ENGLEWOOD, Colo.— Denver Broncos head coach Gary Kubiak turned 55 years old today, and he would prefer if you didn’t remind him about it.
“Birthdays aren’t what they used to be,” Kubiak joked. “I try not to count them.”
Don’t we all?
Yet this birthday must feel a little different for him. He’s less than eight months removed from winning his first Super Bowl as an NFL head coach, and he’s less than two years removed from getting the head coaching job for the team he calls his “football home.”
Kubiak was drafted as a player by the Broncos with the 197th pick in the 1983 NFL draft. On his draft day, many thought he was being selected to be Denver’s quarterback of the future.
Then, some guy named John Elway showed up. From there, Kubiak knew what his role was going to be.
“I was a backup,” he joked.
That’s exactly what Gary Kubiak was for the Broncos during his eight seasons as a player. In those years, he played in 119 games for the Broncos, starting five of them. He completed 58.1 percent of his passes, throwing for 1,920-yards, 14 touchdowns, and 16 interceptions.
He was most definitely a backup.
Yet, since ending his playing career in 1991, Kubiak has meant far more to the Broncos than he ever did as a player.
After a year as a running backs coach at Texas A&M — his alma mater — and a year as the quarterbacks coach for the Super Bowl champion San Francisco 49ers, Kubiak returned to Denver to join Mike Shanahan as his offensive coordinator. He would have that job for the next decade.
“I always thought Gary would become a coach when his playing career was over because of the way he seriously approached the game,” Shanahan told Woody Paige, then of the Denver Post, last year. “Even though he rarely got to play, Gary prepared every week as if he would. And when he did play, he knew exactly what to do and wasn’t overwhelmed.”
In 2005, after leading the Broncos offense to an AFC Championship appearance, Kubiak got the first shot at his dream job. He became the second head coach in the history of the Houston Texans, his hometown team.
It seemed like a match made in heaven, and for a while it was. Kubiak led the Texans to the closest thing the expansion franchise has ever had to success. He won 61 games as the head coach there, securing back-to-back AFC South division championships and the first playoff win in the history of the organization.
Then, it all came crashing down.
Poor quarterback play and an under-performing defense sent Kubiak’s Texans into a downward spiral. After winning their first two contests, they lost 11 straight games before Kubiak was fired.
That wasn’t even the worst part of Kubiak’s year.
On Nov. 3, during a week 9 match-up with the Indianapolis Colts, Kubiak collapsed on the field and had to be transported to the hospital. He was diagnosed with a TIA, sometimes called a “mini-stroke”.
Kubiak’s steady hand and cool demeanor make it easy to forget that terrifying incident happened less than three years ago.
Today, he’s a tremendous symbol of strength for the Denver Broncos. He’s the ultimate teacher, always keeping a watchful eye on his players as they work through the dog days of training camp. For many, he’s the ultimate player’s coach. But, not everyone is fond of that title.
“I hate that term, it doesn’t make sense,” Joel Dreessen, who played tight end for Kubiak in Houston for five seasons said. “It’s just a guy being a human being and treating you like a person and creating this environment that makes you care about each other, and guys who care about each other are more likely to win ball-games. ”
For Dreessen, Kubiak is less of a great “player’s coach” and more of just a good coach.
“As far as him caring about you as a person while you played for him, he is second-to-none,” Dreessen said. “He always empathized with the players as far as the efforts we go to—the lengths we try to go to—to sacrifice our bodies and win ball-games.”
Even quarterback Mark Sanchez, who hasn’t yet played in a regular season game for Kubiak, recognizes his superb work ethic.
“I think he’s so consistent,” Sanchez said. “He’s the same guy every day. He works his butt off. He expects a lot out of the team. He has such a good pulse on our energy… he treats us like adults and he really does expect a lot out of us, and that’s good.”
So, while Gary Kubiak might not be a big fan of birthdays, he’s got plenty of fans of his own willing to celebrate for him.