How did Kyle Shanahan become one of NFL's top minds? Let his father chart 49ers coach's rise

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LAS VEGAS – There's no sudden urge for Mike Shanahan to offer his son any grand, unsolicited advice this weekend that might help him get over the hump in Super Bowl 58. Kyle Shanahan has absorbed lessons from his father over the course of a lifetime.

"Kyle's been through enough experiences with me where he's watched me and how I reacted," Mike, who led the Denver Broncos to back-to-back Super Bowl triumphs during his son's high school years, told USA TODAY Sports after arriving in town on Thursday.

As a 15-year-old, Kyle saw his father reach the top of the NFL mountain for the first time to cap the 1994 season when Mike coordinated the explosive San Francisco 49ers offense that buried the San Diego Chargers in Super Bowl 29. Good memories, for sure.

And look at him now. Kyle, 44, is the 49ers coach aiming to deliver the franchise's first Super Bowl crown since his father's final year with the team, along with a milestone for the ages. With a 49ers victory against the Kansas City Chiefs on Sunday, the Shanahans would create another sterling memory and become the first father-son duo to coach Super Bowl winners.

Yet Kyle knows the flip side, too. He was there during the 1980s when his father lost three Super Bowls as the Broncos offensive coordinator, including the latter instance when they were drubbed 55-10 by the Joe Montana-armed 49ers.

"We got embarrassed, just got our asses kicked," Mike recalled of Super Bowl 24. "It was so humbling."

The moments came flashing back for the elder Shanahan, 71, as he related to his son's present challenge while Super Bowl 58 loomed. The lessons have come wrapped in triumph, agony and with so much in between.

It's striking that Kyle is in a spot similar to Mike's arc, having to taste two Super Bowl setbacks – he was the offensive coordinator for the Atlanta Falcons team that blew a 28-3 lead in losing Super Bowl 51, then squandered a 10-point lead on the way to falling to Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs in Super Bowl 54 – before potentially achieving championship glory.

"The one thing about coaching is that you've got to keep fighting," Mike said. "You've got to get to the dance, and then at least you've got a chance to win the prize. So, you just do everything you can to prepare to win it, and eventually it will happen."

As his son, widely considered as one of the NFL's sharpest offensive minds, prepared to dance in a coaching matchup against the venerable Andy Reid, Shanahan shared some moments from Kyle's journey from a father's perspective.

49ers training camp, 1992

After Mike Shanahan replaced Mike Holmgren to run San Francisco's offense under coach George Seifert, he wasn't sure about how the housing situation would work with Kyle coming along to the steamy training camp in Rocklin, California. The 49ers coaches and players stayed in dormitory rooms at Sierra College.

"I can't have Kyle in here," Shanahan told his roommate, offensive line guru Bobb McKittrick.

He remembers McKittrick's response as follows: "What do you mean? Your son's in for a learning experience up here in Rocklin."

Settled. Kyle was a fixture (and added roommate) for three 49ers training camps.

"Just being in that environment in camp, and to be able to hang around – especially with the great 49ers who were around – he got a chance to develop relationships and watch practice," Shanahan said. "I just thought that was a great opportunity for him at a young age to sit back and watch how people did things as players, as well as coaches."

Broncos headquarters, 1995

When Shanahan became the Broncos coach, Kyle was developing as a wide receiver at Cherry Creek High School. Earlier this week, Kyle, who played a year at Duke before transferring to Texas, recalled how he learned so much about playing the position from Broncos standouts Rod Smith and Ed McCaffrey (whose son Christian is now a major cog in Kyle's offense as the freshly minted NFL Offensive Player of the Year).

One day, Kyle worked out by running one-on-one routes against Broncos defensive backs.

"All of a sudden, the (unidentified) safety just gives him a shot right to the head when Kyle was trying to release," Shanahan said. "He got him pretty good. His face, you couldn't tell it was him, he was bleeding so much."

Shanahan sent his son to the get treated by an athletic trainer – and instructed him to return to the field ASAP.

"This is a time when the players are going to see just how tough you are," he told Kyle. "You'd better be right back out here or you'll lose all respect."

His father knew why it got so physical. Pro players were not about to get shown up by some high school kid.

"It was so cool when he came back in 10 minutes and finished up the one-on-ones like nothing ever happened," Shanahan said. "Those are the lessons you learn along the way."

Shanahan also remembers the night after the episode on the practice field. Kyle went to a high school dance.

"You couldn't even tell it was Kyle," Shanahan said. "That's how screwed up his face looked."

The mid-2000s through 2010

As Kyle embarked on his coaching career, Mike knew that his son needed to make a name on his own.

"All you heard was nepotism," Shanahan said.

Kyle certainly benefitted from connections that flowed through his father. He landed his first coaching job in 2003 as a graduate assistant at UCLA under coach Karl Dorrell, who was previously his father's receivers coach with the Broncos. A year later, he was in the NFL as a quality control coach for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Then he wound up with the Houston Texans in 2006 on the staff of Gary Kubiak, who had a long history with Mike as a backup quarterback, position coach and coordinator.

As Kyle climbed the ladder, Mike gave him some conditions: "I'm not ever going to hire you unless you're a coordinator, you are calling the plays and you're in the top five in points or yardage, or both. I can't hire you unless you prove yourself."

Kubiak afforded such an opportunity. When Mike, who left the Broncos after 14 seasons, became Washington's coach in 2010, he included Kyle on his staff for the first time as coordinator – with the conditions met.

But the elder Shanahan was still unsure about something: How does he handle the room?

"I knew the success that he had, but I didn't know that," Shanahan said. "I found out the first week on the job with him. I said, 'Oh, my God, he's very confident in the room.' He could handle it. And the players respected him."

The four-year stint together in Washington was rocky. After a high point in 2012, when they won a division title with rookie quarterback Robert Griffin III, the bottom fell out the next year. Griffin's torn ACL and then-owner Dan Snyder were just two of the issues. It was the end of Mike's coaching career but a springboard for Kyle.

Super Bowl 58

Head coach Kyle Shanahan of the San Francisco 49ers looks on during the third quarter against the Detroit Lions in the NFC Championship Game at Levi's Stadium on January 28, 2024 in Santa Clara, California.
Head coach Kyle Shanahan of the San Francisco 49ers looks on during the third quarter against the Detroit Lions in the NFC Championship Game at Levi's Stadium on January 28, 2024 in Santa Clara, California.

Kyle, who became 49ers coach in 2017, has surely made a name for himself now. He led San Francisco to a Super Bowl berth in his third season and, before getting back to the big stage, advanced to three straight NFC title games. Mike said his son doesn't ask for advice very often, but it happens. And the father still stays plugged in, even to the point where he watches team meetings that are streamed and recorded – a coaching tactic that Mike began employing during his Broncos tenure, with roots traced to the training tapes that legendary coach Bill Walsh left behind.

Kyle knows. His father is a tremendous resource – like always.

"When he does ask me questions, I want to have watched enough tape that I can at least answer the question or at least have a good chance to," Mike said. "If it's an in-depth question about personnel or something, that I give him an answer that's not just a B.S. answer, that I've watched enough tape that he's getting an honest answer."

Which is another indication of the connection that exists with one of the NFL's most accomplished father-son coaching duos ever.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Kyle Shanahan's rise as NFL coaching great began with his father