ENGLEWOOD, Colo. – Mike Munchak played 159 games in his NFL career, was named to nine Pro Bowls at guard, was a four-time first-team All-Pro selection, was an all-decade selection in the 1980s, and was enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2001.
And when, three years after his playing career ended, he took those credentials into coaching, he was quickly steamrolled by one overriding thought in those first weeks in the move from student to teacher.
“... I thought I knew a lot more than I did, a lot more," Munchak said with a laugh. “You come to appreciate, right away, in coaching, you don’t know anywhere near what you thought you knew. I knew my little world, but I didn’t know the big picture. I didn’t know anything close to the big picture, I'm not sure I knew the little picture."
Munchak climbed the ladder in coaching, from an entry-level quality control position on Jack Pardee’s Houston Oilers’ staff in 1994 to serving as the Titans' head coach from 2011-2013. In his newest spot, he's coaching the Denver Broncos’ offensive line. He is one of four former NFL players on the Broncos’ staff -- Munchak, assistant offensive line coach Chris Kuper, secondary coach Renaldo Hill and defensive line coach Bill Kollar.
Both Hill and Kuper played with the Broncos during their on-field careers. And the transition from player to coach is filled with choices, about hours and commitment, about the ability to teach what they once simply did and, Munchak said, more than a little honesty -- both with themselves and with the players.
That’s because a coach’s playing career won’t carry him long.
“It’s like if you won a Super Bowl or something, they come in and go, ‘oh man, he won a Super Bowl,’ so when a coach steps through the door with something like a Super Bowl, there’s a certain amount of weight to that," Munchak said. “Maybe initially they want to hear what you have to say, but if he doesn’t help the player, doesn’t help the team, you say, ‘my God, this isn’t what we thought it was going to be,’ and they won’t care about that any more. It all goes away if you can’t help them be better. If you can teach, that’s what it’s all about, but you have to teach."
For Hill, who played in a Broncos secondary that included Hall of Famers Champ Bailey and Brian Dawkins, the idea of coaching showed up when he was still in uniform.
Hill’s last season in the NFL was with the 4-12 Broncos in 2010 and he started his coaching career in 2012 as a graduate assistant at Wyoming. Broncos defensive coordinator Ed Donatell, who was Hill’s position coach with the Broncos in 2009 and 2010, became an important part of the process for the former player -- a no-B.S. mentor ready to keep an eye on the new coaching prospect.
“We’ve had our eye on him for a while, he was an excellent player for us in this scheme, and then to bring him back and have him help us teach it, he relates great to players and just has a great background having been a coach for four or five years now, and extra playing it," Donatell said.
The biggest hurdle, according to Munchak, was translating what you could do so easily as a player to other people. Though he is in his 34th year in the NFL, as a player or coach, Munchak said the end of every season is the same for him.
“I sit down, when you look at everything over and over again, and see, did we get better or not? Is it my fault? Is it the player’s fault? Both of us? I look at it every year and I judge if we got better, if we helped us be successful," Munchak said. “But the first evaluation, every week, every season, every day really, is me, that’s on me. How did I do? My job every offseason is to get better so when the boys come back we’re all ready to get better and if I can’t do that, I won’t be doing this.’’