Nearly 500 men have coached a National Football League team, but only 10 have won more games than Mike Shanahan’s 177. Of those 10 coaches ahead of Shanahan on the victory list, only the top five spent more seasons in one place than he did in Denver.
And unlike Hall of Famers George Halas and Curly Lambeau, Shanahan didn’t found/own the team with which he is most associated. Not that it might not seem that way in Denver, where 14 men have coached the Broncos during their 54 seasons, but only Shanahan is the coach.
Hall of Famer John Elway, who quarterbacked Shanahan and Denver to their only Super Bowl titles in 1997 and 1998 and is now their front office boss, is the top local legend. But Shanahan, 146-91 with the Broncos but just 31-44 with the Redskins and Raiders, might be No. 2.
“He’s all over the place,” said Redskins right tackle Tyler Polumbus, who grew up near the Broncos’ facility in suburban Englewood, played at the University of Colorado and broke into the NFL under Shanahan during the coach’s last season in Denver, 2008. “He’s got a steakhouse that’s one of the most popular spots in town. He’s well-loved. By the time I got there, he had certainly established a reputation that was nothing but amazing. I was excited to play for him.”
So was Redskins left guard Kory Lichtensteiger, who also debuted with the 2008 Broncos. But Lichtensteiger, the first player Shanahan signed after taking command in Washington in January 2010, said he wasn’t just excited to play for him.
“He was an intimidating figure for me as a rookie, still kind of is,” Lichtensteiger said. “There was respect and admiration from everybody.”
Even if you never worked for the Broncos.
“When he became coach of the Redskins, people thought it was so cool that I was going to get coached by [him],” said Redskins eighth-year safety Reed Doughty, a Colorado native. “He brought a winning attitude to Denver. People realize what he brought to the team and what winning those championships meant to Denver.”
Almost five years after he was fired by Broncos owner Pat Bowlen after three straight non-playoff campaigns that followed seven of 11 in postseason, Shanahan returns to Denver on Sunday for the first time as the coach of the Redskins. It will be his first game there as an opponent since 1989 when he was a first-time head coach about to be fired by the Raiders. Shanahan immediately returned to Denver, where had begun his NFL career as an assistant in 1984. He left to be San Francisco’s offensive coordinator from 1992-94 before returning as head coach in 1995.
Although Shanahan, 61, who grew up and attended college in Illinois, has coached in six other states and has been in Washington for nearly four years, Denver is still home. It’s where he’ll retire someday to the sprawling 35,000-square-foot mansion complete with elevator and bowling alley in the exclusive suburb of Cherry Hills Village.
“It’s something that you look forward to,” Shanahan said of his impending return to Denver. “You’ve got so many friends there. You spend 21 years, you raise your kids there, people that you’ve spent a lot of time with -– a lot of great experiences there. That’s been our home. We’ve got a lot of great memories there, no question about it.”
Among those great memories are the 1998 AFC Championship Game victory over the New York Jets at old Mile High Stadium and the divisional round upset of two-time defending Super Bowl champion New England in 2005 that was the Patriots’ only defeat in a string of 14 playoff games from 2001-06.
From 1996-98 the Broncos were an incredible 46-10, including a 27-1 mark at home. They won eight playoff games with Shanahan, 14 if you count his years as an assistant. They’ve only won four playoff games when he wasn’t in Denver. Five of their six Super Bowl appearances have come with Shanahan as a coach or an assistant.
No wonder the Broncos will show a video tribute to Shanahan before kickoff on Sunday.
“I would think he’d get a huge ovation,” Lichtensteiger said. “If he doesn’t, I would be disappointed for all he’s done for that organization. He brought them too much success for them not to appreciate that. Whether he is or isn’t emotional about it, he’ll do a good job of not letting anyone know how he feels. He’s too focused on the game.”
But Redskins offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan, who spent much of his youth in the Denver area as Mike’s son, knows that Sunday will be special for his dad.
“I’m sure it’ll be different on Sunday when we wake up and you go into Mile High, where he’s got a lot of memories,” Kyle said. “You always want to beat people that you used to work for … but it’s not as big of a deal as I probably would have expected it to be four years ago [because] time has passed. It’s not like it’s the staff that replaced him. There’s different coaches there, people he’s close with and respects a lot. Denver is the team usually I’m pulling for — with them being in the AFC — and him also. But obviously we’re not this weekend.”
And despite Mike’s low-key comments, it will obviously be a special Sunday back home for the Shanahans.
David Elfin began writing about sports when he was a junior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School. He is Washington’s representative on the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee and the author of seven books, most recently, “Washington Redskins: The Complete Illustrated History.” A pre-game regular on 106.7-The Fan the last three Redskins seasons, he has been its columnist since March 2011. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidElfin.