SAN FRANCISCO -- John Elway does not remember the first time he met Gary Kubiak when they became Denver Broncos teammates in 1983, Kubiak an anonymous eighth-round draft choice, Elway the highly acclaimed No. 1 overall selection who refused to play in Baltimore and forced a trade to Denver.
But Elway remembers the first time he was around Kubiak at their first minicamp in May of 1983, which was held at the U.S. Air Force Academy's indoor practice facility in Colorado Springs because there had been a snowstorm in Denver. And the Hall of Famer and Broncos executive vice president of football operations remembers one of the first things he bonded over with his backup of nine years, who would become his offensive coordinator for the final four years of his playing career, his friend and confidante for more than 30 years, and, now, the head coach who has fulfilled Elway's mission to get the Broncos back to the Super Bowl.
"The Andy Griffith Show."
"All the old-time sitcoms," Elway said. "We had similar interests in what we liked to watch on TV. There are certain people you get along with. We've never had a cross word. We've never raised our voices or got mad at each other."
Elway and Kubiak and their extraordinary friendship are at the center of Denver's run to this Super Bowl, at least as critical to the Broncos' fortunes -- this Sunday and well beyond -- as the top-ranked defense and the legendary quarterback who will be the team's headliners at Levi's Stadium.
Elway might have hired Kubiak several years ago when he first became the Broncos' top football executive if the Houston Texans hadn't extended Kubiak when many expected him to be fired following the 2010 season. Elway did choose Kubiak after the 2014 season, which Kubiak had spent coaching the offense in Baltimore. Elway, informed by his own late-career success with a powerful running game, wanted a more balanced offense to ease the responsibility on Peyton Manning -- and he knew such an evolution might be fraught with tumult.
Elway trusted not only Kubiak's offensive system built on stretch runs, bootlegs and rollouts, but the easy-going manner that Elway has seen up close since Kubiak backed him up, to steady the Broncos through the sensitive decisions that would be threaded through the season. Elway is unquestionably the franchise's alpha executive who has positioned the Broncos to play with an aging quarterback and then to play without him -- last offseason, he fired John Fox despite four playoff appearances because of lackluster finishes and then forced Manning to take a pay cut -- but it is Kubiak, the detail-driven studier most comfortable out of the spotlight, who had the fist-wrapped-in-a-velvet-glove touch with players that managed the tricky dynamics this season, including melding the disparate offenses Kubiak and Manning had worked in for years.
This is part of why it worked so well this season.
"I don't think you'll find a single player inside football that doesn't like Gary Kubiak. Even guys he cuts," said Houston Texans defensive lineman J.J. Watt, who played for Kubiak when he was Houston's head coach "He's just an incredibly genuine, nice, caring, good man. He does have a bit more of a laid-back style. He lets players do their thing."
Dan Reeves saw the roots of Denver's foundation from the start. The Broncos' coach in 1983, Reeves drafted Kubiak because the team needed a quarterback, as Craig Morton's time in Denver was up. That was before he knew the Broncos would be able to swing a deal to get Elway from the Baltimore Colts. For about a week -- before the trade for Elway was made -- Kubiak thought he would be competing for the starting job.
What might have been a mess instead became a seamless football marriage -- 7 and 8 beside each other in film study, in hotel rooms on the road, on golf courses, everywhere except under the klieg lights. Elway was the superstar from the very start, and Kubiak, remarkably, never made a public issue of it. Like Elway, he was fiercely competitive, but less overtly. And from early on, Kubiak knew what he wanted his own future to look like. He wanted to be a coach.
"Gary was perfect," Reeves said by telephone last week. "They hit it off -- they roomed together, which was great. They would be able to study things. They were competitive, but yet they were really good friends. Gary understood how important he was. He understood how good John was. He understood he was only one play away from being the starter. Very few guys can handle that. Gary did it.
"He doesn't have a big ego. Everybody has an ego, but I think Gary is down to Earth and solid. And they can express their opinions and disagree without having to worry about rubbing somebody the wrong way."
