, which then hired former Air Academy High School coach Gary Barnett from Northwestern. But I remember thinking Kubiak would be the kind of coach anybody would love to play for: earnest, charismatic and thoughtfully eloquent.
Also, you could tell he was the smartest guy in the room. And though Shanahan got much of the credit, we kept hearing whispers that Kubiak was calling most of the plays, mixing Elway's passes and keepers with Terrell Davis' runs.
Kubiak always insisted he was content with being an offensive coordinator — until the Houston Texans wooed him to his hometown as head coach. He took the Texans to the threshold, going 10-6 in 2011 and 12-4 in 2012, before a combination of injuries, misfortune and other factors led to his dismissal in late 2013. Baltimore jumped to hire him as offensive coordinator, and Kubiak helped Joe Flacco elevate his game this season. (Lest we forget, Bill Belichick and Pete Carroll were fired from their first NFL head coaching jobs.)
But there was always unfinished business. As a player and assistant, Kubiak spent 22 years in Denver, raising his kids there and building a tight bond with Elway. So when the Broncos went flat once again in the playoffs, showing no fire and getting no help (motivation or shrewdness) from their coaches, John Fox on down, Elway decided it was time to rekindle that old partnership.
Within a week, Fox had become head coach of the Chicago Bears, and the 53-year-old Kubiak was heading back to Orange Nation, hoping to help Peyton Manning make the most of whatever days he has remaining, then to continue building and inspiring the Broncos into a new era.
As former Denver tight end Joel Dreessen told a radio show, recalling how Kubiak's pregame speeches affected the Broncos: "I'd take a bullet for that man."
That's why Gary Kubiak has seemed for years like the ideal head coach for Denver — ever since those Super Bowl roundtables.
Now, perhaps he can take the Broncos back to the biggest of stages again.