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

When he wasn't pulling his arm-wearying shifts at the local plants, he was at football, basketball or track practice. At first no one thought he'd amount to much; his coach at Main Junior High wrote him off as one of the "try-hard" kids. "He kind of insinuated the group over there wasn't as talented," Shanahan says. Shanahan resented it, and dealt with it the way he was taught, with pugnacity.

When there was an argument, it was often settled by fistfights in the front yard. "It was a blue-collar neighborhood with quite a few brawls, but it was all kids stuff" Ed says.

At East Leyden High School, Shanahan was more than a "try-hard" guy. He fought his way on to the varsity football though he weighed only 110 pounds. His father worried he would get himself seriously hurt. On the day he announced he'd made the freshman team, Ed just said, "Oh my God."

But Shanahan never really thought about the size factor. "You just kind of forget about it," he says. "You say, 'Hey, I got what I got, deal with it.' "

He became the best athlete in a school of 2,500 students, a quarterback and most valuable player. A scholarship was his only shot at college, since there wasn't enough money for tuition, but neither of his parents liked the idea, for different reasons. His mother thought he should settle down to a paying wage. "My Mom, she kept track of everything you spent, and everything you spent, you were responsible for," he says. "If I called home and it was three dollars, I had to pay."

Ed feared for his safety. He was still so light that his father said, "I'll gladly pay your way rather than see you play at your weight." But Mike replied, "Dad, I'm gonna play no matter what." He took the only full scholarship he was offered, at Division II Eastern Illinois. His father's fears were fulfilled. In the spring of 1974, his junior year, he was speared in the ribs in a scrimmage. Shanahan could barely breathe, but he finished the game.

At home, he urinated blood and began convulsively throwing up. At the emergency room, doctors at first couldn't find anything wrong - because they couldn't see his kidney, which had been shoved behind his spine. He passed out from the pain, his heart stopped beating for a half minute and he had to be revived with electric paddles. A priest administered last rites. But he rallied after surgery to remove his ruptured kidney. When he regained consciousness, his football coach, Jack Dean, told him he wouldn't play again.

Shanahan petitioned the school to let him back on the field, but was turned down. Instead he pursued a master's degree and worked as a student assistant on the team, with the idea of becoming a high school coach. "He was going to be content with being a PE teacher," says his son Kyle, the Redskins' offensive coordinator.

Instead, Shanahan found a job as a dormitory assistant and errand boy for the football staff at the University of Oklahoma, headed by a young coach named Barry Switzer, who appreciated a wishbone quarterback. Shanahan drove across the country and showed up at the football office, where he volunteered to do every odd job. He picked up recruits at the airport. He drew charts and broke down game film, any tedious task someone was happy to hand off.

"He was a minimum salary guy who lived in a dorm for free," Switzer says. "We'd say, 'Mike, go do this, go do that, get this done for us.' You learn that way, you pick up. We all start out as go-fers. Head coaches are made, they're not born."

Years later Shanahan advised his own son, when he too wanted to get into coaching: "I don't think you get jobs by calling people up. You get jobs by working hard at a place. You don't have to apply, if people know you do a good job. The word of mouth will get you jobs."

That was how it happened for Shanahan: Switzer noticed his diligence and assigned him to work with quarterbacks. When the 1975 national championship Oklahoma squad posed for its team photo, Switzer called him over and told him to get in the frame. "That was the day he felt like a coach," Kyle says. A year later, a coach named Joe Salem of Northern Arizona asked Switzer about the young assistant. Would he make a good offensive coordinator? "Hell yes," Switzer said.

Shanahan's new job came with a hitch: he had to cancel his honeymoon. He and his new wife Peggy were booked to go to Acapulco. Instead, the morning after they were wed in Illinois, they packed their car and drove to Flagstaff. In Springfield, Mo., they hit a windstorm and had to pull off the road. In Oklahoma City, they ran into a dust storm, and in Albuquerque, an ice storm. When they reached Flagstaff, it was covered by a foot of snow. At each stop, Peggy said, "Just think, we could be in Acapulco right now."

"That was the wakeup to coaching," she says. "I think I cried all the way." The odyssey was only beginning. They moved four times in the first four years of marriage, from Arizona back to Illinois, then to Minnesota and Florida. They moved again to Denver when he made the jump to NFL assistant in 1983.

Peggy became accustomed to the gypsying. "I thought it was fun," she says. Their two children, Kyle and Krystal, felt the same way, though by the time Kyle was 15, they had moved six times. The understanding in the family was that Shanahan's work was "a passion," he says.

