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Broncos coach traces roots to father and Belichick

ARNIE STAPLETON
AP Sports Writer
Denver Broncos head coach Josh McDaniels directs players during a practice session at the team's NFL football headquarters in Englewood, Colo., on Wednesday, Sept. 9, 2009, (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)
AP | AP

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. – Spot the gray hoodie on the sideline and there’s no doubt Josh McDaniels is Bill Belichick’s latest disciple.

The Denver Broncos’ new 33-year-old coach acts a lot like his mentor, too, from his secretive approach to injuries to his personnel philosophies and play-calling principles.

He’s no Bill Belichick Mini Me, though.



McDaniels honed his coaching skills under the tutelage of the Patriots’ professor. But he traces his real roots not to New England but to Ohio, where he learned at the knee of his father, Thom McDaniels, who was the head football coach at powerhouse McKinley High School in Canton.

“I would say my teaching and coaching style and my demeanor are very similar to my father’s. I got to witness him for a long time while I was growing up,” McDaniels said. “And most of my philosophies on trying to win in this league come from Bill.



“The way I coach, the way I teach, the way I interact with players is probably a little bit more like my father. And then what I believe in, in terms of being successful at this level, came from Bill Belichick.”

Denver defensive lineman Kenny Peterson, who played for McDaniels’ father in high school, said he often has flashbacks when listening to McDaniels talk in a team meeting or when he sees him twirling his whistle on the football field just like his dad.

Their approaches are similar, too: “They’re both very methodical and meticulous. They want things done the right way and they want to win with good people,” Peterson said. “Thom, that’s his foundation. But Belichick made him an NFL coach.”



McDaniels, who tutored Tom Brady in New England, was plucked from Belichick’s staff by Broncos owner Pat Bowlen to rejuvenate a Broncos team that won just one playoff game under Mike Shanahan in the decade since John Elway retired.

McDaniels enters the opener Sunday at Cincinnati – his first game as a head coach at any level – with most observers predicting a very difficult debut season. After all, he chased off his franchise quarterback before the nameplate on his office door even got dusty, trading Pro Bowl passer Jay Cutler to Chicago for Kyle Orton and draft picks on April 2.

Pro Bowl receiver Brandon Marshall asked for his own ticket out of town, but McDaniels balked. Although Marshall was a pain in McDaniels’ side all offseason, he’s been the picture of professionalism since returning from his suspension this week for throwing a temper tantrum at practice last month.

Through it all, the mild-mannered McDaniels has never shown any sweat over the feuds in his new family or the condemnation that comes from making brash moves as the Broncos’ new boss.

“When you’re dealing with an organization of this magnitude, you’ve got a lot of players, a lot of coaches, a lot of responsibility on your hands. So, you expect to have to handle a lot of things,” McDaniels said. “I think the fact that you expect it allows you to handle them on an even keel.”

McDaniels’ father said that tough skin comes from being the son of a high school coach where football is king.

“He was the kid that knew that his dad had death threats because we didn’t win enough or we didn’t win by enough,” Thom McDaniels said. “The thing that I’m proudest of is his toughness. He is a tough kid.”

Long before he played for his father, McDaniels was the target of disgruntled fans and death threats himself.

“There for a while there were sheriff’s cruisers following the bus to school because they said they knew which bus my kids rode,” Thom McDaniels recalled. “Nothing came from it, thank goodness. Sometimes threats are just that, they’re threats.”

Still, McDaniels said he felt like he grew up fast in that environment, especially because he was tagging along with his father to two-a-days as a toddler, long before becoming his quarterback.

“Mental and physical toughness was something you’d better have had playing in the city we played in, playing for our dad,” McDaniels said. “In Canton, if you’re not at the top of the mountain, it’s never good enough.”

McDaniels played wide receiver at John Carroll University, where he majored in math and learned critical thinking.

“My last two years I didn’t have one number, not one,” McDaniels said. “It was all theorems and proofs and how do you think through this process. It teaches you how to problem solve, how to think, how to find another way to an answer. People tell me, ‘Well, you’re not using your major.’ I think I use it every day.”

Majoring in math also sharpened his already low tolerance for ambiguity.

“If I look out there and it’s not done exactly the way that I’ve described it in the team meeting or the quarterback room, I get very quickly upset,” McDaniels said. “I think that’s the way you have to be with your team if you want them to demand that level of precision in themselves. If it’s a lineman who steps with the wrong foot or if it’s a back that just missed the hole, whatever it is, it’s not precise enough.

“And this game is about precision and if you’re not going to be a precise football team, you’re going to make way too many mistakes, and mistakes get you beat.”

Even during their short association, Cutler saw that meticulous attention to detail that he suggests will make McDaniels a winner in the NFL regardless of who’s under center.

“Just the brief amount of time I was able to spend with him, he’s impressive,” Cutler said. “He knows a lot about offenses, he knows a lot about getting guys open and scoring points, as everyone’s seen when he was in New England, so I think they’re going to be fine.”

McDaniels also has the hearty endorsement of Brady, who texts his former offensive coordinator and position coach all the time.

“I told him I liked his hoodie he was wearing,” Brady said. “He said it was in honor of where he came from. He had been a great coach here and he moved on for a great opportunity with a great organization.

“Like most guys, when you learn under the best coach probably in the history of the NFL, you’re taking a lot of knowledge with you, and he has a great kind of base where he’s coming from. I have no doubt he’s going to be a great coach – except for the game he plays us this year.”

Thom McDaniels was 33 when he coached his first high school game, and he laughs now thinking about his son doing the same in the NFL. Still, he said Josh being the sixth-youngest head coach in the league’s history is irrelevant because he grew up with high expectations, played for a successful Division III college program, and coached for both Nick Saban at Michigan State and Belichick.

“So, I think the quality of a person’s experience matters far much more than how many years a person has accumulated.”

Thom McDaniels said his son’s competitive nature was honed by growing up as the middle of three brothers, who, along with their father, turned even family vacations and trips to church into a competition – seeing who could spot the Gulf of Mexico first or shake the most hands during the sign of peace at Sunday services.

“If you didn’t reach double digits, you weren’t trying,” laughed Ben McDaniels, his younger brother and coaching assistant.

McDaniels acknowledges he doesn’t have the luxury of patience like other rookie head coaches might. Broncos fans are eager to see if letting Shanahan and Cutler go were magnificent mistakes or the flint for the rebirth of a foundering franchise.

“I never even considered a honeymoon,” McDaniels said. “I can’t stand losing. I don’t think about losing. I just think about finding ways to win with whatever we have to win with.”


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