DENVER (AP) - By leaving on his own terms, Gary Kubiak made a choice few coaches do. Health and life are more important than football, he decided, and this 100-hour-a-week coaching business he’s been in for decades was no longer a good fit.
This was no easy call for the football lifer, who first rolled into Denver 34 years ago in his wife’s Buick, a backup quarterback and total afterthought during a summer that brought John Elway to town, too.
Wearing jeans and an untucked button-down shirt - against the PR man’s advice - Kubiak choked back tears Monday during his farewell, while thanking everyone from the equipment managers to the man who wore No. 7 and has been Kubes’ teammate, boss and best friend for decades.
But the most telling part of the coach’s farewell talk was this:
“I’ve taken a lot of pride that I could coach a football team, be there for the players, be there for the coaches, be there for the organization, do a game plan, call some plays on Sunday,” he said. “I’ve always taken pride that I could do all those things. But this year, I haven’t been able to do that.”
If he couldn’t fill the job description, he said, there was no use trying to fake it.
The toll this job took on the 55-year-old Texas native became frighteningly obvious in 2013, when he lay motionless on the field at halftime of a game in what would turn out to be his final year coaching Houston.
The mini-stroke he suffered then was the glaring indicator that Kubiak was no match for the workload.
Is any man?
“That’d be hard for me to say,” Kubiak said. “I know what the demands have been the last 10 years. There are a lot of things, the organizations are very big, there are a lot of demands, media-wise, player-wise, that are all part of the job.”
Kubiak’s predecessor in Denver, John Fox, needed a four-week break after undergoing heart surgery that he wanted to put off, but could not. Bill Parcells, Dan Reeves, Mike Ditka - yes, you could fill a wing in the Hall of Fame with coaches who’ve had heart problems while doing the job. Just this season, Arizona’s Bruce Arians, Minnesota’s Mike Zimmer and Todd Bowles of the Jets have all made unexpected trips to the hospital.
It’s no stretch to say that only one job - Denver - and one person - Elway - could’ve led Kubiak back into the pressure cooker of head coaching. After getting fired from Houston, he ignored Texans owner Bob McNair’s advice and kept right on working, heading to Baltimore as offensive coordinator. He thought he’d work there for a few years, then head off to his ranch in Texas and call it a career.
But the phone rang. And it was Elway.
“I said, ‘Dammit, you picked up the phone and called me,’” Kubiak said. “Thank God he did.”
That ring of the phone produced a Super Bowl ring.
During one of the most stressful seasons a coach could imagine, Kubiak pushed every right button, deftly maneuvering through Peyton Manning’s injury plagued, un-Peyton-like final year in football.
There was no encore, and for those looking for the beginning of the end, Oct. 9 after a home loss to the Falcons is as good a point as any. Kubiak was back in the hospital, this time diagnosed with a complex migraine headache. On doctor’s orders, he took a week off, then was told not to undertake the same workload when he returned.
He called Elway to his hotel room during Christmas week in Kansas City. He spoke to Elway as a friend, not an employee, and told him it was over. The team sent him out a winner Sunday, with a 24-6 victory over Oakland.
Sticking around for more wasn’t realistic for Kubiak given the modern-day job requirements of an NFL head coach: There’s film study, game-planning, personnel evaluation, media obligations, offseason workouts, training camp and, oh yes, maintaining some semblance of family life while also trying to keep all 100 players, coaches and staff in your work family moving in the same direction. Brutal as all that is in any of the 32 NFL cities, it’s even more taxing under the watch of a Hall of Fame quarterback who only counts Super Bowl trophies.
“This is a great place to work,” Elway said, “but the expectations are high.”
And Kubiak wasn’t crazy about delegating authority.
And so, he left.
His final farewell, and his final thank you, came as he blew kiss toward the back of the room - to his wife, Rhonda - then choked back the tears.
“She kept me in one piece a long time,” Kubiak said. “I’m coming home. It probably scares the hell out of you. But I’m coming home.”
That he’s coming home healthy, and by his own choice, might be his biggest win of all.
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