Archive for Saturday, October 7, 2000

Nothing comes easy for KC coach

Cunningham endured long, hard road before taking over Chiefs’ post from Schottenheimer

October 7, 2000


— Nothing seems to come easy for Gunther Cunningham, the hard-driving Chiefs coach loved by players and puzzled over by fans.

There is an explanation for his outlook on life.

"You never take 'no' for an answer. If I took 'no' for an answer, I wouldn't be sitting here. I wouldn't have come to this country. I wouldn't have had a chance to go to college or any of those things."

Kansas City coach Gunther Cunningham

Born in postwar Germany, Cunningham grew up about a mile from the Dachau concentration camp. He once cut his foot on glass from a broken window there.

A childhood near such an awful place has a lot to do with his famous capacity for working himself to exhaustion.

"No doubt," he said. "I've gone through tough weeks every week in 54 years of life and 32 years of coaching. If you came from where I came from, you'd know what I'm talking about.

"You never take 'no' for an answer. If I took 'no' for an answer, I wouldn't be sitting here. I wouldn't have come to this country. I wouldn't have had a chance to go to college or any of those things."

Cunningham, who never knew his father, was born into poverty in 1946 in Munich. Dachau was one of Hitler's deadliest camps from 1933 until it was liberated in 1945.

As he was growing up, Cunningham would hear people speak in hushed tones about the Holocaust. But the little boy did not begin to realize the magnitude of the crimes until he discovered pictures and stories that his grandmother had hidden in a drawer.

The memories still horrify him.

"I'm very conscious of it and ashamed of it," Cunningham said.

When he was 10 his mother married Garner Cunningham, an American soldier who moved his new family to Massachusetts. Barely able to speak English, he never backed down from any kid who taunted him.

After graduating from Oregon, he began coaching there, starting a football odyssey that included stops at Arkansas, Stanford, Baltimore, Indianapolis and San Diego.

He came to Kansas City in 1995 to work under his old friend, defensive coordinator Dave Adolph.

"He promised he'd never leave. The night I signed my contract, he left for San Diego," Cunningham said.

But then, finally, a break. Head coach Marty Schottenheimer retired after the 1998 season.

While awaiting a decision from Chiefs president Carl Peterson, Cunningham got a call from a well-meaning but misinformed friend who said, "Gun, you're not going to get the job."

Crestfallen, Cunningham called the high school sweetheart he'd been married to for more than 30 years.

"Honey, we'll never have a shot at it," he told Rene.

He was wrong. On Jan. 22, 1999, Cunningham was hired as head coach. He went 9-7 last season, missing the playoffs and the AFC West title by one victory, and is 3-2 so far this season, with his team enjoying its bye on Sunday.

Despite what Cunningham has gone through in his life, one of the cruelest blows of all came in February. His star linebacker and close friend Derrick Thomas died after a car wreck.

"Sometimes I still can't believe he's gone," Cunningham said. "He used to call me in the office at midnight and tell me I was working too hard."

Indeed. For example, from Monday night when the Chiefs came from behind to beat Seattle through late Wednesday afternoon when they ended practice, Cunningham slept a total of maybe four hours.

On the practice field, he'll be in a player's face one minute and give him a reassuring pat the next.

Win or lose, they all seem to have complete faith in him.

"I wouldn't want to play for anybody else," defensive end Eric Hicks said.

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