Shanahan's most obvious strength is his attention to detail. Virtually every minute of his week is scheduled, and meeting times are as dependable as Big Ben. But unlike many of his hyperintense NFL counterparts, his ferocious drive was channeled into coaching only after a freak accident ended his playing career.
A star high school quarterback in suburban Chicago, Shanahan earned a scholarship to Eastern Illinois. During the spring game of his junior year, Shanahan was tackled hard while running an option play but completed the scrimmage. In the locker room afterward Shanahan urinated blood, then returned to his apartment and began vomiting profusely. He went to the hospital only after one of his roommates called an ambulance, but doctors couldn't determine what was wrong. After Shanahan lost consciousness, emergency surgery was performed, and doctors discovered that one of his kidneys had been split open and had to be removed. "My heart stopped beating for more than 30 seconds," says Shanahan. "A priest read me my last rites. My dad got to the hospital as the priest was walking out."
After spending five days in intensive care, Shanahan was told to avoid strenuous activity. "A few days later he was lifting weights," recalls Denver receivers coach Mike Heimerdinger, who was one of Shanahan's roommates at the time. "Then he was playing handball. About two weeks after the surgery, we took him river rafting."
"That's Mike," says Shanahan's wife, Peggy. "He loves to live dangerously." Pressed for further examples, she cites a trip to Mexico in which Mike went bungee jumping with their two children, Kyle, now 17, and Krystal, now 14. A few years ago, on a trip to Jamaica, Shanahan jumped from a 60-foot cliff into the Caribbean. His tendency to live dangerously was evident in Sunday's game. Four times in the first half the Broncos faced fourth-and-one, and Shanahan went for it on all four occasions—even though the first two tries were unsuccessful. "I figured if we couldn't make a yard, we didn't deserve to have the ball," he said later.
Shanahan loves to create challenges. He and Broncos owner Pat Bowlen, the man who gave Shanahan a seven-year, $8.5 million contract following the 49ers' Super Bowl victory in January 1995, have a sizable wager on whether Shanahan can run a five-minute mile before next May. (He's in the 5:45 range now.) While with San Francisco, Shanahan prodded his offensive players to reach record-setting plateaus, and they responded with the most productive three-year statistical averages—including total offense and scoring—in NFL history. "I remember him coming down to our Wednesday-morning meetings with a gleam in his eye, talking about the defensive coordinator we were going to face," Niners quarterback Steve Young recalls. "He'd say, This guy is going to do this, and we're going to gash him this way. It was like the battle was personal."
Peggy says she has seen her husband cry only once—when, while coaching the Raiders, he was awakened by a late-night phone call informing him that one of his players, safety Stacey Toran, had died in a car accident. But Shanahan's hard edge is tempered by a knack for getting along with people, whether they're corporate schmoozers, autograph seekers or employees.
Two weeks ago Shanahan called veteran defensive tackle Michael Dean Perry into his office and told him, "You're not getting it done anymore. If our young guys keep producing, I'm going to have to release you." That hasn't happened, but Shanahan couldn't have been more direct in discussing the future of a player who hasn't seen action in the past two weeks.
"To me the bottom line is that people trust you," says Shanahan. "They might not like what you have to say, but if you're honest and treat them like men, I think they respect you."
Integrity is paramount to Shanahan. When Bowlen didn't renew Reeves's contract following the '92 season, he offered the job to Shanahan, who stunned the owner by turning it down. "Things had gotten so bad with me and Dan the previous year, and everyone thought I was after his job," Shanahan says. "I didn't want to be the a———who took Dan's job. It just didn't feel right."
Similarly, in the aftermath of the Niners' Super Bowl victory, San Francisco president Carmen Policy crafted a plan in which Shanahan would be anointed the successor to George Seifert, who would coach for one or two more years. "George was urging me to do it," Shanahan says, "but it would have been horrible. I didn't want to be the guy who pushed him out."