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Former Chiefs head coach Gunther Cunningham has died

Cunningham, who spent 11 total years in some capacity with the Chiefs, was 72.

Gunther Cunningham

Former Kansas City Chiefs head coach Gunther Cunningham has died.

Cunningham died over the weekend after a bout with cancer. He was 72.

An NFL coach for more than three decades, Cunningham had two coaching stints with the Chiefs. He served as defensive coordinator (and then head coach) from 1995 through 2000, and then returned as defensive coordinator from 2004 through 2008.

Born in Munich, Germany, just after World War II — his father an American serviceman and his mother a German citizen — Cunningham came to the United States at the age of 10. He spoke no English when he arrived and had to endure bullying from schoolmates over his German accent and heritage.

He found a passion in playing American football in Lompac, California, and won a scholarship to the University of Oregon, where he was a placekicker and linebacker under George Seifert, who would eventually win a Super Bowl with the San Francisco 49ers.

Gunther Cunningham

Seifert encouraged Cunningham to become a coach, and he took his first coaching job (as defensive line coach) with the Ducks in 1969. After stints with Arkansas, Stanford and California, he spent a year with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats of the CFL before taking his first NFL coaching job with the Baltimore Colts in 1982, when he followed head coach Frank Kush from Hamilton to Baltimore.

Starting in 1984, Cunningham spent 17 years coaching in the AFC West — first as a position coach for the San Diego Chargers and Los Angeles Raiders, and then becoming defensive coordinator of the Chiefs in 1995. Through 1998, Cunningham’s defenses allowed an NFL-best 16.4 points per game. When Marty Schottenheimer resigned as head coach after the 1998 season, Cunningham was named head coach.

Cunningham remained head coach for two seasons, compiling a record of 16-16. But Chiefs general manager Carl Peterson — despite expressing public confidence in Cunningham — felt the Chiefs could do better. He coaxed Super Bowl-winning head coach Dick Vermeil out of retirement to take over the team after the 2000 season.

The famously short-tempered Cunningham heard of his dismissal not from Peterson himself, but from news reports. In 2001, an Arrowhead source told me that when he heard the news, Cunningham punched a hole in the hallway wall outside the stadium’s coaching offices.

Cunningham spent three seasons as linebackers coach of the Tennessee Titans under head coach Jeff Fisher before being asked to return the Chiefs as defensive coordinator in 2004, after three years of poor defensive performances under Vermeil’s first defensive coordinator Greg Robinson.

Vermeil told the Lawrence Journal-World that Cunningham was his first choice to replace Robinson and that he worked hard to make Cunningham’s return easy on him.

“He’s only human,” Vermeil said. “I think it takes a heck of a man to respond like he did, to accept an opportunity to come back and not be over-sensitive about it. It also shows the organization has a lot of respect for him.”

It took some time, but Cunningham eventually restored the Chiefs defense to respectability, if not greatness; the team ranked 11th in points allowed in 2006. And the players were happy to have “Gun” back.

“He’ll scream at you, but for a reason,” Eric Hicks told the Journal-World. “There’s definitely sincerity there. When he’s cussing you he really means it. But when he’s putting his arm around you, he means that, too.”

“This is about coaching players,” Cunningham said upon his return to Kansas City. “That’s what I am, a football coach. I’m glad that I’m back. I missed this place, and I missed these people.”

But by 2008 under head coach Herm Edwards, the Chiefs defense had again fallen to near the bottom of the league, and the team finished the season 2-14. The front office and coaching staff were all turned over, and Cunningham moved on to become defensive coordinator of the Detroit Lions, in which capacity he would serve for five seasons before becoming a senior defensive assistant there from 2014 through 2016.

It was during this time with the Lions that Cunningham would begin to see the value of advanced analytics. He told ESPN that it was Lions staff counsel Jon Dykema introduced him to the data compiled by analytics site Pro Football Focus, and he became a believer in its approach.

That created a relationship with Hornsby that turned into a close friendship and now, a partnership as PFF’s new director of football oversight. But what makes a man at age 70 take on something new? What makes him leave the part of his life that he knew for so long to head to something familiar yet unknown?

”I kept working and working and trying to do as good a job as I could, but I felt that [the Lions] had hired a bunch of people and set up a system and that my value wasn’t what I wanted it to be, although there was tremendous respect from Bob Quinn and Jim Caldwell and all of them,” Cunningham told ESPN. “But I wasn’t very satisfied with it. So I was looking to do something. I wanted more of a challenge.”

”I’m an NFLer for life — that’s the best way I can say it,” Cunningham told ESPN. “Until they put me in the ground, I’ll still be a part of the NFL. I’ll never be separated from that life, and I think PFF was the closest thing that I could find that would keep me involved in the NFL.”

As it turned out, the tough coach with the yellow-tinted aviator glasses was right.

Cunningham is survived by his wife Rene’ Michel — with whom he would have celebrated his 50th anniversary next month — and by his son Adam, daughter Natalie Firman, her husband Lee and their son Grant.

Chiefs owner Clark Hunt issues a statement on the passing of Gunther Cunningham

HUNT: “My family and I are deeply saddened to hear the news of Gunther’s passing. During his nine seasons as defensive coordinator and two as head coach of the Kansas City Chiefs, he led some of the most feared defenses in our franchise’s history with his energetic and motivating coaching style. Gunther made a tremendous impact on so many lives on and off the playing field in nearly five decades of coaching. Our heartfelt condolences go out to René, Natalie, Adam and the entire Cunningham family during this difficult time.”

Twitter reacts to the passing of Gunther Cunningham

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