Schottenheimer Soldier Finally Getting Salutes


His daughter, he said, noticed it first: “Dad, your name is everywhere around the country.”

Of course, it is, Gunther Cunningham, Kansas City Chief defensive coordinator, said with a sarcastic sniff, “it’s supposed to be because we’re playing well and winning.

“But do you notice anything different with your dad?”

And his daughter laughed. “No, you haven’t shaved in four days and you’re always tired.”

For more than 16 years, a scruffy, feisty Gunther Cunningham has always been tired, longer if you consider the endless evenings coaching in the Canadian Football League and college ranks as well as the NFL.


But now that his defensive unit is among the best in the NFL, giving Coach Marty Schottenheimer his best chance to snap a playoff and John Elway jinx and advance to the Super Bowl, the football world has taken notice of Cunningham’s skill.

Sixteen years of hard work, and now because 11 of his defensive players are enjoying collectively the best years of their careers, Gunther Cunningham’s name is gaining recognition and even prominent mention as a potential head coach in the NFL.

“Politics is the biggest thing about the profession now, and it stinks,” said Cunningham, one of the NFL’s great no-nonsense assistant coaches. “It’s not a game about guys with passion and love for the game, but who’s doing well right now, and who’s the best political animal.

“There are so many great coaches out there, getting the most out of average players, and nobody knows how good they are. People that win get recognized. . . . It’s just a sad commentary.”

Cunningham, a devoted foot soldier who has the ability to convince his charges to fall on the hand grenade for the good of the team, has worked with the Colts, Chargers, Raiders and now the Chiefs. And at every stop, he has left behind a legacy of success built on the premise that defensive linemen are born to dismantle the quarterback.

His dynamic defensive line in San Diego, which included two of the game’s best pass rushers in Lee Williams and Leslie O’Neal, helped the overall defense climb from No. 29 to No. 3 before his departure, then returning to No. 27.


He went to work for the Raiders, an ardent admirer of Al Davis, helped the Raiders dominate on defense, and then left, unwilling to compromise and no longer able to work for a meddlesome Davis. And look what has happened to the Raiders’ defense and its underachieving defensive line.

“He was trying to tell me how I should coach, and while I still respect Al Davis very much, I was the guy living 24 hours with that group and had my own ideas,” Cunningham said. “With Marty Schottenheimer, it’s different. He puts his faith in you and lets you do it, and my job then is to pay him back by doing the job.”

Under Cunningham’s tutelage in Kansas City, the Chiefs have become the only team in NFL history to go 10 consecutive games without giving up a second-half touchdown. More than that, Cunningham’s defense rose to the occasion at a time when the team lost starting quarterback Elvis Grbac and had to win without an offense capable of scoring, and did so despite its own major overhaul.

The Chiefs lost the great pass rusher, Neil Smith, to Denver, did not have Derrick Thomas because of an injury for a good portion of the early season, started Denver reject Dan Williams at defensive end, picked up Green Bay outcast Wayne Simmons at linebacker, started two inexperienced safeties in Reggie Tongue and Jerome Woods and completely revamped the style of attack.

“I almost had a heart attack with all the changes,” Cunningham said, “but you know what, Marty Schottenheimer is looking at myself in the mirror. Once he made up his mind that we were going to change, there was no stopping him. His comment to me was, ‘We’re going to take our lumps, but we’re going to build it the way we want.’ ”

Cunningham’s retooled defense takes on Elway and the Broncos on Sunday in a much-anticipated confrontation. Seldom has he gone to battle with the superior talent, but in 24 confrontations with Elway, while working for the Chargers, Raiders and Chiefs, Cunningham has emerged victorious 13 times.


“You gotta be kidding,” Cunningham growled. “That’s all? The battles I’ve had with the son of a gun, gosh darn it, they’ve been good ones.”

Football for Cunningham is personal, and getting to the quarterback in vicious fashion means everything. Four years ago, his Raiders sacked Elway seven times--the most he has ever been sacked in a game. Cunningham’s defenses have sacked Elway 63 times, pounding him, beating him and leaving every time with that much more respect.

“I love the guy and respect John Elway so much,” Cunningham said. “I almost think of him as family, and the day he gets in the Hall of Fame I will reflect back on our great battles, and for me it will be a very personal moment.

“The guy is so tough, and I don’t know if the new breed is as tough as John’s class of quarterbacks. I was talking to Phil Simms about it; there are only three or four guys that remind me of the toughness I knew and saw in Dan Fouts, and both Simms and Elway have it.

“When I see a magazine of a quarterback in action, I look for the facial shot and the eyes. My whole thing is teaching the defense to get after the quarterback, and you can see the fear in some quarterbacks, just like wide receivers who don’t want to go across the middle. But this guy’s eyes are those of a warrior, who will battle you until the very end. That’s what I love about this game, a chance to go up against a guy like this, and this one’s going to be a championship event.”

Cunningham coached at California when Elway began making a name for himself at Stanford, and was with Baltimore when Elway spurned the Colts, forcing the trade that sent him to Denver, where he has become as big as the Rocky Mountains.


“You know there’s a certain reputation I enjoy: ‘Gun doesn’t like many people.’ But the ones I do, well, among them are some of the great ones, like John Elway. I thrive on being around people like John Elway, who have the passion to win, and who will never give it up until it’s all over.”

Elway, who has successfully ended it all for Schottenheimer in two previous playoff clashes while Schottenheimer was with the Cleveland Browns, will be out to smash his dreams again, but matched this time against a highly motivated Cunningham hellbent on getting Schottenheimer his due.

“I feel for Marty, but he talked to us about it today and he’s excited about this shot and he is handling himself so well,” Cunningham said. “Anyone else and the pressure would show, but this man is extraordinary, and I want to win for him.”

And if the Chiefs do win, it will probably be because of their defense, catapulting Cunningham, working as hard as he always has, into the spotlight as a potential head coach somewhere in this league.

“It’s something I’ve always been interested in but never worried about,” Cunningham said. “Right now, I’m more interested in getting after Elway like there’s no tomorrow, and then shaking his hand when it’s over and telling him how much I admire his toughness. Now that’s what this game is all about.”