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Andy Furillo: Gary Kubiak’s journey from mini-stroke to Super Bowl

Denver Broncos head coach Gary Kubiak speaks to reporters in Santa Clara on Wednesday. The Broncos will play the Carolina Panthers in Super Bowl 50 on Sunday.
Denver Broncos head coach Gary Kubiak speaks to reporters in Santa Clara on Wednesday. The Broncos will play the Carolina Panthers in Super Bowl 50 on Sunday. The Associated Press

It’s true the Houston Texans washed out to Galveston the year coach Gary Kubiak had a mini-stroke.

They flip-flopped from 12-4 in 2012 to a 2-14 in 2013, when they fired Kubiak. Owner Bob McNair announced the termination with three games left in the season. It came just five weeks after Kubiak’s “transient ischemic attack” at halftime of a home game against Indianapolis.

You can only wonder what McNair thinks these days about this boneheaded decision, now that Kubiak is the healthy head man in his first year in charge of the Denver Broncos, who play the Carolina Panthers in Sunday’s Super Bowl 50. McNair hasn’t been heard from this week, and understandably so. He’s been busy. As a member of the NFL’s relocation committee, McNair’s thinking is cluttered with other concerns, such as where the Raiders will move the Black Hole for the long term.

When Kubiak was hired by the Texans, they were as flat as oil prices are now. The Texans went 18-46 in their first four years, before Kubiak took over in 2006 and constructed a two-time AFC South champion. His reward in 2013 was his head on a stick.

I know it was just a year for me, but it was a very powerful year for me as a coach.

Denver coach Gary Kubiak about being Baltimore’s offensive coordinator in 2014

Life’s journey has since taken a happier turn for Kubiak. He does a better job managing the burdens of his work; there have been no more TIAs.

In Denver, Kubiak reunited with John Elway, the Broncos’ general manager. They go back 33 years, to when they were both drafted in 1983 to play quarterback for the Broncos. The elusive, rocket-armed Elway won the job and is in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Kubiak held the backup’s clipboard before he retired in 1991 to become a coach.

Kubiak’s new career took him to his alma mater at Texas A&M, then to the 49ers as quarterbacks coach and back to the Broncos in 1995 as offensive coordinator. He handled Steve Young with the 49ers in 1994 and Elway with the Broncos in 1997 and 1998 when they won Super Bowls.

In 2006, he landed the head-coaching job in Houston and did pretty well until he collapsed and McNair got antsy. Kubiak moved on to the offensive coordinator’s job in Baltimore in 2014, before Elway snagged him last January.

Asked to name his primary influences, Kubiak listed Dan Reeves and Mike Shanahan, the head coaches from his playing and assistant-coaching days in Denver, as his two top guys.

“I grew up under Dan Reeves,” Kubiak told reporters amid the frenzy of Super Bowl media day earlier this week. “That was my coach, my whole career at Denver. Obviously, learned a lot from Dan. I had a brief stop with George Seifert (in San Francisco) … and then, obviously, Mike has probably been the biggest influence on my career. I’ve been fortunate to be around some good people. Mike is a very good friend of mine. Spent a lot of time here in the past month just talking preparation and football. He’s very close to us right there in Denver.”

Under Reeves, Kubiak said he learned the importance of preparation. Under Seifert, Kubiak learned the delight of winning a Super Bowl, and he won a couple more when Shanahan became Denver’s coach and brought Kubiak along with him to work with Elway.

What did Kubiak learn from Shanahan?

“Everything,” Kubiak said. “Mike (as an assistant) coached me as a player – coached John and I – taught me a lot as a player. … He made me a coordinator at a very young age (34) and brought me up the right way, he and (Broncos offensive-line coach) Alex Gibbs. I owe Mike a great deal.”

His approach to things is analytical, a quarterback’s approach.

Carolina coach Ron Rivera on Gary Kubiak

Kubiak called his year in Baltimore as John Harbaugh’s offensive coordinator “one of the greatest things that happened to me in this business.” General manager Ozzie Newsome and owner Steve Bisciotti showed him the meaning of a smooth overall operation.

“I know it was just a year for me, but it was a very powerful year for me as a coach, and it helped me transition back into this opportunity, which obviously John and Mr. (Pat) Bowlen have given me,” Kubiak said.

When future coaches look back at Kubiak’s influence, they’ll note his calmness and honesty, his integrity, his ability to communicate. He will not be viewed exactly as an innovator but as a smart offensive mind who viewed the game from the perspective of its most important position.

“His approach to things is analytical, a quarterback’s approach,” said Ron Rivera, the Panthers coach who will be on the opposite sideline Sunday. “I’ve tried to game-plan against him when he was a coordinator and a head coach, and you just know his approach I think is from a guy who looks at it from behind the center.”

America’s gamblers do not give Kubiak much of a chance Sunday, driving the point spread from 3 1/2 to 5 1/2 points in Carolina’s favor. But it sure would be fun to see the reaction on McNair’s face if Kubiak coaxes an upset out of the Broncos.

“It’s a crazy business” Kubiak said. “You just keep working, stay true to who you are and try to enjoy it along the way. That’s what I’ve tried to do.”

Andy Furillo: 916-321-1141, @andyfurillo

Super Bowl 50

  • Who: Denver Broncos
  • vs. Carolina Panthers
  • When: Sunday, 3:30 p.m.
  • Where: Levi’s Stadium
  • TV/radio: Ch. 13, 1140
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