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Remembering the Gunther Cunningham I knew

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Remembering a coach whose Kansas City legacy isn’t just about what was, but what could have been

New York Jets v Kansas City Chiefs Photo by Brian Bahr/Getty Images

It just wasn’t enough.

When the news came through Monday that former Kansas City Chiefs head coach Gunther Cunningham had died at the age of 72, Pete asked if I’d write it up. As the oldest member of the Arrowhead Pride staff, this is a duty that usually falls to me; I’m the guy who remembers the most about aging NFL notables.

But it just wasn’t enough to sketch the broad picture of the man’s life. Cunningham was only the head coach of the Chiefs for two seasons, but his legacy goes far beyond that.

And I knew him pretty well.

In the mid-1990s, my game-day responsibilities at Arrowhead including getting guests for a local postgame radio show. That meant patrolling the locker room and asking players if they would spare a few minutes to appear on the show. That meant donning a set of headphones at a little remote rig we had set up at the end of a hallway outside the auditorium in the bowels of Arrowhead and talking to the show hosts elsewhere in the city — usually at a sports bar.

It wasn’t always easy. Players were often in a hurry to get home after a game — especially after a loss. A game’s standout players were often snagged for national shows before I could get to them. But after one game, I spotted Cunningham walking through the locker room and took a flier: would he be interested in appearing? He agreed.

By that time, he’d already been a coach in the league for a dozen years — most of them in the AFC West — and could speak with authority about not only the Chiefs, but also about the players they faced. As the leader of the Chiefs defense that was the face of the franchise, he was a great choice to speak about what had happened in the game.

Such a thing wouldn’t happen today. Access to players and coaches — particularly coordinators — is much more tightly controlled by NFL teams.

But Gun was an immediate hit with the hosts and the listeners, and he appeared on the show again and again. He was not only knowledgeable and articulate, but also very funny; he enjoyed being ribbed about his well-known temper, and gave as good as he got. The show hosts would often bait him into getting himself worked up in a frenzy, but I could see the twinkle in his eye. He was having a blast.

I loved the guy. And so did his players.

So I was thrilled when he was tapped to become head coach after Marty Schottenheimer’s departure. But I knew he was tightly wound. We always hear about NFL head coaches who are the first to arrive and the last to leave each day. I knew Gun would take it to another level — and he did. During the season, he often slept on a cot in his office. Stories began appearing about how he was physically and emotionally exhausted from the extra responsibility as head coach.

That’s a dual-edged sword. As fans, we want to know that the head coach is dedicated to the success of the franchise, so on one level, we welcome that. But on another, we understand that it can be taken too far.

And then came the death of Chiefs linebacker Derrick Thomas.

Thomas had always been a bit of a thorn in Schottenheimer’s side. The most talented linebacker of his generation, he was unquestionably the most valuable player on the defense, but he often bristled under Schottenheimer’s discipline. When he arrived in 1995, Gun took another approach with Thomas, designating him as the Falcon — essentially designing the defense around him and giving him the freedom to make the plays he saw in front of him.

After Thomas’ death from injuries suffered in an automobile accident in January 2000, Chiefs general manager Carl Peterson liked to characterize his relationship with Thomas as that of a father and son. I won’t question Peterson’s feelings about Thomas, but I can tell you that no one felt Thomas’ death more strongly than Cunningham did; on Monday, I wasn’t a bit surprised to learn this tidbit about him from an ESPN article about being hired by Pro Football Focus in 2017.

The change left Cunningham in a period of transition. He thought he might work from his home. That was vetoed by his family. He already spends a lot of time in his basement, working out daily in his gym and logging hours in the space his wife once suggested looked like a shrine to late Chiefs linebacker Derrick Thomas.

Gun dedicated the opening game of the 2000 season to Thomas’ memory — Thomas’ locker was already covered in clear Plexiglas just as he’d left it, and it would remain that way for the whole season — and when the Chiefs lost the opener to the Indianapolis Colts 27-14, Gun was devastated.

Broncos v Chiefs X Cunningham

To my eye, he was never the same after that.

Peterson continued to express confidence in Cunningham throughout the year, so it was a surprise when he revealed he had convinced his old Philadelphia Eagles comrade Dick Vermeil to come out of retirement and become Chiefs head coach for the 2001 season — something he hadn’t bothered to tell Cunningham.

Those of us who knew Gun understood part of what drove Peterson’s decision.

Still, I have always believed that Peterson’s greatest mistake as Chiefs GM was failing to understand Cunningham’s connection with the franchise — a connection he clearly expressed in a quote I gave you in Monday’s obituary:

“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.”

Gun was a proud man, so it would have been reasonable to think he wouldn’t have accepted being demoted to defensive coordinator. But I also believe Gun thought he had found a home in Kansas City — and if properly approached and given the time to consider it, would have welcomed the opportunity to go back to doing what he knew he did best.

It’s certainly not hard to imagine that if Cunningham had remained with the team, the Chiefs’ loss to the Colts in 2003’s infamous no-punt playoff game would never have happened.

As it is, Cunningham’s NFL legacy is worth celebrating. Two of the most dominant defensive players of his era — Thomas and Oakland Raiders defensive tackle Howie Long — owe much of their presence in the Pro Football Hall of Fame to him. San Diego Chargers defensive end Leslie O’Neal and Chiefs players like Neil Smith, Dan Saleaumua, Donnie Edwards, Dale Carter and James Hasty all flourished under his coaching.

But his legacy with the Chiefs — where he spent a third of his long career — is more than just what it was. It is more properly remembered for what it could have been.

Farewell, Gun.