- Jeff Legwold, ESPN Staff Writer
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JERSEY CITY, N.J. -- The Super Bowl is a long way from the crossroads that led to it.
A long way from the moment when Adam Gase felt doubt creeping in, the moment when he had started to feel he could be many things in his life but a football coach was not one of them.
“I remember sitting in an Applebee's, interviewing for an insurance salesman job," said Gase, the Broncos' offensive coordinator. “And him basically telling me I would have to move back to Mount Pleasant [in Michigan] and me thinking that was what I was going to do."
Yes, the guy who will be on the headset to Peyton Manning in Super Bowl XLVIII, the guy who called plays for the highest-scoring offense in NFL history, the guy Manning has called “a superstar" in conversations with some around the team was sitting in a restaurant just minutes from his parents' house, about to call for the check on his coaching career.
It was just after the LSU Tigers had won the 2001 SEC championship, and Gase, as an “eight grand a year" graduate assistant with student loans staring him in the face to go with the fact he “may or may not have been kicked out of grad school," was contemplating a future that was quickly becoming cloaked in uncertainty.
“It was just kind of that stage," Gase said. “… [LSU] was trying to find a role for me; that's not an easy thing to do at that level. I was back home to see my parents, and there was a part of me that was saying I might not go back [to LSU]."
At least until three friends -- Scott Angove, Nate Lambertson and Jeff Sablack -- who were, as Gase puts it, “beside themselves," got him to reconsider the notion of walking away. So Gase went back to LSU in 2002 and started stepping up the rungs from there. He went to the Detroit Lions, the San Francisco 49ers and the Broncos in the years and nameplates that followed.
He was a scouting assistant, an offensive assistant, a quality control coach, quarterbacks coach, wide receivers coach and quarterbacks coach. And then, when Mike McCoy left the Broncos to become the San Diego Chargers coach, Gase, at 34, was named the Broncos' offensive coordinator.
A short, a long and a winding road, all at the same time.
“He's bright -- very, very bright," Broncos coach John Fox said. “We knew his work. We knew how he handled himself. To me, when Mike left, it was a clear choice."
“I know there was a point when I thought it might not work," Gase said. "… I don't really think about sitting there in that interview anymore, but I'm glad I kept going."
Gase is not the product of a playing career that evolved into coaching once the on-field work was done. He is a product of from-the-ground-up work, of rolled-up sleeves to learn a profession. A process that started when he met current Baltimore Ravens defensive coordinator Dean Pees. Gase was in high school, and Pees was at Michigan State.
Pees visited Gase's high school, handed him a business card and said when he arrived at Michigan State the following fall, as a student, he should come to the school's football offices.
“When I was in high school, I enjoyed the sport a lot; I was just terrible at it," Gase said. "… And I think [Pees] was thinking more like equipment manager and that. What ended up happening was Dean said here's my card and come see me when you get on campus.
“… And I showed up, gave the secretary the card. She goes OK, and I sat in [Pees'] office for like an hour and he gave me a self-scout [personnel evaluation] from when he was with the Cleveland Browns. I had just gotten a computer for my graduation, and he said, 'You know how to use a computer?' And I was like, 'I've got a computer' and I hadn't touched it yet. I kind of figured out how to put that together and set it up in my dorm room. I went through a lot of ink cartridges."
That's where it started, the get-it-done side it took to help McCoy dismantle the Broncos' playbook in roughly a week in 2011 and reconfigure it as a read-option attack with Tim Tebow at quarterback. The same guy who helped to then dismantle that when Manning arrived in 2012 and retooled it again when he was promoted to be the team's primary playcaller.
His go-for-it aggressiveness is rooted in Mike Martz's "Greatest Show on Turf" offense that powered the Rams to two Super Bowl appearances. Gase calls Martz “a mentor, a guy who taught me so much." The attention to detail and the respect for the need to play some power football come from his time with former LSU coach Nick Saban to go with some things from Josh McDaniels' Patriots playbook as well as his time with Fox and McCoy that helped him see the bigger picture, the one where he had to understand what defenses were doing and why.
“Adam is just a guy that was ready," McCoy said. “He's smart, creative, works very, very hard, a guy I leaned on a lot in my time in Denver. And you can see he's had a big impact in what they're doing."
What the Broncos did in the regular season was make history. From Manning's statistics to Denver's push-the-pace philosophy to the pile of touchdowns, the Broncos pushed the envelope on offense to a spot that had not been seen before.
None other than John Elway, still considered the final word on most things football for legions of fans across the Front Range, has said “I wish I could have played for him" and characterized Gase's decision not to interview with the Minnesota Vikings and Browns for their head-coaching jobs while the Broncos were still playing as “studly."
“Being somebody that did not play in college or at the professional level, I had to learn as fast as possible," Gase said. “It was an adapt-or-die situation for me. I said that a lot, especially with Peyton. You go from running an option offense to all of a sudden the protections are ‘you've got to be on it.' You have no choice but to figure out a way to speed up that learning curve.”
The curve now has a Super Bowl on it. The one where Gase will call the plays Sunday against the No. 1 defense in the NFL.
A game, an opportunity, that was almost left on the table. At Applebee's.
“I'm grateful for the chance, grateful to everyone who helped me, grateful to be a part of this organization," Gase said. “And I'm excited to be in this position, in this job. It's what I want to do, and you know, it really has worked out OK."
34mEric D. Williams