Kyle Shanahan ready to step out of dad’s shadows, into 49ers spotlight

Sep 06, 2017 | by Cam Inman,

Once upon a time, Kyle Shanahan checked off a bucket-list item by coaching in the NFL with his dad.

Those were trying times in Washington. The father-son act became as sensationalized as almost any White House scandal, souring Mike’s third tour as a head coach and Kyle’s reputation as an up-and-coming offensive coordinator.

There will be no sequel to “Keeping Up With The Shanahans” as the 49ers launch a new era with Kyle Shanahan as a first-time, well-groomed head coach.

“I’m very close with my dad,” Kyle said, “but after Washington, I got a little insecure about perception. I just hated an ‘S’ being added to my last name.

“I felt I worked real hard. I felt I was good. And I just got sick of the perception.”

Nepotism, after all, is hardly rare in the NFL. Father-son bonds open doors from ownership level on down to those coaching and playing. The 49ers can attest to that.

And once upon a time — but not this past go-round — the 49ers and York-family ownership considered hiring father and son Shanahan as a coach and coach-in-waiting.

Instead, Jim Tomsula and Chip Kelly took one-year cracks at replacing Jim Harbaugh, and now it’s 37-year-old Kyle Shanahan’s task to oversee the franchise’s rebuild.

Unlike Washington from 2010-13, only one Shanahan will be in the staff directory.

Kyle’s qualifications go beyond his surname. Both he and his dad are quick to recite where Kyle has spent the past nine seasons proving himself as an offensive coordinator: Houston, Washington, Cleveland and Atlanta.

“(Kyle) had a big challenge because his dad was kind of a big deal in this league,” 49ers general manager John Lynch said. “Kyle, to me, he’s a guy who soaked in all the knowledge and experience of being a coach’s son, but then went out and did it on his own and has become his own man.”

Lynch is Kyle’s hand-picked general manager, a former All-Pro safety who capped his career on Mike Shanahan’s Denver Broncos from 2004-07.

“It was a perfect marriage when John and Kyle got together, and it will pay dividends for a lot of years,” said Mike Shanahan, 65.

Mike made his head-coaching debut with the Raiders at age 36, a year younger than Kyle now. Dismissed by Al Davis four games into his second season in 1989, Mike’s head-coaching days resumed with the Denver Broncos (1995-2008) and then Washington. He totaled 170 wins (tied for 14th-most in NFL history) and claimed back-to-back Super Bowl titles (1997-98 seasons).

“Mike Shanahan is a good coach to follow after,” wide receiver Pierre Garçon said. “If they say you’re kind of like your dad, it’s not the worst thing in the world.”

Garçon is one of four additions to the 49ers roster who played under the Shanahans in Washington, the others being running back Tim Hightower, wide receiver Aldrick Robinson and tight end Logan Paulsen.

An obvious question to them: “Like father, like son?”

“They have very similar approaches,” Paulsen said. “When it’s time to work, they want you to work. When it’s time to hit, they want you to hit. If you meet those expectations, then you’re going to be alright with them.”

Hightower agreed, saying neither Shanahan compromised when it came to players’ fundamentals and techniques.

“Kyle has evolved,” Hightower added. “He’s got music before the meetings. I don’t remember that with Mike. … Kyle has found a way to understand the psyche of the next generation of players and connect with them on their level a little differently.”

Kyle Shanahan was a teenager when he spent three summers in Rocklin at the 49ers training camp, serving as the offensive line’s ball boy while his dad was offensive coordinator. That star-studded unit won the franchise’s last Super Bowl 22 years ago.

Kyle slept on a rollout bed in his dad’s room, and he had late-night ping pong games with players such as Super Bowl XXIII hero John Taylor. But he also learned football under his father and offensive line coach Bobb McKittrick.

“He’s been a part of it his whole life, even in San Francisco, just being (at camp) with me and Bobb McKittrick,” Mike said. “What a great guy and teacher (McKittrick) was. You take three years right there, then go to high school and have the Denver situation all the way through that and college. He’s been around.”

As Mike began a 13-year tenure as the Broncos coach, a certain Cherry Creek High School receiver was busy taking notes on his eventual path to becoming a master tactician, strategist and chip off the old block. But first Kyle had to exhaust his playing dreams, from Duke to the University of Texas, before getting his coaching start at UCLA as a 2003 graduate assistant.

