DENVER, Colo. -- Gary Kubiak restored the Denver Broncos to glory with a Super Bowl 50 victory. It was considered what would be the first of many achievements in a long run as the boss.
His dream was interrupted. Kubiak told his players after Sunday's spirited 24-6 victory that he was stepping down.
"It was emotional. He was like a father figure to me," safety Darian Stewart told Denver7. "Even though I had an idea it might happen, It hit me really hard. I owe so much to him for my career."
Kubiak declined to address his future on Sunday, attempting to keep the focus on the game. It follows suit with his personality and character. He never seeks attention or wants to make headlines. He said he would discuss his future on Monday, but admitted he had told his players and coaches.
"Kubiak was the Godfather with the way he took care of players," cornerback Aqib Talib said. "We don't win the Super Bowl without him. You watch that game and you see how fresh we were and how fast we played."
An NFL source explained late Saturday that Kubiak wanted to finish strong, snapping a three-game losing streak, especially with uncertainty surrounding the future of several offensive assistant coaches and defensive coordinator Wade Phillips, whose contract expires at season's end. Phillips told Denver7 on Sunday night that he wants to return. But uncertainty shrouds the organization with Kubiak's departure.
"It's hard, man," receiver Demaryius Thomas said. "Kubiak was great to us. He treated us like men."
Kubiak signed a four-year contract with the Broncos prior to the 2015 season. As general manager John Elway's good friend and hand-picked successor, Kubiak produced a magical year. His ability to work and mesh with Elway can't be discounted, and will be important for the new coach. Under Kubiak, the Broncos won their fifth straight AFC West title and went 15-4, upsetting the Carolina Panthers in Super Bowl 50 for their first crown since repeating in the 1997 and 1998 seasons. Known as an offensive guru, Kubiak trusted his stout defense and navigated the choppy waters of benching the iconic Peyton Manning only to return him to starting lineup for the stretch run.
"We can do it in all kinds of ways," Kubiak told Elway on the stage at Levi's Stadium following the win. "All kinds of ways."
Kubiak's intention was to keep his job as long as the Broncos wanted him. However, when he drove by fans at the stadium this morning in his truck, it marked his final time as head coach. Multiple Broncos players said it was an odd week of practice because the team only went through walk-throughs. Several players believed the weird vibe was connected to upcoming upheavel in the coaching staff. Kubiak did not address his future in Saturday's team meeting, according to a player source.
"Nothing," a player told Denver7. "And coaches didn't know."
This was intentional, a coach told Denver7. Kubiak didn't want to distract from the game or his team. He is like a military man in that way. His priorities? Mission, men, me.
"He's the best," center Matt Paradis said. "He's going to be missed."
When Kubiak exited an NFL stadium by ambulance for the second time in three seasons on Oct. 9, his future became less certain given health and family concerns. Paramedics took Kubiak, 55, to a hospital from Sports Authority Field with his wife Rhonda in the passenger seat. After being hospitalized overnight and undergoing a battery of tests, doctors diagnosed him with a "complex migraine condition that caused extreme fatigue and body weakness." Kubiak had not been feeling well in the hours leading up the game, but a CT scan and MRI revealed normal results while hospitalized. He missed the San Diego game on doctors orders.
"Doctors thought the prognosis for him was very, very good," said Elway -- who has one year left on his contract -- in October. "He's going to take the week off. But when it comes down to Gary's health, everyone's excited about what the prognosis is."
Elway indicated then he believed Kubiak would be able to continue coaching. However, there's no denying the frightening jolt it sent through Kubiak and his family when coupled with a previous incident. In 2013, Kubiak, as coach of the Houston Texans, collapsed on the field as he walked to the locker room at halftime. He suffered a mini stroke. Doctors told Denver7 the two occurrences could be mutually exclusive, but the symptoms can overlap with stress, diet and lack of sleep among the triggers.
"I didn't know how sick he was. There were days he would look more tired than others, but man I just want him to get well," Talib said. "That's what's important."