The hop-scotching included a traumatically brief stay with the Oakland Raiders in 1988-1989, when Shanahan was fired by owner Al Davis four games into his second season as head coach. He went back to Denver in 1991 as offensive coordinator, only to get caught in the middle of a feud between then-head coach Dan Reeves and quarterback John Elway.

The constant moves exhausted his savings. Shanahan was so strapped for money that he had to ask for an advance on his Raiders salary to put a down payment on a house. "When you're 35 and still living week by week on your paycheck, money is obviously not your priority," he says.

"It probably made him stronger to go through something like that," Peggy says. "You win from negatives, too. It was funny. Sometimes when bad things happen, great things are right around the corner, and that's how Mike has always looked at it."

Shanahan landed with the San Francisco 49ers, at the time the greatest franchise in sports, and the place that finally shaped him into a winning head coach. Coach Bill Walsh and Vice President Carmen Policy had modeled the team on the most successful firms in Silicon Valley, and the franchise was the process of winning five Super Bowls in 15 years.

The 49ers taught him organization. Shanahan discovered that every offensive game plan they had used for years, with accompanying film, was neatly filed. He dived into the archives joyfully. The 49ers had met their match in Shanahan's work habits and attention to detail. Quarterback Steve Young nicknamed him "Mister Let's Do It Again," because he insisted on rehearsing a play until it was almost mechanistic. The result was a Super Bowl Trophy in 1994, with an MVP award for Young, and a head coaching offer for Shanahan from the Denver Broncos. He'd been an understudy for the last time.

Organizational skills

The philosophy Shanahan is implementing with the Redskins is essentially the same one he brought to Denver in 1995, when he took over a 7-9 team that was aging and weak on both sides of the ball, and transformed it into Super Bowl champions in just three seasons. The soaring success of the Broncos, and Shanahan's electrifying partnership with Hall of Fame quarterback Elway, earned him his reputation as an arch-strategist. But his teams were as bruising and disciplined as they were elegant. "I watched him in Denver, and it wasn't just X's and O's," Kyle says. "It was how to change the whole atmosphere in a building."

Shanahan's motto is, "Sweat the small stuff. . . . You do that, then the big things take care of themselves," he says.

The revitalization in Denver started with small things. He coordinated the clocks in the building and instituted a schedule of steep fines if players were even a minute late. The first time a player was tardy it cost him $200, then $400, then $800, then $1600, and $3200. "Sooner or later the players start coming in on time," he noted in "Think Like A Champion." Shirts had to be tucked in, even in practice, and hand towels had to be a certain length. Every play had to be conducted at top speed.

Slowly, the air in the locker room changed. Skepticism and complaints gave way to grudging optimism. "When people see that he's a man of his word, you start gaining respect," says former running back Terrell Davis. "He's demanding, but he's not asking for a lot. If you don't respect Mike, or don't like him, it's because you've never been held to a standard."

Shanahan cleansed the roster of the careless or apathetic, or players who simply didn't meet his level of meticulous commitment. He stocked it with players who were strikingly similar to the kind he had been himself, somewhat overlooked, not highly regarded, but who played as if their lives depended on the score. Draft status meant nothing: he cut wide receiver Mike Pritchard, a first-rounder in 1991, in order to hold on to guys like Rod Smith, who wasn't even drafted but seemed to know every position on the field as well as his own, and Ed McCaffrey, a wide receiver who had been cut by the New York Giants and a reserve with the 49ers.

"We thought of ourselves as football players rather than receivers, and Mike rewards players with that mentality," says McCaffrey, who made the Pro Bowl in 1998.

By that season, the Broncos didn't have a single first-round pick starting on offense other than Elway. "It was an 'if-you-build-it-they-will-come' thing," says defensive tackle Trevor Pryce, who earned time in Shanahan's doghouse but eventually became a Pro Bowler. "Those who remain will be champions."

Shanahan demanded from them, but he spoiled them, too. He catered breakfasts and lunches and hired masseuses to travel with them. He showed his appreciation with small comforts, like empty seats next to them on flights so they could stretch out. He gave each player his own room on the road, sparing them the irritation of roommates, and prepaid two free movies for them.

Between 1996 and 1998, the Broncos went 46-10 and set an NFL record for victories. But sometimes it was all a bit much. In 1999, he levied a heavy fine against Davis for missing a curfew on a road trip - even though Davis never left the hotel, and was on injured reserve with a season-ending knee injury. He'd made the trip just for moral support.

