It was a long, winding road that led to Vic Fangio getting hired as the Denver Broncos’ head coach. He made it, politics and all.
Vic Fangio does his job better than just about everyone else in the NFL.
When John Elway said that the Denver Broncos were looking for a head coach with experience and expertise on one side of the football, there could have been perhaps no better candidate than Fangio, whose major criticism as a head coach candidate at this point is age.
At 60 years old, it’s incredible a coach with Fangio’s productivity has never been a head coach at any level.
He first broke into the NFL as a linebackers coach with the New Orleans Saints in the 80s where he coached up the “Dome Patrol”, a quartet of linebackers — Rickey Jackson, Vaughan Johnson, Pat Swilling, and the late Sam Mills — who combined for 20 Pro Bowl selections and 11 All-Pro selections. Many of those accolades were earned after 1986 when Fangio took over the unit.
He would get his first defensive coordinator position in 1995 with the expansion Carolina Panthers. Mills went along with him and had some very productive years late in his career.
Rumors have floated around throughout this year’s head coaching circuit that the reason Fangio didn’t have a job as an NFL head coach is that he rubbed ownership the wrong way in previous interviews, but actions speak louder than words.
While Fangio has earned a reputation as a no-nonsense coach and even earned the nickname ‘The Godfather’ by Chicago Bears linebacker Aaron Lynch, he also flew to Charlotte when the aforementioned Mills was diagnosed with cancer in 2003 to be by the side of a player he had been with for more than a decade.
There are more layers to Fangio than his straight-shooter personality lead on. His defenses are aggressive and physical, but he connects with his players.
One of the common threads in all of Fangio’s defenses throughout the years? Everyone on his unit plays together. A defense can have great pieces, but if it’s not the sum of all of its parts, what good is it going to do on gamedays?
Fangio’s defenses collectively attack the football. They are disciplined, fast, and one step ahead of their counterparts.
After coaching the Panthers’ defense from 1995-98, Fangio became the defensive coordinator of the Indianapolis Colts from 1999-2001.
In 2002, he went with his old pal Dom Capers (the head coach of the expansion Carolina Panthers) to be the head coach/defensive coordinator brain trust of the expansion Houston Texans.
Fangio coached two expansion defenses before joining the Baltimore Ravens’ staff under Jim Fassel in 2006 as an assistant. He stayed there for four seasons and overlapped two years with John Harbaugh who was hired by the Ravens as their head coach in 2008.
The relationship Fangio established with Harbaugh from 2008-09 was likely a huge reason he got his first defensive coordinator position in six years, this time in the college ranks with Stanford in 2010.
Fangio was Harbaugh’s defensive coordinator for one season and followed him to San Francisco in the same role in 2011, where he coached up a top five unit his first three seasons and a top 10 unit in year four.
When Harbaugh left the 49ers for Michigan, Fangio had perhaps his best inroad to becoming a head coach in the NFL. Fangio was the no-brainer candidate to take over Harbaugh’s position with the 49ers from the outside, but they hired defensive line coach Jim Tomsula instead.
Hindsight would tell us that was a huge mistake, but the Niners have Kyle Shanahan now so no one’s complaining.
Here’s where irony comes into play.
After the 2014 season, the Denver Broncos had enough of John Fox’s inability to push the team over the hump and win a Super Bowl. Fox had also had enough of what he probably thought were unreasonable expectations.
The two parted ways and Fox went to coach the Chicago Bears in 2015, bringing on Fangio as his defensive coordinator. The Bears’ defense has been rising in the ranks ever since.
The Broncos brought Gary Kubiak on as their head coach in 2015, but when it became apparent the 49ers were not giving Fangio the job he probably deserved, they expressed interest in him at that time as well.
Many thought an ideal pairing at the time would have been Gary Kubiak along with Fangio, who had just come off of four stellar years coaching the 49ers’ defense.
That never came to fruition, and Fangio went with the Broncos’ outcast — Fox — to Chicago along with Adam Gase, the former offensive coordinator in Denver.
Gase was also up for the 49ers’ job, and wanted Fangio as his defensive coordinator. The 49ers apparently wanted Tomsula over everyone.
There are always politics involved in NFL head coaching searches. Teams often have candidates selected before their coaches are even fired, which is why the NFL has some rules in place. Fangio, according to an article from November 2018 in the Chicago Tribune, understood that perfectly.
"“Maybe I should have been more political, but it’s too late for that.”Vic Fangio (Chicago Tribune)"
According to that same article, Fangio was operating this — his latest and perhaps last — opportunity to become a head coach in the NFL without an agent. He also stated the week of the Bears’ playoff game against the reigning NFL champion Philadelphia Eagles that he had not returned any calls about NFL head coaching gigs, and was instead focused on the task at hand.
Broncos fans who remember John Fox and Jack Del Rio seemingly having one foot out the door in 2014 can appreciate Fangio’s dedication to his current team at the time.
Not returning phone calls from other teams is probably part of the reason why his interview with the Miami Dolphins was cancelled.
But the Broncos waited patiently. The contingent of John Elway and the rest of the search committee flew into Chicago after completing the first four interviews of the Broncos’ search: Chuck Pagano on Wednesday, Zac Taylor on Thursday, Mike Munchak on Friday, and Brian Flores on Saturday morning.
The Broncos waited in Chicago through the Bears’ playoff game, knowing there was a chance they could obviously win it. Speaking of, what would have happened then?
I guess that’s irrelevant now.
After Fangio’s defense gave up 16 points in a loss to the Eagles, he composed himself for the interview with Denver on Monday morning. According to most, the favorite for the Broncos’ job as of Monday morning was Mike Munchak, whose family ties in Denver were expected to give him an edge or at least extra motivation in the interview process.
He even stayed in Denver while Elway and company flew out to Chicago.
After meeting with Fangio, Pat Bowlen’s private jet was meant to fly the search committee back to Denver over the lunch hour, but something stuck out about Fangio’s interview enough to get Elway to rearrange his flight plan and meet with Fangio again over dinner in Chicago.
The second meeting — an impromptu get-together — seemed to be the clearest indicator of Fangio’s edge in the coaching search, and after taking an entire day to deliberate, Elway and the Broncos made the call.
Fangio, at the age of 60, received his first ever NFL head coaching job.
He will get the opportunity to go from the number one ranked defense in Chicago to a defense in Denver that includes superstar Von Miller and another budding star pass rusher in Bradley Chubb, last year’s top draft choice.
The thought of combining Fangio’s defensive coaching and tactics with Miller, Chubb, and the rest of the characters on Denver’s defense is fascinating.
It’s even more fascinating when you see how many Chicago fans and players hated to see him leave, and how some of those players he’s been coaching up since 2015 in the Windy City could potentially join him in the near future in Denver to fortify the Broncos’ new-look Orange Crush.
As my friend and colleague Brandon Keckler calls it, the Orange Crush 3.0.
Fangio clearly wasn’t begging for NFL head coaching opportunities and the rest of the NFL wasn’t jumping to the front of the line to talk to him. The Broncos were his one and only interview. While the rest of the league is moving toward offensive-minded head coaches, the Broncos are sticking with their bread and butter.
They won the Super Bowl in 2015 with an elite defense going up against the league’s best offense.
They obviously feel like that’s something they can do again before Miller’s career is up, hopefully more than once.
Even if that’s wishful thinking, the move to hire Fangio has reignited some much needed faith and optimism for much of Broncos Country. The Godfather is bringing his expertise in calling a defense along with a brand new opportunity to be the man in charge of a team.
Though the opportunity is long overdue, Fangio has never been one to complain.