How Kyle Shanahan grew out of the Bucs’ cradle of coaches

Super Bowl 54 | The 49ers head coach began his career as Jon Gruden’s “do-boy” as an offensive quality control assistant.
San Francisco 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan has come a long way from his days as a Tampa Bay Buccaneers quality control assistant with a closet for an office at One Buc Place.
San Francisco 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan has come a long way from his days as a Tampa Bay Buccaneers quality control assistant with a closet for an office at One Buc Place. [ STEVE LUCIANO | AP ]
Published Jan. 28, 2020

MIAMI — Every time someone opened the door to his cramped, closet-like office at the original One Buc Place, it would whack him in the head.

Rat droppings on his desk greeted him every morning.

Kyle Shanahan will tell you there was not a more perfect place to begin an NFL coaching career.

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He was 25, a former University of Texas receiver who caught 14 career passes for 124 yards. He had spent six months as a graduate assistant at UCLA when Jon Gruden offered him a chance to become an offensive quality control coach with the Bucs.

“I was sort of his do-boy,’’ Shanahan said Monday. “I had to draw every single play and break down all the film. It gave me a very good introduction to so much offensive scheme.

"Just to be able to be around those defensive coaches is what made the difference. How well they took care of me. Being back at One Buc, it essentially was one big trailer.’’

On Monday night, Shanahan walked onto the biggest pregame stage of any NFL head coach’s career on Opening Night of Super Bowl 54 at Marlins Park.

This is the city where his father, Mike Shanahan, won his second straight championship with the Denver Broncos by beating Atlanta in Super Bowl 33. In his third season as the 49ers head coach, Shanahan is preparing his team to play the Kansas City Chiefs Sunday at Hard Rock Stadium.

Kyle Shanahan becomes the fourth former Bucs assistant to lead a team to the Super Bowl during Tampa Bay’s current 12-year postseason drought.

So long as Tampa Bay is going to be the cradle of NFL head coaches, maybe they shouldn’t kick them out of the crib too soon. Remember, this is a Bucs organization that has had hired five different men to lead their team in the last 10 years.

Seems like it would’ve been a good idea to hand the whistle to one of their own. (They did that, of course, when 32-year-old Raheem Morris took over for Gruden in 2009 and went 17-31 in three seasons).

Related: These three Tampa Bay players went from undrafted to the Super Bowl

Since then, it’s been tough for Bucs fans to watch one former young assistant after another become head coaches and have success with other teams.

Tony Dungy certainly had a fruitful tree as Herm Edwards, Lovie Smith, Mike Tomlin and Rod Marinelli each became NFL head coaches.

Gruden gave opportunities to Morris, his brother Jay, Sean McVay and Shanahan.

Smith reached the Super Bowl with the Bears, Tomlin did it twice with the Steelers, McVay with the Rams, who lost to the Patriots in Super Bowl 53 last year; and now Shanahan.

“I’ve always loved football and tried so hard to play,’’ Shanahan said. “I had a huge goal to play in college and was able to do that but once I realized I wasn’t good enough to play anymore, the next step was coaching. And once I got into coaching, it was a lot more fun. My genes were suited more to coach than play.’’

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Certainly, his bond with quarterbacks was established early. Shanahan’s best friend was Bucs quarterback Chris Simms, a Longhorns teammate who could relate to having a famous NFL father. Simms’ dad, Phil quarterbacked the Giants to victory in Super Bowl 21.

Chris Simms arrived in Tampa Bay a year earlier than Shanahan. By then, they already were linked by ink.

As the story goes, one night in 2002, Simms was dying to get a tattoo. When a group of teammates got to the parlor, Shanahan was the only one who didn’t have one. Simms and Shanahan had the artist burn the same tat with their initials on their ankles.

“We’re best friends and we’ll be friends for life,’’ said Simms, who started 15 games for the Bucs from 2004-06.

For Shanahan’s part, he left Tampa Bay after two seasons to coach receivers and quarterbacks with the Houston Texans before he was promoted to offensive coordinator. He called plays for Jay Gruden and the Redskins (2010-13), Browns (2014) and Falcons (2015-16).

But he credits his experience with the Bucs for putting him on the right path as a successful play-caller and offensive strategist.

“Tampa was such a special time for me, to get the chance to work with Jon Gruden and be around all the other good coaches on their staff,’’ Shanahan said.

“My office was a closet. Whenever you would open the door, it would hit me in the head every time. I’d always walk over to Monte Kiffin’s office. He had a little screen you could pull out and it would separate him, Rod Marinelli, Joe Barry, Raheem Morris, Mike Tomlin.

"All those guys were there. When I was done with my work with Jon, I would always go sit in the floor in there. They would always give me all their tip sheets and help me out with everything. That’s what really helped me understand defense, and how linebackers fit and understand fronts and things like that.

“To learn all their plays from Jon and defense from those guys,” Shanahan said, "it gave me a foundation where I see football and wherever I’ve gone I’ve been able to take that foundation and mold it.’’

On Sunday, the Shanahans can become the first father-son head coaching duo to win Super Bowls.

It happened organically. When he was five, Shanahan remembers leaving the other kids playing in the backyard to watch football.

“I left the babysitter and all the kids that would play in the backyard and would go in and watch the game with my mom and all the friends she would have over,’’ Shanahan said. “That ’86 ‘drive,’ Broncos versus Cleveland. I can still remember watching it. Ever since then, I never stayed home with the babysitters, always went to the games.’’

How much advice he will take from his famous father Sunday remains a secret.

“He’s pretty good at football so I probably listen to him more than some of the other coach’s dads,’’ Shanahan said.

Of course, there is another Tampa Bay connection that Shanahan will take with him into Sunday’s game.

General manager John Lynch, a nine-time Pro Bowl safety for the Bucs, had just been cut loose by the team after a failed physical just a week before Shanahan joined the team. Lynch joined Shanahan’s dad with the Broncos, where he earned four more Pro Bowl appearances.

“What I always knew about John, I always loved him. I always thought he was such an honest guy, hard-working, very smart,’’ Shanahan said. “I knew the type of player he was. And since we’ve gotten together, it’s only gotten stronger. Every way I felt about him before has been much more validated.’’

They went through some tough times together, losing their first nine games. But the trade for quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo with the Patriots for a second-round pick in 2017 changed the course of the franchise. They finished 6-10 in 2018. When Garoppolo suffered a torn ACL in Week 2 the next season, they endured a 4-12 season.

Shanahan will have to draw on those experiences and his epic failure as the Falcons pass-happy play-caller for the Falcons in Super Bowl 51, where his team blew a 28-3 lead to the Patriots in the greatest collapse in the Super Bowl history.

“Our team accomplishing it and just getting here is a huge deal,” Shanahan said. “That’s pretty separate from me doing that with another team as a coordinator three years or four years ago, whatever it was. This is separate from that. I’m pumped that we are here.

“Just being excited to be here is only temporary. If you can win it, that will last forever.”