Mike Shanahan takes his life's work to D.C. and Washington Redskins

Mike Shanahan, who won two Super Bowls as head coach of the Denver Broncos. is Daniel Snyder's choice to coach the Washington Redskins.
By Sally Jenkins
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 12, 2010

If you really want to know what Mike Shanahan is made of, the answer is: metal shavings. Sawdust. Poured concrete. How does a guy who's just 5 feet 10 and 175 pounds rise to the top of the NFL and command larger men to do his bidding all these years?

By working the job like a shovel, that's how.

Ignore the good suit and corporate haircut, and the bells and jingles of his seven-inch thick playbook. Strip away the glint of the two Super Bowl rings he won with the Denver Broncos. Forget his $35 million contract. The important thing to remember about the new head coach of the Washington Redskins is that he punched his way out of the blue-collar industrial suburbs of Chicago. As his father Edward once said, "If only he'd listened to me, he could have been an electrician." Beneath the sheen of his reputation, Shanahan, 58, is a grinder. Though he is known for the refinement of his offense, the real underpinning of Shanahan's accomplishments is muscle, years of heavy lifting. Each morning, he's in the Redskins weight room at 4 a.m., doing reps. A few years ago, he set out to bench press 275 pounds, a hundred more than his own weight - and did. It's tha sweat-soaked quality he's depending on as he tries to turn around a team that was 4-12 last year and which opens the season against the Dallas Cowboys on Sunday.

"Listen, when he gets done with that locker room, there won't be anything left in there but beef," says Shannon Sharpe, his former tight end with the Broncos. "All beef. Kobe beef."

Shanahan won't tell you any of this himself. He's a polite-but-unrevealing conversationalist who tends to fold his arms across his chest and keep his mouth firmly shut. This isn't rudeness, but a product of Shanahan's belief, learned as an Irish-Catholic working-class son, that he was given two ears and just one tongue for a reason. As he remarked in his motivational book, 'Think Like A Champion,' "Last time I checked, I never said anything I didn't already know."

Recently, Shanahan briefed a group of reporters on the Redskins' practice field. "You guys know how this works," he said. "You ask questions and I don't answer them." Invariably, he gives away less than the opponent. In Denver, he had someone in each NFL city fax him every article in the local papers about the team he was playing that week. He rifled through the clippings looking for something he could use. Injuries. Changes in staff. Hirings, firings. Player arrests. Subtle tip-offs about scheme.

It's the secret to his success: the coupling of exhaustive work with a canny exploitation of the laziness, indiscretions and lack of conviction in others.

"Most people don't believe that they deserve something special," Shanahan said during a recent conversation in his new office. "They believe the other person should have it. It's up to you to let them know they do deserve it, because they put the work in. They've done the things necessary to let themselves win a championship."

Showing fight at a young age

Shanahan started working at just 14, an evasion of child labor law made possible by his mother Dorothy. She took the birth certificate of her oldest son to the local library and used clerical supplies to alter his date of birth, so he could pass for 16 and carry a toolbox.

It wasn't a first in the family. Ed Shanahan had falsified his own age in order to enter the armed services at 15, and did two years with the Signal Corps in Korea. When he came out of the Army, he got his equivalency degree and became an apprentice electrician. He worked overtime to feed six kids on $15,000-$20,000 a year, and Mike was expected to contribute. "Work is in his nature," Ed says. "He was oldest so he got responsibility early, and he was a big help to the whole family."

Franklin Park, Ill., was a bleak parish of raw industrial parks, bounded by O'Hare airport's cargo terminals and railroad freight yards. Mike did shifts cleaning the floors of the local plants, sweeping debris left by the machinists - alloys, steel and cast iron. "I spent about 10 hours a week mopping things up," he says. He also unloaded sacks of cement from conveyor belts. He flipped burgers at a drive-in joint called Dave's. He worked construction for $5 an hour.

The expectation was that he would follow his father in the trade, unless he became a fireman, his mother's ambition. But Mike wanted something different: an education. No one in his family had ever gone to college. Also, he thought he might want to be a coach. He had a knack for games; fields of play just seemed to unfold before him. When he was 12, even before he kne how to win much of anything except a fight, he beat his grandfather at chess. He took the old man down in just four moves, with an embarrassing strategy called Fool's Mate.

CONTINUED     1                 >

© 2010 The Washington Post Company