“This book that I’m looking at, that I’m reading out of, I got this my first coaching job — I think it was 1992, I was a running back coach at Texas A&M. Everybody who knows me knows that I carry this book with me to every meeting I’ve ever been to. And I used to joke with some of these coaches when this book falls apart I’m done, I’m out. Well, it tore this morning, it didn’t totally fall apart yet, but it tore this morning. Maybe it was a sign.” — Gary Kubiak
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — As much as John Elway is the Denver Broncos, so is Gary Kubiak. At the end of the 2016 season, both Elway and Kubiak had been apart of the organization for 22 seasons, dating back to the early 1980’s as fellow quarterbacks and ending as the general manager and head coach.
On Monday, Kubiak made his retirement from the Broncos official in an emotional press conference featuring he and his friend, Elway.
However, this wasn’t news to Elway. While the players, coaches and organization were told by Kubiak about his plans to step away from the team after the final game of the season, Elway was informed eight days before — the Saturday night before the Week 16 game against the Kansas City Chiefs.
Health concerns loomed all season long for Kubiak, and while he was certain of his decision, it was anything but easy for him to tell his boss, and friend, that it was time for him to retire. On Christmas Eve, when the team was settled into their hotel in Kansas City in preparation for their game against the Chiefs the next day, Kubiak called Elway to his room to deliver the news.
“It was very hard to have that conversation with him. I actually tried to get out of it,” Kubiak said on Monday. “I called it, and then I called him and said let’s do it tomorrow, and he said, ‘No, I’m coming up to your room,’ so we talked. He held me to it.”
Their relationship was a balance of professional and personal, but this time Kubiak needed to talk to a John Elway that was not his boss.
“He said, ‘I want to talk to you as a friend, not my boss,’” Elway explained. “And that’s how we talked. And when we talked about it as friends, I understand exactly why he’s doing what he’s doing. And it’s the right decision for Gary.”
At one point, for four seasons from 1995-98, Kubiak was actually Elway’s boss as the Broncos’ offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach. Although the roles were reversed in 2016, in terms of the power alignment, what made it manageable for Kubiak was the friendship that they have now had now for over 30 years.
“John said he talked to me as a friend the other night. Well, that’s why it was easy for me to talk to him,” Kubiak said. “We all have had our bosses that we have a hard time talking to, he’s my boss. When we sat down, we talked long into the night.”
While the conversation wasn’t easy, it did include time of reflection, specifically of how the two teamed up for one final run together two years ago.
“One of the things I remember telling him I said, ‘You know, two years ago I was in Baltimore, and I had made a decision to coach a few more years and be a coordinator, enjoy this,” Kubiak reflected. “And I said, ‘Dammit you picked up the phone and called me, why did you call me?’ But thank god he did, thank god he did. That ring will be special to me and what took place the past couple years.”
In the two years with Kubiak at the helm, and Elway running the front office, the Broncos had top-level success, winning 24 games, second most in the league in that time, and bringing the Lombardi Trophy back to the Mile High City for the third time in the organization’s history.
On Christmas Eve, while Elway wouldn’t let Kubiak reschedule their talk, he was hopeful that Kubiak would change his mind before the season ended.
“He tried to get out of it, and I wouldn’t let him get out of it,” Elway said. “We still had a week left and a lot of times after you make that commitment you kind of get a look at it from the other side to see how it looks. He was dead set that it was time for him to go to the next chapter in his life.”
That wasn’t what Elway wanted to hear. From a professional standpoint, he didn’t want to let Kubiak walk. However, from a friendship that has spanned 33 years, he listened. And that friendship was enough to see what was right for his employee.
“When he said I want to talk to you as a friend, Gary personally became the priority,” Elway said. “I can’t tell you how many times I thought about putting my boss hat back on and putting my selling process back in there and see what we can do to try and make it work, but Gary had been through this and thought of it and knew what was right for him.”
The situation had a familiar feel to it.
“When I retired, Mike [Shanahan] sent him out to try to convince me to come back, and I told him, ‘I’m done, don’t even start talking to me,” Elway said. “I tried one more time this morning [to convince him to stay], just to be honest with you, he put his hand up and said, ‘Remember when you did that to me?’
So on Monday, the two greeted the media for one final time as the head coach and general manager of the defending Super Bowl champions. They praised each other, both personally and professionally, before Kubiak gave his final goodbye to the organization, players and Broncos Country.
“I’ve had my routine for a long time, and I’ve always taken a lot of pride that I could coach a football team, be there for the players, be there for the coaches, be there for the organization, do a game plan, call some plays on Sunday,” Kubiak said. “I’ve always taken a lot of pride that I could do all of those things, but this year I haven’t been able to do that. It’s been tough.”
Kubiak didn’t disclose exactly what medical conditions didn’t allow him to fulfill his coaching obligations, but it was clear that the job had taken too significant of a toll on his body and health.
“For the first time I’ve had to tell myself, ‘Hey, you can’t do that anymore,” he said. “I’ve looked at a lot of things — how to do this different, how to do that different — but the bottom line, that’s the way I’m wired. And when I do something, that’s the way I’m going to go about it.”
Kubiak went about his business with the utmost respect for the position and organization, which ultimately was the reason that he needed to retire.
“It takes more time to separate from him than it would another coach because of what he’s meant to the organization,” team President Joe Ellis said.
After Kubiak had gone through the emotional thank you’s and goodbyes, Elway left him with one final message, from the organization, the city, his boss, and most importantly his friend.
“You’ll always be part of the family,” Elway said. “This is a sad, sad day because what Gary has meant to this organization and what he has meant to me… Gary will always be missed.”