Kyle went out of his way to “pay my dues somewhere else” instead of his father’s shop, hoping that when they would unite on a staff, it wouldn’t be a big deal.

His dad’s best coaching tip: If you want to master offense, go study defense.

“That was the big thing, especially when you’re going up the ladder. People realize it quickly and people stop talking to you,” Mike said. “When you start out coaching offense, you have to learn from the best on defense, because as you’re attacking a defense on a day-to-day basis, you have to know how it’s taught.”

Kyle did exactly that in his first NFL job, as a quality control coach with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2004-05. Jon Gruden’s defensive staff offered ideal mentors: Monte Kiffin, Rod Marinelli, Mike Tomlin, Raheem Morris, Joe Barry and Joe Woods.

Kyle still keeps those Bucs’ defensive plans in a filing cabinet in his 49ers office.

“It was learning the defense that allowed me to know why I liked plays, what plays I didn’t like, and how to put stuff together if I ever got my own offense,” Kyle said.

Kyle’s subsequent journey through the NFL exposed him to different programs, all of which his dad calls an invaluable experience where “you take the positive with you and mold your own philosophy.”

Even Washington had its positives, despite turmoil regarding quarterbacks (Donovan McNabb, Robert Griffin III), a meddlesome owner (Daniel Snyder) and a roster that was the league’s most aged for six of the seven years before the Shanahans arrived.

“We were put in a tough situation,” Mike recalled. “But people don’t care and want you to find a way to win.”

Kyle says he got “battle tested” there. His dad calls it a “great experience” for anyone learning the ropes. What Washington also did, however, was allow Kyle to work with his father and gain his approval by demonstrating a relentless work ethic and intellect.

“My dad was very hard on me at first,” Kyle said. “Once I proved to him I could do it and that I was a little ahead of him in it, because how much I was doing 24/7, that he was confident enough to say, ‘Hey, you’ve got it.’

“I’ve heard my dad is hard to work for,” Kyle continued. “Now that I’ve worked with him, I can tell you he’s very easy to work for, if you know what you’re doing. If you don’t, it’s going to be rough. I really feel that’s how I would be, too.”

Several 49ers players say that is indeed the case. And, in the cases where they don’t know what they’re doing, Kyle has been there to teach them, from offensive to defensive students.

Mike Shanahan kept his distance as his son launched his own 49ers tenure. He wasn’t present Feb. 9 when the 49ers introduced their 20th head coach. He watched only a couple practices, from afar, during the offseason program. And he stayed away from training camp.

However, phone calls and text messages, including on draft day, serve as their frequent lines of communication. And they actually did coach together recently, at the QB Collective camp for high school stars in Thousand Oaks just before 49ers training camp.

Hours before his debut as a head coach, Kyle sat in Arrowhead Stadium’s locker room and phoned his father.

“I always lean on him for advice,” Kyle said. “I don’t have any questions until I’m struggling with something. … Usually I tell him, ‘Hey I messed this up. Has that ever happened to you?’ And he’s like, ‘Yeah, maybe you should have called me before that and I could have helped you.’ That’s me being his son sometimes, but he definitely helps.”

He is the NFL’s second-youngest coach behind the Los Angeles Rams’ Sean McVay, who is 32 and also part of an NFL legacy (his grandfather, John, was a 49ers executive and New York Giants coach).

Kyle was the 49ers’ top target — and vice versa. The flailing franchise invested a six-year contract in him, and in Lynch.

Coincidentally, their goal is to win a sixth Lombardi Trophy for the 49ers.

A day before the 49ers’ long-anticipated hiring, Kyle and the Falcons succumbed to the greatest comeback in Super Bowl history at the hands of Tom Brady and the New England Patriots. Kyle took heat for aggressive play calls that helped allow a 28-3 lead turn into a 34-28 defeat.

Mike’s fatherly advice was to own up to the loss, explain key miscues, learn from them and move on to a 49ers franchise in need of its own resurrection.

“He feels fantastic about the GM and owner,” Mike said, “and it’s great as a head coach when the three guys are on the same page.”

Father knows best? The 49ers surely hope that’s the case.