Asked about Denver Broncos coach Gary Kubiak, Steve Young immediately replied: “You mean the guy who abandoned me?”
Kubiak spent only one year in San Francisco, serving as the 49ers’ quarterbacks coach in 1994. When the season ended with a Super Bowl victory, the Broncos hired Mike Shanahan, then the 49ers’ offensive coordinator, as their coach, and Kubiak was hired to run Denver’s offense.
“(Shanahan) stole him from us, the dirty rat,” recalled former 49ers general manager John McVay, who joked he tried his best to scuttle the deal.
The comments were tongue-in-cheek, and there’s obviously much affection and admiration for Shanahan and Kubiak from those who worked in the 49ers’ organization in the 1990s. But there also was an acute awareness that Kubiak, then 33, was destined for success. And 21 years later, his departure still stings for an organization that, back then at least, was accustomed to getting what it wanted.
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“He was a young guy, and he learned from one of the masters in Mike Shanahan,” McVay said. “You could see this guy was going to be a factor in the coaching profession. We very, very reluctantly let this interview occur and probably went on to regret having lost Kubiak because you could see the potential there.”
Young said owner Eddie DeBartolo did everything he could to persuade Kubiak to stay and become the 49ers’ offensive coordinator.
“You know Eddie,” Young said. “He wasn’t going to give up on him. So if Eddie can’t get it done, it’s not going to get done.”
With Shanahan calling plays in 1994 and Kubiak, an ex-NFL quarterback, working closely with him, Young had arguably the best season of his career, one that ended with a league MVP trophy. His 112.8 passer rating was, at that time, the league’s highest ever. He threw six touchdown passes in a 49-26 rout of the San Diego Chargers in the Super Bowl and was named the game’s MVP. San Francisco hasn’t won a Super Bowl since.
The 49ers knew they were on a roll and wanted to continue that momentum. But they also realized that as painful as it was, they had to let their assistants go.
At that time, the 49ers had no trouble attracting talented young coaches thanks to the offensive system Bill Walsh introduced in 1979 and the opportunity to shine on a national stage. From 1983 to 1998, the 49ers made the playoffs every year except one.
But to attract ambitious assistants, the 49ers also knew they couldn’t block their advancement. Walsh and DeBartolo made a habit of publicly praising their assistants, another reason San Francisco was the most desirable destination in the NFL.
“It was sort of a fun position to be in,” McVay said. “It was true with assistant coaches. And it also was true with players. Because everybody wanted to be on Eddie DeBartolo and Bill Walsh’s bandwagon. We had no trouble getting free agents, and we had no trouble getting good, sharp assistant coaches.”
Even though the 49ers offered Kubiak the same job, offensive coordinator, the pull to Denver was too great. He spent nine seasons as a backup quarterback for the Broncos, and Shanahan recommended the 49ers add Kubiak to their staff in 1994, forming a great coaching duo.
The 49ers eventually accepted that Shanahan and Kubiak were a package deal. Shanahan was the taskmaster, ensuring Young knew every play and then going over them three or four more times just to be safe. Kubiak had a calmer, more nurturing demeanor. But underneath he was just as ferocious as Shanahan, and Young said that intensity is why Kubiak has become a successful head coach.
“Gary’s hair is never on fire,” Young said. “He might come off as non-aggressive. But he’s fiercely competitive. So he’s quietly vicious in a way. I enjoy that. I enjoy somebody that doesn’t have to come out of the gate every day (aggressively).”
“There’s a maturity to it,” he continued. “And that has long legs. You can go a long time with that kind of maturity, that kind of personality. I’ve always been a big fan. Always.”
- Who: Denver Broncos (14-4) vs. Carolina Panthers (17-1)
- When: Sunday, 3:30 p.m.
- Where: Levi’s Stadium
- TV/radio: Ch. 13, 1140