After spending one season as the Baltimore Ravens offensive coordinator in 2014, Kubiak accepted the Broncos job with his family's blessing. However, it came with concern. According to a story in Strokesmart.org, sons Klay and Klein hoped their father would not serve as a head coach again. Oldest son Klint and Rhonda agreed with Gary's decision to take the Denver position.
"You saw how that played out in Houston," Rhonda said at Kubiak's introductory press conference with the Broncos. "But it's what they do. It's their passion. Watching every Sunday, it just gives me and my mom and Gary's mom so much joy to see him at his best. So how can we deny him that? I always worry about him because I love him and I care so much."
Kubiak's return to Denver was a smashing success, and appeared to signal a long run until this October's health scare. As recently as two weeks ago, it appeared Kubiak would be back, but there were signs this week he was considering stepping away, according to a source. Kubiak is remarkably humble in a profession defined by large egos, and respectful.
"He's a good man. You want him to be healthy and do what's right for his family," receiver Jordan Taylor said.
A former backup quarterback to Elway and longtime assistant coach with the Broncos, Kubiak provided leadership and the right tone of accountability as Denver won the Super Bowl. His postgame speech following a December loss at Pittsburgh was identified as a watershed moment that helped push Denver across the finish line. The Broncos were in danger of becoming the first team in NFL history to start 9-2 and miss the playoffs after squandering a 14-point lead at Heinz Field.
Kubiak's voice shaped the remainder of the season.
"Gary called the team together and he bared his soul. He said guys, 'Are you in with me or not?'" said team president Joe Ellis, who was present for the speech. "It was part anger, part emotion, part frustration, but a huge part passion. "He was putting everything he had into this and he wanted his players to join him. And they did. They responded and never lost another game."
Widely respected by coaches and peers, players have talked glowingly of Kubiak in all of his coaching stops.
"It was tough. It's sad knowing he's not going to be here," quarterback Trevor Siemian said. "It was emotional. You've got a lot of guys that love him. He was a heck of a coach, but a better person."
Former Houston Texans tight end Joel Dreessen explained that Kubiak creates strong bonds through caring, compassion and firm discipline. One of things Dreessen missed most in retirement were Kubiak's speeches the night before games.
"I would take a bullet for him," Dreessen said.
This year has not gone as expected for the Broncos. After a 4-0 start, the Broncos dropped seven of 12 games, missing the playoffs for the first time since 2010. The offense slumped dramatically, leading to speculation that there could be a change at offensive coordinator and the offensive line coaching positions.
When Kubiak was hired two years ago, the Broncos interviewed Detroit defensive coordinator Teryl Austin, who remains one of the league's hottest coaching assistants. He was a finalist for the Falcons job two years ago. The Broncos remain bullish on several members of their coaching staff, including secondary coach Joe Woods, a rising star in the industry for his work with the No Fly Zone.
Other names with buzz as potential head coaching candidates include Atlanta's Kyle Shanahan, son of Broncos coach Mike Shanahan, Buffalo's Anthony Lynn, a former Denver player, Bears defensive coordinator Vic Fangio, Washington offensive coordinator Sean McVay, Oakland's Bill Musgrave and Miami Dolphins defensive boss Vance Joseph. The Broncos tried to hire Joseph as their defensive coordinator two years ago, but Cincinnati wouldn't release him from his contract. He joined the Dolphins this year under former Broncos coach Adam Gase. Mike McCoy, a former Broncos coordinator, is available after the Chargers fired him on Sunday. He has experience working with Denver and under Elway, worth noting.
In the college ranks, Stanford's David Shaw has consistently been mentioned as a future NFL coach. Air Force coach Troy Calhoun served as an offensive coordinator in the pros before a successful run in Colorado Springs.
Kubiak has never shied away from a challenge. He embraces the grind, and loves the work week as much if not more than Sundays. However, his longterm health can't be ignored.
"As a player you don't always notice but it was a tough season for Coach Kubiak. You can see it wear him down," linebacker Von Miller said. "His health is the most important thing to us. The decision is great for him and I will always support him no matter what."