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Barber: Kyle Shanahan's last name a blessing, and a burden

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MIAMI — Hey, did you hear? Kyle Shanahan is attempting to win a Super Bowl on the same field where his father, Mike Shanahan, led the Denver Broncos to a Super Bowl victory in January of 1999.

Of course you heard. It’s one of the (as we like to say in the business) storylines of Super Bowl LIV as the 49ers prepare to do battle with the Kansas City Chiefs on Sunday. The Shanahans would be the first father-son tandem to coach teams to NFL championships — the first men in any of the American sports to arrange such a coaching/managerial inheritance.

When the 49ers beat the Packers in the NFC title game on Jan. 19, it was Mike Shanahan who presented the George Halas Trophy (the Almost There Trophy) to Kyle in a postgame ceremony at Levi’s Stadium.

It was hailed as a touching moment, and indeed there was some real emotion to it. The only thing that most athletes relish more than celebrating big victories is doing so in the presence of family. That’s why running back Raheem Mostert, among others, brought his young child, son Gunner, onto the field as the confetti rained. It’s why so many tiny Warriors-in-training joined Stephen Curry and Draymond Green and teammates on the podium after those Golden State wins in the NBA Finals.

But legacies are complicated. There’s no question Kyle Shanahan has benefited from his last name. It has worked against him at times, too.

The benefits are more plentiful, and definitely easier to see.

“I wouldn’t ever try to say it’s difficult, in terms of it gave me a real good life, it gave me a lot of advantages,” Shanahan said Tuesday during a press conference. “I didn’t know Jon Gruden personally. So it helped I think that my dad knew him a little bit to give me an opportunity as a QC (quality control coach) to start.”

Of course, it went way beyond Shanahan’s first NFL job, under Gruden in Tampa Bay in 2004.

The San Francisco coach was raised in the sport, raised in the league. He was a ball boy for the 49ers team that last won a Super Bowl, the 1994 squad of Steve Young and Deion Sanders. In those days, when Mike Shanahan was the 49ers’ offensive coordinator, Kyle went to training camps and shared a room with his dad and offensive line coach Bobb McKittrick. He carried the cord for his father’s radio headset in Super Bowl XXXII when Mike was coaching the Broncos to their first NFL championship against the Packers.

“The last guy to hold cords for a coach in the Super Bowl was me, if you want a good trivia question,” Shanahan told Denver reporters on a conference call in 2018. “After that Green Bay Super Bowl, they went wireless the next year. I think they only won one more because they didn’t have as good of a cord-holder, is what I always tell my dad.”

And when Kyle began his odyssey in the NFL, Mike’s influence was always there to open doors and dial phones. The first NFL coach to hire Kyle was Gruden, like Mike Shanahan a product of the Bill Walsh coaching tree. The second was Texans head coach Gary Kubiak, who had played and coached under Mike, mostly in Denver. The third NFL head coach to hire Kyle was Mike Shanahan, in Washington.

From his earliest days in the league, Kyle Shanahan had to face charges of nepotism. And you know what? It wasn’t far from the truth.

Merriam-Webster defines nepotism as “favoritism (as in appointment to a job) based on kinship.” Gruden, Kubiak and Mike Shanahan would probably argue that they hired Kyle because they believed he was the best man for the job. Everyone saw Kyle Shanahan as bright and motivated.

No, it wasn’t nepotism, per se. I would call it privilege. NFL privilege. Shanahan’s lineage introduced him to every important person in the league. He still had to impress with his achievements and his interview skills. But his last name levitated his resume to the top of the pile.

Clearly, that was a huge help to Shanahan. It’s also something of a burden to bear in a media-driven sport that loves rags-to-riches stories.

“I think with anyone, when people know your last name it’s always human nature,” Shanahan said. “I mean, when I made the basketball team in high school, it was always because of my dad, according to the guys that didn’t make it. Or whatever you do in sports. But you get used to that and stuff. I think it puts a little bit of a chip on your shoulder. But as you get older, hopefully you wear that off and become your own person.”

Shanahan is mostly his own person at this stage, but this appearance at a Super Bowl in Miami has refocused attention on the family connection. Shanahan has always seemed comfortable with it. He sends his father videotape of not only every 49ers game, but every practice, and the two talk about football frequently. At the same time, I’m sure Kyle Shanahan wants to be seen as his own entity.

A 49ers win against Kansas City would push Shanahan a little further down that path. The more he does as a head coach, the less he’ll be seen as the son of a head coach.

That’s one way Super Bowl LIV has a chance to elevate Shanahan. Strangely, the 49ers’ run seems to be doing something for Mike Shanahan’s reputation as well.

Mike coached the Broncos to Super Bowl victories to cap the 1997 and 1998 seasons. At one time he was seen as the NFL’s premier offensive schemer. But his reputation had faded over the years. He never won another title — in fact, he won just one playoff game — in Denver in the decade after quarterback John Elway retired. Mike Shanahan’s second act was rough: a 24-40 record and zero postseason wins over four years in Washington.

Those Washington years were a professional setback for Kyle Shanahan, the offensive coordinator. But they were really bad for his father. By 2014, a lot of people in football saw Mike as a guy who drew up nice plays, benefited from the presence of a fully formed Elway, but wasn’t a great NFL leader.

That narrative is being rewritten again. When the 49ers played at Washington this year, a lot of the stories — even the national stories — were about how the Shanahans had been wronged by R-words team owner Dan Snyder. The Niners won the game, and Kyle presented Mike with a game ball afterward. The Shanahans were having their moment.

It’s funny. Mike Shanahan helped his son build a reputation in the NFL. And now Kyle is returning the favor. One more win couldn’t hurt the family name.

You can reach columnist Phil Barber at 707-521-5263 or phil.barber@pressdemocrat.com. Follow him on Twitter: @Skinny_Post.

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