Today, Kubiak credits Reeves with teaching him how to prepare -- always as if he might start -- and Kubiak now says those nine years were really his preparation for being a coach. He would stand beside Reeves on the sideline while Reeves called plays and Kubiak would give him suggestions on what to call.
Kubiak started just five games as Elway's backup -- going 3-2 -- but he played roles in significant Broncos moments. In the AFC Championship Game of January 1987, Elway led his famed drive against the Cleveland Browns to tie the game with 37 seconds left in regulation. But it was Kubiak who held for the winning field goal in overtime. In the AFC title game in Buffalo in January of 1992, Kubiak replaced an injured Elway in the fourth quarter, completed 11 of 12 passes and nearly pulled off a come-from-behind victory. It was Kubiak's final game as a player.
After two years as a running backs coach at his alma mater, Texas A&M, Kubiak joined George Seifert's staff in San Francisco as the quarterbacks coach under offensive coordinator Mike Shanahan. Shanahan had served two stints as the Broncos' offensive coordinator when Kubiak was still a player and the two spent a lot of time together in San Francisco in 1994. With Steve Young, who was the league MVP that season, the 49ers won the Super Bowl. Shanahan expected Kubiak to remain there to become the offensive coordinator when Shanahan left to become the Broncos' head coach in 1995. Instead, Kubiak wanted to follow Shanahan back to Denver.
There, the Broncos had a rookie running back, Terrell Davis, who would be the linchpin of the offense Kubiak and Shanahan would construct around Elway, the model for what the Broncos have tried to do this year. It was, Kubiak said this week, a challenge. He was a very young coordinator -- just 34 when he became the Broncos' offensive coordinator -- and now he was coaching a close friend.
Davis never saw any friction between Elway and Kubiak -- and their easy communication streamlined everything for the offense. Kubiak would seek Elway's input on plays, and Davis said he never got the sense that Kubiak would try to upstage Elway. Kubiak also did something he gets little credit for: He changed his offense from opponent to opponent to attack different defenses, starting a game with five wide receivers, Davis remembers, when the book on the Broncos was that they were a run-oriented offense. That Kubiak has never gotten much notice for his offensive acumen does not surprise Davis.
"He's very uncomfortable, at times, taking credit," Davis said. "He's not comfortable being the face or getting credit for the success we had. He prefers to be in the background. He does have the perfect temperament for it. He knows exactly when to be more vocal and be authoritative, and he knows how to sit in the back and let someone else get the credit. There was one time where he did get a little -- it was out of character for Kubiak -- he was pissed off. He let us have it in an offensive meeting room. We didn't play well. It didn't happen a lot. Sometimes you do let things slide when you get used to a coach and know how he is. This particular time, he let us have it and because he doesn't say a lot, when he speaks, you listen."
Said Shanahan: "Gary has always been able to bring people together. As a quarterback, he was a natural leader. And since he's been there before, through Super Bowl wins and losses, he's been in a number of situations, seen the good, bad and the ugly."
He has seen all of that not just in Denver but throughout his entire career. The three lost Super Bowls when Elway and Kubiak were players. The two victories when he was the Broncos' offensive coordinator and they won back-to-back titles in Elway's final seasons, allowing Elway the exit they now hope to craft for Manning. Then in Houston, where Kubiak had been a ball boy for Bum Phillips and the Oilers when he was in high school, only to return to coach the team that replaced the Oilers. Kubiak took over a 2-14 team and steadily built it -- he got the franchise its first non-losing season, its first winning season, its first division title, and its first playoff victory -- although the Texans had the annual misfortune of playing in the AFC South opposite, ironically, Manning at the height of his career in Indianapolis. In 2011, the year Manning missed with his neck injury, the Texans finally broke through, winning the division for the first of two years in a row and winning a playoff game in each of those seasons.
During those years, Kubiak once made a comment to a Texans staffer that seemed to sum up his coaching philosophy.
