Gary Kubiak: On Success, Struggle and Being a Texan and a Denver Bronco

by Daniel Ramirez and Doug Flatt in Holiday 2016
Gary huddle credit Ben Hays

For someone who owns more Super Bowl rings than most NFL franchises – four throughout his career – he just doesn’t look the part. It isn’t that he doesn’t deserve acclaim. With a career that rose, slowly and deliberately, through the pro football ranks, the man in question moved from player to position coach, from position coach to offensive coordinator and, at long last, to head coach. Tracing the football vein further to his days as a player at Texas A&M University and a decorated high school athlete in Houston, his resume reads like an emissary for all things manly, and the ultimate ambassador of football.

Of course, with that kind of label, one is bound to draw assumptions. “Football guys,” after all, only fall into a few narrow categories, a finite number of caricatures. Yet, Gary Kubiak isn’t menacing, poised to knock over walls and crush playoff hopes, like the defensive monsters of yore; nor does he have the audacity or flamboyance of the modern celebrity quarterback – he’s not made any outlandish guarantees and his wardrobe doesn’t include anything more garish than the signature orange of his Denver Broncos—where he’s been head coach since January 2015. He is calm and commanding, confident and controlled. He is a picture of the humble everyman. Unless you count the monster on the table in front of him – the 2015 -16 NFL Championship ring, which screams loud enough to deafen a stadium full of fans.

And, thus, this is the duality of Coach Gary Kubiak. His success speaks volumes, while the man himself is happy to take a more modest approach to a most extraordinary life.

First, one must address the diamond-encrusted ‘elephant in the room.’ Adorned with countless diamonds and bright enough to blind, the ring was presented to Kubiak with a fanfare that could conservatively be described as opulent. Speaking with Kubiak, the private ceremony was still fresh on his mind.

“We had a meet and greet in the locker room,” Kubiak begins, “and then moved to the stadium onto an orange carpet with white roses on either side.” Already, the ceremony’s pomp and circumstance seems slightly over the top for his persona, but the pageantry wasn’t complete. “The players were given keys by former players,” he explains, “Rod Smith, Terrell Davis and Shannon Sharpe, to name a few – and on tables were boxes with each player’s name on it. They used their key to open the box, which contained their rings, a commemorative Super Bowl football and more.” The volume of the ceremony was, indeed, a mile high. But the accolade was well deserved for a year of hard work and, for Kubiak, a lifetime of sheer dedication.

The majority of Kubiak’s life has been spent in service to the Denver Broncos organization. Drafted by the team straight out of college in 1983 (he returned to Texas A&M as the 2016 Lifetime Achievement Award recipient), he played his entire 12-year career at Mile High Stadium, after which he moved around the country to follow higher profile jobs as they sought him out. Seasons in College Station and San Francisco proved successful, and he was soon called back to Colorado to fill Denver’s open offensive coordinator position, there getting a chance to guide his former mentor, John Elway, to back-to-back World Championships.

The industry demand for his talent grew until it took him to Houston, where he cut his head coaching teeth in the eye of incredible fan scrutiny. The Houston Texans, Kubiak’s hometown team, fired him in after their sky-high expectations weren’t met over seven seasons, constant injuries and the demands of the third largest city in the nation.

From there, he went to the Baltimore Ravens, where he stepped into a coordinator’s role, rather than garner the spotlight. “He really enjoyed his short stint in Baltimore because he was able to simply be a coach again and didn’t have all the responsibilities of an NFL head coach,” Kubiak’s  wife Rhonda explains. “It was nice to just walk past the media room after a game.”
Still, both jobs brought more struggle than success. And after a heartbreaking end to the 2014 season in Baltimore, the next step looked bleak when an all-too familiar call came while he and Rhonda were struggling with the aftermath.

