Washington Redskins: How Daniel Snyder found his man in Mike Shanahan


Redskins owner Dan Snyder and his new head coach, Mike Shanahan, walk into a press conference at Redskins Park on Jan. 6, 2010. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)
September 10, 2011

On a Sunday evening nearly two years ago, Daniel Snyder hit his nadir with the Washington Redskins. Trudging down the stairwell of one of his private planes in the hangar of the Dulles Jet Center, burgundy-and-gold striped necktie askew, he mouthed an expletive passengers behind him could clearly hear. In that moment, hours after the Redskins had lost to the lowly Lions — the worst team in pro football — in Detroit, Snyder resembled less of an NFL owner than an exasperated day trader.

“He was as stressed out and lost as I’d ever seen him,” said an associate of Snyder, who recounted the scene.” It was the bottom for all of us, but it was mostly the bottom for him.”

On the way to missing the playoffs for the eighth time in his 11 seasons as Redskins owner, Snyder retreated to the pilot’s lounge inside the hangar with two of his closest advisers at the time, Dave Donovan, the team’s chief operating officer, and Karl Swanson, Snyder’s senior vice president of public relations. Vinny Cerrato, the executive vice president of personnel and Snyder’s right-hand man, joined them after he had taken the team plane home with the players and their beleaguered coach, Jim Zorn.

While watching NBC’s “Sunday Night Football” game between the Arizona Cardinals and Indianapolis Colts, the four men drank glasses of Sassicaia, a bold Tuscan red that is a Snyder favorite, those who were present said. They added that Snyder eventually graduated to Crown Royal.

Finally, Snyder turned to the others. “Let’s go get Mike Shanahan,” he said.

It would be more than three months before Snyder hired Shanahan, who on Sunday begins his second season as Redskins head coach. But interviews with 11 individuals in and around the franchise, each of whom spoke on condition of anonymity so as to speak more freely, reveal that his pursuit of the former Denver Broncos head coach began far earlier than even the night of Sept. 27, 2009, after the deflating loss to Detroit.

While Snyder’s lengthy courtship of Shanahan has been known, many of the details of his pursuit have not. It paralleled the last year of Zorn’s tumultuous two-season tenure as Redskins coach, a fact that led Snyder and his advisers to go to elaborate lengths to keep it from becoming public so as not to appear to both undermine Zorn nor scuttle their efforts to land Shanahan. Snyder declined through a spokesman to be interviewed for this story.

Within minutes of Snyder’s request at the airport hangar, calls began flying back and forth between representatives of the Redskins owner and Shanahan. About two hours later, Shanahan had agreed to meet with the Redskins’ brain trust — but when?

“Let’s not wait for him to change his mind,” Snyder said, those who were present recalled. “Let’s go now.”

Snyder’s confidantes still marvel at the impulsive decision, yet they say it encapsulated the way in which they often did business.

“A lot of calls, a lot of booze that night,” one participant said. “We were just like four college roommates drowning their sorrows with alcohol after our team lost. The difference was, one of our college buddies was the owner of the team. And he called an ex-coach to make him feel better.”

Redskin One’s engines purred for the second time that night. The Bombardier BD-700 Global Express XRS corporate jet, which bore the team’s helmet on its tail, landed at Centennial Airport outside Denver at about 2 a.m. Mountain time, 4 a.m. back in Washington.

Bleary-eyed with maybe three hours of sleep, Snyder came down the stairwell and was greeted by Shanahan, who escorted Snyder, Cerrato, Donovan and Swanson to his waiting sedan. They drove to Shanahan’s sprawling, 35,000-square-foot ranch estate about 10 miles away in Cherry Hills Village, Denver’s most exclusive suburb, where one of Snyder’s confidantes recalled Shanahan’s hospitality.

“He said, ‘If you want, I’ll put you guys up in the back of the property where you can hear the coyotes howl.’ ”

Portis incident plays a role

The courtship between the Redskins and Shanahan actually had begun in earnest the previous January, immediately after Zorn’s first season — one in which the team, after winning four of its first five games, lost six of its last eight to finish 8-8.

The reason back then had less to do with the Redskins’ record than it did with Zorn’s crumbling relationship with one of the players Snyder felt closest to on the team — running back Clinton Portis.

Zorn and Portis had clashed repeatedly during the season, but as the Redskins prepared to play the San Francisco 49ers on the final day of the season, Snyder received a call from Portis’s agent, Drew Rosenhaus. He was told Portis would no longer play for the Redskins if Zorn wasn’t fired, according to Snyder’s close associates.

Zorn and Portis had exchanged words in practice that week when Portis refused Zorn’s request that the running back take his hands out of his pocket during a drill.

Snyder was ticked, not just about Zorn’s latest blowup with Portis but with the overall course of the season. Zorn had assured him things were improving as they sat next to each other on the team flight to San Francisco. Fed up, Snyder got off the phone call from Rosenhaus and told Cerrato: “Vinny, you handle this. Fix it. Tonight.”

That night, the eve of the Redskins’ final game of 2008, Cerrato summoned Zorn to a ballroom used by the team at the San Francisco Four Seasons hotel. Zorn brought Sherman Smith, his offensive coordinator and only genuine confidant on his staff. “Vinny kept telling Jim to apologize,” Smith said in a telephone interview. “And Jim was like: ‘For what? I just wanted him to take his hands out of his pocket.’ ”

When Portis joined the three later that night, no one shook hands. Zorn was dumbfounded he had been ordered to be part of a kiss-and-make-up session with a player the night before a game.