"They've got to know that you care before they care what you know."
Said Kubiak: "I would hope they'd tell you I'm honest with them. I think that's the biggest thing. Players are smart. They've worked hard to get to the National Football League level. There are no shortcuts around being successful in our business and doing it the right way. I just try to be honest with them, be fair to them. I've got enough examples out there. I've always told our players that this league is fair, and if you do it -- look at Arian Foster, a free agent becoming an All-Pro, those types of things. That's the way I approach them."
That, of course, is not enough to insulate against losses. The Texans entered the 2013 season with Super Bowl hopes. But a stunning 11-game losing streak -- prompted in part by Matt Schaub's implosion into a pick-six machine and during which Kubiak collapsed on the sideline with a mini-stroke -- cost the coach his job before the season was over. Kubiak had no doubt that he wanted to go back to work right away. He spent the 2014 season in Baltimore as the Ravens' offensive coordinator, drastically improving the offense. The Ravens finished eighth in scoring and Joe Flacco enjoyed the most productive season of his career, with career highs in passing yards and touchdowns.
Flacco credits Kubiak's offense with allowing quarterbacks to make quick decisions and get the ball out fast. When he watched film with Kubiak, the Ravens QB could easily see when he made the wrong decision. On Saturdays before games, Flacco and Kubiak would go over the game plan together.
"I always felt very confident because he had a very natural way of letting me know, 'You've been doing a great job -- if you do this, there is no way we can't win this game,' " Flacco said. "He doesn't say anything more than he needs to. Guys relate well to that. They don't want a lot of fluff. They want a guy to be direct and honest and take care of them and have their back."
Kubiak almost certainly would still have been in Baltimore if the Broncos had not sputtered so badly in postseason games under Fox, getting blown out in the Super Bowl two years ago and then losing to the Colts in somnolent style in the Broncos' first playoff game last year. Kubiak declined invitations to interview for head-coaching jobs while in Baltimore. He has said he learned a lot by being able to observe John Harbaugh and Ozzie Newsome and he wanted to remain there. Players say he is noticeably more relaxed and at ease now, after spending time with the Ravens, than he was in Houston.
But when Elway fired Fox, Kubiak was the immediate favorite for the job.
"It was going to be tough to navigate," Elway said. "I had so much confidence in Gary and knew he would be able to do it. I knew what he was as a player and coach. I knew, with the team we had, I was confident we would have success. That's why it didn't scare me and I don't think it scared Gary, knowing the relationship we had, we would work well together."
Their relationship now is strikingly similar to what it was as teammates.
"You know what? He's the same to me," Kubiak said of Elway, the executive. "He's so competitive. Obviously, he was a great player, a Hall of Fame player -- but he was a great player because he was such a competitive guy. I watch him work as an executive, and I see the same thing: competing every day, wanting to be the best, his organization to be the best and give this football team a chance week in and week out. In a lot of ways, I think he's the same.
"John and I, neither one of us likes to talk a lot, so we don't -- it's not like it's an everyday thing. We had a great conversation today on the field. I just have great respect for his opinion. He's been there and done that, everything there is to do in this league."
That, defensive coordinator Wade Phillips believes, is something else that Kubiak shares with Elway, the credibility of having been a player. Kubiak had a front-row seat to the end of Elway's career. He helped engineer it. And that gave Kubiak the unique insight necessary to deftly guide the Broncos through a season-long quarterback quandary -- to tinker with the offense to try to suit Manning, to know when to have an ineffective Manning sit to get healthy, then to know when to bench Brock Osweiler and return Manning to the lineup -- that seemed to spark more hand-wringing on the outside than it did within the organization.
"Anytime you have a quarterback situation where more than one plays, there's going to be a controversy," Phillips said. "He has taken that out of it. It's pretty amazing what he's done. You have a Hall of Fame player, then another guy plays and then he plays well and then he puts the Hall of Famer back in. He's honest. He has talked to them first, and been honest with the team. 'This is what is going on, this is what we'll do.' "