"Wow, Mike, you're taking this thing too far," Davis told Shanahan. Shanahan listened and eventually agreed to drop the price. But he still fined Davis.

"You kind of expect that," Davis says. "You know who you're dealing with."

In retrospect, the intensity Shanahan brought to those years was probably unsustainable. There are a lot of theories about why the Broncos went into a decline after 1999. Elway retired and Davis was unable to recover from his leg injuries. Shanahan, in control of personnel, never was able to find the talent he had early. The Broncos remained a reliably high-level team, making seven playoff appearances overall in Shanahan's tenure. But they won just one postseason game in 10 years, reaching the 2005 AFC championship game. When they collapsed to 8-8 in 2008 and failed to reach the playoffs for the third straight year, it cost him his job.

According to Shanahan, the slump was mainly due to a staggering run of injuries: he started 13 rookies and lost 16 players to injury in his last season, including seven running backs. But some complacency, personnel mistakes, and poor defense -- he relieved three different defensive coordinators -- may have had something to do with it. Davis theorizes that perhaps Shanahan became a little stale, his players a little sloppy. At 14 years, he was tied for the longest-tenured head coach in the NFL.

"This league, there is a shelf life for coaches," Davis says. "And when you hear the same things over and over and over and over, it's kind of hard. You say, 'Ahhhh we heard this before.' That definitely could have been the case." Nevertheless, the decision by Broncos owner Pat Bowlen to fire him was "shocking," Shanahan says. He thought he was set for life. He had begun construction on a 35,000-square-foot home that included a six-car garage, bowling alley and racquetball court. And he believed that if the Broncos could stay healthy, he could build a Super Bowl quality team again. "I felt so good about it," he says. "And that was why it was shocking. I was disappointed that I didn't get to fulfill that."

Still Shanahan was luckier than most coaches, he realized. He was well off, with three years remaining on a contract that was to pay him between $6.5 million and $7 million a season. He didn't have to rush to find a new job. He could afford to do something he never had before: take time off. He could sleep in, take Peggy on a family vacation to Mexico, catch up on his reading. He could see, for the first time since he was 14, what it was like not to work. It was hardly the worst fate.

"I think as you get older you get more mature and you walk in other peoples shoes more," he says. "When you're younger you're so focused on you, that you don't understand that, hey there's a world out there that has a lot going on, and they really don't care what I'm doing."

One afternoon not long after he was fired, Shanahan went to lunch with his friend Adam Schefter, the ESPN analyst who co-authored his book. "What are you going to do now?" Schefter asked him.

Shanahan looked as if he didn't know where to begin. For 30 years he had started work at 6 a.m. and not quit until 11 p.m. There was so much he wasn't current on, so many things to catch up on. Example: he had never sent a text message.

"I've got to learn the ways of the world," he said.

It was an awkward adjustment. With no job to go to, Shanahan turned his organizational skills toward home. Peggy says, "He kind of got in my space." Peggy had always handled the family finances, but now Shanahan wanted to take care of the bills. He wanted to know every single thing "he never asked a question about for 33 years." When Peggy would grab the car keys, he'd ask, 'Where are you going?" Then he'd suggest ways she could be more efficient with her errands. "I was like okay, that is enough," Peggy says. Pretty soon she was ready for him to go back to work.

Shanahan wasn't idle for long. He knew he would be back in the NFL in 2010, and soon was studying tape again. "I know he was watching players and breaking down film the entire time he was away,"' McCaffrey says. Over the summer he visited the Pittsburgh Steelers and New England Patriots training camps. He surveyed talent, considered which coaches he'd like to hire when he got a job again, mulled the 3-4 defense. By the time he accepted the Redskins position in January 2010, he had actually been working for several months.

"He went back to what made him what he is, studying football, X's and O's, and how to exploit defenses," Schefter says. "Mike's a meat and potatoes guy. That's who he is and that's what he eats when you go out with him. The world he stepped into, the riches and the success he's had, it's just a different world than what he came from. Work, that's all he's done."

The grinder is back on the job - and the Redskins need grinding. Shanahan has spent much of his time correcting dysfunctions in an organization that long emphasized highly paid stars over work ethic, and paid for it with mediocrity.

But Shanahan has always put in his hardest and best work when he has something to prove. It's worth noting that nine of the last 12 Super Bowls have been won by coaches who were fired by their previous team.

"Mike doesn't take failure easily," Pryce says. "One way or the other he'll be a success. Give him time and he'll get you there eventually."

jenkinss@washpost.com

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