Whenever the Broncos play the Chargers, my mind jumps all the way back to the beginnings of both teams as charter members of the American Football League in 1960.
Countless stories have been written about the early days, certainly many by me, but I thought this time we would take a glance at an often-overlooked part of Broncos-Chargers history, that being the Sid Gillman coaching tree.
It is very similar to a family tree, except that it shows the relationships of coaches instead of family members. One often hears the announcers on television refer to “coaching trees” in pro football, which means the lineage of present coaches can be traced back to a certain head coach for whom they previously worked as an assistant, and then back another generation of coaching, and so forth.
Sid Gillman was the first head coach of the Los Angeles Chargers and he is widely considered the father of the modern passing game in pro football.
The brilliance of Gillman is well documented.
He was a college head coach for a number of years before becoming head coach of the Los Angeles Rams from 1955-59, and then he became the head coach of the Chargers for the entirety of their years in the AFL, from 1960-69. Gillman is one of just three people who is in both the Pro Football Hall of Fame (inducted in 1983) and the College Football Hall of Fame (inducted in 1989) as a coach, with Greasy Neale and Jimmy Johnson being the others.
Gillman’s Chargers won the AFL championship in 1963, and I remember thinking then that they were certainly as exciting, and very likely as good as any team in the National Football League at that time.
The number of Super Bowls won by “descendants” of Gillman stands at 28, an astonishing total.
It includes Super Bowl 50, won by our very own Denver Broncos and coached by Gary Kubiak, who is part of the Gillman tree as a disciple of both Mike Shanahan and George Seifert, who worked for Bill Walsh, who was once employed by Al Davis, who was an offensive assistant under Gillman for three years.
Back when Gillman was coaching at San Diego and Don Coryell at San Diego State, Coryell would sometimes take his team to Chargers practices so they could watch how Gillman incorporated his passing game theories into his offense.
Of course, Coryell was a Gillman disciple, but his entire tree reads like a modern history of offensive football genius in the modern game.
Among the coaches who either got their start or earned their pedigree in part during their work for Gillman are fellow Pro Football Hall of Fame coaches Al Davis, George Allen, Coryell and Chuck Noll, as well as Bum Phillips, who may not be in the Hall of Fame but was still a very notable and successful coach.
Tom Flores is also a part of the tree as he played for Davis and coached for John Madden, and Flores not only is a 2020 selection (yet to receive the final vote, which seems certain) to the Hall of Fame.
Another coach in the tree who seems destined for the Hall of Fame, in my opinion, is Shanahan. Mike’s record as the Broncos’ head coach is the best in team history and will stand any test of time.
Also on that staff in San Francisco was Kubiak, who went on to be the Denver head coach who won Super Bowl 50.
Other Broncos coaches with ties to the Gillman tree are Jack Faulkner, the Broncos’ head coach who was named AFL Coach of the Year in 1962; John Fox, who was head coach here for four years and took Denver to Super Bowl XLVIII; Wade Phillips, who was head coach from 1993-94 and was defensive coordinator from 1989-92 and from 2015-16; as well as defensive coordinators Ray Rhodes and Jack Del Rio.
Of special note is that Jim Fassel also is from the Sid Gillman coaching tree. In addition to having been an offensive coordinator for the Broncos, Fassel recruited and coached John Elway at Stanford University.
Of course, Elway started five Super Bowls and is among just a handful of quarterbacks to win back-to-back world championships, and is still the only quarterback to later lead the same team to another world championship as general manager.
The above list is a “Who’s Who” of almost all of the head coaches who have had the greatest success thus far in Denver.
The football apple not only did not fall far from the Sid Gillman coaching tree, but in the case of the Denver Broncos, it helped to create an orchard of success in the Mile High City.