As many football fans are aware, when you lose the last game of a season, the future becomes a very murky concept. “After the Ravens lost to the Patriots in the 2014 AFC Championship game, I came home and talked all night with Rhonda about my next move,” Kubiak says. “Before I knew it, I received a call from [John] Elway about the Broncos [head coaching] job,” he continues. The good fortune isn’t lost on him and he admits, “This business is crazy. You just never know what is going to happen.”

Truer words were rarely spoken, and one might think the secret to his success is tied directly to the blue and orange of the Broncos. It was obvious that Kubiak found stability in Denver.

Denver felt like home to the entire Kubiak family, having spent so much time there while he was a player. “I was able to raise my sons in one town, which is a rarity in the coaching field,” Kubiak says. “Somehow, I was able to find stability in an unstable environment.”

Undoubtedly, the Colorado metropolis played a tremendous part in Kubiak’s life, livelihood and success. But, rather than taking place on some picturesque farmland in the Rockies or at a comfortable café in the LoDo district of Denver, this interview finds Gary and Rhonda on their ranch property just outside of Houston. A modest home still under some construction, it reflects the temperament of its owners. Kubiak has never lost his tether to his home state, home city and home turf. It is his escape from the break-neck pace of professional football, and it has served him well for a good while. Relatives live a literal holler away, and while the stylish but humble home is being built, the Kubiaks are happy to stay with them. Kubiak has forged a ‘home field advantage’ that has served him well, whether in feast or famine; and that home, regardless of how magical Denver has been, is still Texas.

To that end, he attributes his upbringing in inner-city Houston – the formative young years as a quarterback were spent at St. Pius High School, just outside the 610 loop – as foundational in equipping him to manage the many different personalities of an NFL organization from players and coaches to staff and media. The city also did what all good Texas cities do, making certain that it chiseled a strong state pride in him. “Despite time spent outside of Texas during my playing and coaching career, I am and will always be a Texan to the core,” he says.

It is hardly a wonder Kubiak’s proud of his state, since he can thank it for more than his start in football. It was in Houston that he met Rhonda. They were 14. The pair has been married, through thick and thin, for 33 years. The ‘thick’ is always at ready command when contracts are rolling in and teams are winning and there are no adversities. But, when the ‘thin’ of perilous job security, accumulating losses and even heartbreaking terminations come, they are unrelenting. “Coaches in the profession jokingly refer to the season as a six-month jail sentence, due to the grueling nature of the job,” he explains. With such a long career and so many different experiences, he would know. Still, Kubiak’s marriage and his home field advantage are a touchstone to the things that matter.

“After being fired from the Texans, I spent a lot of time at this ranch and seriously contemplated taking a year off from football,” he confesses. Had he done so, many things could have gone far differently. But that rest, that recharge, and that tenacity that all revisited him during his time at home base, had far greater things in mind for this Texan and his family. The culmination of those plans sits, painfully bright, in front of us on the table. And yet, none of it – the years of success, the fame and fortune, not even the five-carat monolith before us, speaks as loud as Kubiak’s character. Here, it seems, is a man’s man, a ‘football guy’ of the highest order and a Texan we can all be proud to claim as our own.

The Gary Kubiak Playbook

  • February 2016: Denver Broncos win Super Bowl 50
  • January 2015: Signs as head coach, Denver Broncos
  • January 2014: Signs as offensive coordinator, Baltimore Ravens
  • December 2013: Fired by Houston Texans, replaced by interim head coach Wade Phillips
  • January 2006: Signs as head coach, Houston Texans
  • 1995–2005: Denver Broncos offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach, under head coach Mike Shanahan
  • 1994: San Francisco 49ers quarterback coach (49ers quarterback Steve Young receives NFL MVP; 49ers win Super Bowl with Young throwing record six touchdowns)
  • 1992-1993: Texas A&M running backs coach
  • 1983-1992: Drafted by the Denver Broncos, plays nine seasons
  • 1980-1982: Earns three letters as quarterback at Texas A&M (Goes on to become first Aggie to win a Super Bowl as head coach.)
  • 1978: Graduates Houston St. Pius X high school (Voted to Texas High School Hall of Fame 1999.)