The Redskins lost the following day, 27-24.

Within about a week of the season’s conclusion, Snyder began making overtures to Shanahan, who had just been fired by the Broncos.

He arranged to have his plane pick up Mike and his son, Kyle, in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, where the Shanahan family was spending its annual vacation, and bring them to Los Angeles. Snyder was in Los Angeles to attend the Golden Globe Awards, which the Snyder-owned Dick Clark Productions were contracted to put on.

Snyder, Cerrato and the Shanahans met at a Beverly Hills hotel for about six hours.

There is a debate between the parties over Kyle’s role that day, whether or not he participated in the discussions or simply sat and watched. A person with knowledge of the trip said Kyle’s original reason for accompanying his father was to see friends in Los Angeles. Kyle was under contract with the Houston Texans at the time, which brings into play NFL rules prohibiting tampering with another team’s players or coaches.

No job offer was made to Shanahan, who expressed interest but was in no hurry to jump back into coaching immediately. He also would not entertain any offer until the Redskins decided whether to retain Zorn for a second season.

Zorn managed to survive that offseason largely because of an internal discussion at Redskins Park that centered on one question: What would the public reaction be if Snyder were to jettison another coach, his sixth in less than 10 seasons, not to mention one who just finished 8-8?

Said a participant in the discussion, “There was a real feeling that everyone in the media was going to say, ‘There goes Dan again, firing a guy after one year.’ Most of us felt the best thing to do was stick with Zorn for at least one more season. The P.R. hit was going to be too much, it was decided.”

With more than a little reservation, Snyder stood pat, which he regretted within the first few weeks of the 2009 season.

A near hiring — and a hiring

The basement of Shanahan’s home included a bowling alley and lounge, a poker room, a video-golf room, a racquetball court, a shuffleboard table and four bedrooms. All told, there were six fireplaces, a six-car garage, a pool, waterfall, two bridges and two guesthouses. “You’d never seen anything so big,” said one of his guests, who had been to Snyder’s French chateau-style estate in Potomac many times.

Before they turned in for bed, Snyder and his associates made their plight clear for almost two hours to Shanahan. The sting of the loss to the Lions was sharp, they told him. They needed help.

“We needed some individual advice on how bad this was, whether what we had was salvageable,” one participant said. “Obviously we were desperate and serious enough to take a chance flying to Colorado on Redskin One the same night of the Detroit game. But did we go out there to convince Mike Shanahan to come back with us and take over as coach? I can’t say that wasn’t an option. But it wasn’t the plan.”

The next morning, everyone got up about 7:30. Peggy Shanahan, Mike’s wife, went out and bought breakfast burritos for the group, one of the participants remembered.

From the beginning, Shanahan took on the role of wizened sage, distilling calm and knowledge to Snyder and his associates.

“It wasn’t, ‘When can you start? How much is it going to cost?’ It was more, ‘What do you think? Can Zorn do it? Would you do it?’ ” one of those present recalled.

As for the last question Shanahan was, as one of Snyder’s associates put it, “enthusiastically interested but not committed.”

Shanahan had major misgivings about inheriting someone else’s staff in-season, telling Snyder and his inner circle that if four more weeks of losing and misery went by and the Redskins were at the bye week, he might possibly consider coaching the team after having a chance to study it on film — provided a decision was made on Zorn.

But he warned, “I don’t think your results will be that much different with me this season.”

The five men sent out for sandwiches at a local deli for lunch before Snyder and his party left Denver — without a new coach but armed with a well-guarded secret.

After the tail of the Redskins plane was spotted at the Denver airport, there was immediate speculation about a secret meeting between Snyder and Shanahan. The Redskins put out a story saying the plane was on loan to a private company, and that Snyder was not on it. Local media in Denver and Washington, including The Washington Post, and national media outlets bought the story — and the rumors quickly died down.

“Everybody bought it,” one of the participants said. “I still remember [Sports Illustrated’s] Peter King calling Vinny on his cellphone, telling Vinny he knows we’re in Denver. Vinny says, ‘Peter, we’re not in Denver. We’re at Redskins Park right now. Go look in the parking lot. All our cars are there.’ And I hear Peter on the other end say, ‘Oh yeah, I didn’t think you guys would be so [expletive] obvious.’ And he hung up.”

The Redskins’ season did not get any better, and Snyder hired Bruce Allen as general manager in mid-December — a move that led to Cerrato’s immediate termination and to Zorn’s dismissal three days after New Year’s.

And on Jan. 5, 2010, nearly the one-year anniversary of the meeting with Snyder in Beverly Hills, Shanahan finally stood on the dais in Ashburn. In tow was Kyle, the only coach on the Texans’ staff who balked at re-signing with the club. His deal expired at the end of 2009, which contractually allowed him to become his father’s offensive coordinator in Washington.

As Shanahan and Sandy Montag, his agent, were preparing to leave Snyder’s house on the way to his introductory news conference, they saw an assortment of 10 burgundy-and-gold ties arrayed on a table beside the front door. Snyder explained to his new coach that not just any burgundy would do. “There’s a Redskin burgundy,” Snyder told him, dead serious, “and you gotta make sure it’s right.”

Mike Wise is a sports columnist for The Washington Post.
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