SAN DIEGO -- Dan Reeves can laugh about it now, probably because his Denver Broncos teams have been to the Super Bowl the last two years and probably because he is among the most secure coaches in the NFL, despite being one of the least known.

But there wasn't too much funny about trying to get his foot in the door for a head coaching job for seven years, only to come up with bruised toes. Luckily for Reeves, his ego didn't bruise as easily.

There were several misses, when Reeves -- a lifelong Dallas Cowboy -- would get an interview but know in his heart he wouldn't be called in the end. There was the time he got caught in the crossfire of the feud between the New York Giants' bosses Wellington and Tim Mara; one Mara didn't want the other to know he had interviewed Reeves personally. Reeves wound up withdrawing his application that time and Ray Perkins wound up with the job.

So, when Reeves went to Denver one day in mid-March of 1981, he hoped for the best but wasn't getting himself all worked up about the scheduled interview with then-owner Edgar Kaiser.

But the strangest thing happened. "He just said, 'I want you to be my head coach. What will it take?' " Reeves recalled the other day. To say the least, Reeves was stunned. "He never asked me one question about the draft or my philosophies of offense or defense.

"The one year I was out of coaching, 1973, starving to death in the real estate business, I knew I wanted to be a coach. And from 1974 to 1981 I had a lot of interviews. And for the Denver job to come about so fast was just unbelievable.

"Kaiser told me something about a conversation he had with Fran Tarkenton, and Fran said that I was the man he wanted. I knew Fran, but I didn't know him especially and I don't think we ever really discussed it."

It was probably one of the hastiest moves in Denver Broncos history. And one of the wisest. Reeves' counterpart for Super Bowl XXII, Washington Redskins Coach Joe Gibbs, is deservedly being called one of the best coaches in the NFL, if not the best. Gibbs teams have been to the Super Bowl three times in the last six years.

So where does that leave Reeves, whose teams have been conference champions twice consecutively and have won 10 games or more four times, including the last three seasons?

"He may not get as much notice as some of the guys around the league, but he's a great, great coach," Gibbs said. "For a team to overcome {retirements and injuries} the way Denver has, he would have to be."

Tom Jackson, the ESPN analyst who played linebacker during Reeves' first six seasons at Denver before retiring last year, said, "I think Dan's lack of notoriety is reflective of the lack of notoriety, nationally, of the whole Denver team. But I think victory will make people want to know more about him, just as victory in 1986 made more people want to know about Mike Ditka and victory in 1987 made people want to know more about Bill Parcells. It will bring a very close inspection of him."

A close inspection of Reeves this season would show that he might have been the perfect coach for a Broncos team that suffered through major injuries to 13 key players.

Reeves, a quarterback at South Carolina and an all-purpose running back with the Cowboys for eight seasons (1966-1973), was often injured. He scored 42 touchdowns as a Cowboy, but his career was also bogged down by various ailments.

"I always had the feeling, as a player, that I would never ask a guy to play hurt," Reeves said last week, expanding on how he dealt with his Red Cross unit this season. "I certainly had my share of injuries, so I can relate to what happened. We have guys who wanted to play so bad, it hurt. I know that feeling. I had one in 1968 when I couldn't play in the playoffs. It's the most miserable feeling in the world."

Jackson said, "This season is exactly like his whole career. But he kept picking up the pieces and played on, and that's what he's expected of this team. He kept a balance of looking after the guys who were injured, but of never saying, 'Oh, we lost those guys, what are we going to do?' "

Also, Reeves does it without public attention. Ditka, one of Reeves' closest friends, spits, swears, screams in his players' faces and throws gum. Gibbs, another close friend, kneels on the sideline. Reeves just stands there.

Privately, there's not a lot of difference. "And our team responds well to that," linebacker Jim Ryan said. "He takes losing very seriously, and he's the most competitive man I ever met. But he's not going to yell and scream. He has a way of letting you know when he's not happy. He's very straight forward and never sugarcoats. But he doesn't create a scene."

It's a conscious effort. "I yell on the sidelines during the games," Reeves said. "That's because I was that way as a player -- I'd holler at myself. Officials I'll holler at because they make as many mistakes as I do. I try to be the type of coach who would treat me the way I'd like to be treated."

Louis Wright, the former all-pro cornerback who also retired after last season's Super Bowl loss to the Giants, is about the only Bronco, past or present, who has uttered an unflattering remark about Reeves. Wright, in a recent interview with the San Diego Union, criticized Reeves, saying there were some players who didn't like some of his methods, the length of his practices, and how he treated the players.

But the overwhelming sentiment in the Denver locker room is that Reeves is a player's coach. When asked why he came back to play so soon after suffering a broken arm, defensive back Dennis Smith said, "Because Dan Reeves is the kind of guy you'd like to come back and play for."

Reeves went back in time a bit and figured out he has been involved in 11 championship games as a player and coach. "And I can tell you more about the losses than the ones I won," he said. "I know exactly how we felt last year. It's certainly a feeling I don't want to recapture."

There's a little Knute Rockne in every football coach, even a man like Reeves. To illustrate his point about winning this Super Bowl, he lined up his championship rings (the Cowboys won two Super Bowls, one when Reeves was a player, the second when he was an assistant coach) at a team meeting before the AFC championship game against Cleveland.

"To me," he said, "it was saying {to the players}, 'You've got to win the game last week before you can go to the Super Bowl.' The money I won in those games is gone, but the memories aren't. You can't take a ring away." Special correspondent Susan Kelleher in Denver contributed to this story.