After three tours of duty as an NFL head coach, Dan Reeves travels the country as a color analyst on Westwood One radio broadcasts.
Instead of drawing up plays, he comments on them. Instead of hearing opinions on his teams, he’s free to express his thoughts on the NFL teams he sees every week.
Reeves enjoyed a great run in a 23-year NFL head coaching career that lasted until 2003. He guided the Denver Broncos to three Super Bowls, took the New York Giants to the playoffs and drove the Atlanta Falcons to their only Super Bowl appearance in 1999.
But his NFL roots were with the Dallas Cowboys as a player and assistant coach from 1965-80. He learned his craft under one of pro football’s masters, Tom Landry, who first made Reeves a player-coach and then hired him as a full-time assistant which paved the way to his head coaching success.
In February, Reeves will be inducted into the Texas Sports Hall of Fame.
“Until Coach Landry mentioned coaching to me, it never even crossed my mind,” Reeves said. “Working with him, I learned a lot about football. Coach Landry was very bright and extremely well organized, and I was fortunate to be around him. He always believed that being prepared was great motivation and gave us a great chance to win.”
Coach on the field
When Reeves enjoyed his most success with the John Elway-led Broncos in the 1980s, his old Cowboys teammates were rooting for him from afar. After seeing how knowledgeable he was as an assistant coach, they never doubted that he’d make the jump to an NFL head coach.
“Dan was sharp and I thought he’d have great coaching success,” said former Cowboys’ All-Pro defensive tackle Bob Lilly. “He was very knowledgeable and a teacher of the game. Dan and Mike Ditka were on Coach Landry’s staff at the same time, and neither was afraid to let you know if you did something wrong.”
Even when Reeves was playing running back for the Cowboys, he had a broad-based understanding of the game that made for a smooth transition into coaching.
“Dan knew the assignments of everyone on the team, and could comprehend everything that the offense and defense were doing,” former Cowboys linebacker Lee Roy Jordan said.
“He was a very competitive guy, and an excellent player. He was like having a coach on the field.”
Growing up outside of Americus, Ga., Reeves spent a lot of time working on the family farm along with his two brothers and sister. Though he loved playing the game, he didn’t play organized football until ninth grade.
“We grew peanuts and corn and raised hogs and cows,” Reeves said. “I milked cows, and did everything else I could to help out.”
During his days at Americus High School, Reeves’ athletic skills began to shine. He helped the school win state championships in baseball and basketball, and was a good enough quarterback to make the Georgia all-star football game.
“I was more of a running quarterback in high school, and we’d do some play-action passes,” Reeves said. “South Carolina was the first school to offer me a scholarship, but I got offers to other places after I was named MVP of the Georgia all-star game. Since South Carolina offered me first, I stuck with them.”
Just 18 years old, Reeves was the youngest college quarterback in the nation when he started his first game as a sophomore. Though the Gamecocks never made a bowl game during his three years on varsity from 1962-64, Reeves proved a solid running-passing quarterback with great leadership skills.
Undrafted in 1965, Reeves received offers to try out as a free agent from the Cowboys and the AFL’s San Diego Chargers. Since the NFL was the more established league, Reeves opted for the Cowboys.
“The Cowboys gave me the opportunity to try out at several positions, including running back, receiver and safety,” Reeves said. “We had about 120 rookies in camp back then, so the more things you did gave you a better chance to stick around. We had some injuries, so I ended up at running back.”
Reeves moved into a starting role in 1966 when the Cowboys won the Eastern Division and reached the NFL championship game against Green Bay for the first time. Reeves showed his versatility by rushing for 757 yards and eight touchdowns while catching 41 passes for 557 yards and eight scores. He led the NFL with 16 touchdowns.
The Ice Bowl
Though he no longer played quarterback, Landry still utilized Reeves’ passing skills. Playing in sub-zero temperatures in the 1967 Ice Bowl, Reeves threw a 50-yard option pass to Lance Rentzel on the first play of the fourth quarter to give the Cowboys a 17-14 lead over Green Bay.
Reeves’ big pass would have been more historical if the Packers hadn’t driven 68 yards for the winning touchdown in the final minutes for a 21-17 win to capture the NFL title.
“Coach Landry loved those exotic plays, and the fact that I could throw the ball helped,” Reeves said. “I had a chance to keep my hands warm between the third and fourth quarters, so I at least had a chance. We had run a bunch of pitch plays during the game, so (quarterback) Don Meredith said, ‘What do you think?’
“We decided to use the option pass, and Lance was so open that it was hard to miss him,” Reeves said. “It was a great thrill. Since both teams were having such a hard time moving the ball, I thought we had a chance. But the Packers made a great drive to win.”
After losing a heartbreaker to the Baltimore Colts in Super Bowl V, Reeves helped the Cowboys win their first Super Bowl against the Miami Dolphins the next year in 1972. Following so many years of playoff disappointments, Reeves was glad to be part of the Cowboys’ first world championship team.
“A lot of us were thrilled for Coach Landry because we knew how much it meant to him,” Reeves said. “We had gone through some difficult heartaches. Winning the Super Bowl was great because we had come so close for so many years.”
When he retired after the 1972 season, Reeves had already been a player-coach for three seasons. After serving as a full-time assistant under Landry from 1974-80, the 37-year-old Reeves landed his first head coaching job with the Denver Broncos in 1981.
Reeves’ first starting quarterback with the Broncos was old friend Craig Morton. They had been rookies together with the Cowboys in 1965. Though Morton was nearing the end of his career, he threw for 3,195 yards and 21 touchdowns to help make Reeves’ first season a success with a 10-6 record.
But the Broncos really took off after obtaining Elway in the 1983 draft. With Elway starting a Pro Football Hall of Fame career, Denver made the 1983 playoffs before reaching the Super Bowl in 1986.
“I thought John Elway was a lot like Roger Staubach,” Reeves said. “He worked harder than everybody else and was always prepared. We were fortunate to make a deal for him, and to have a great player in that position.”
Super Bowl troubles
The Broncos made Super Bowls in three of four seasons, but were blown out each time. Following a 39-20 loss to the New York Giants in Super Bowl XXI, Denver dropped a 42-10 decision to Washington the following year before a 55-10 blowout loss to San Francisco two years later.
“All those Super Bowl losses hurt,” Reeves said. “It was disappointing that we didn’t play as well as we were capable of doing. You feel so responsible as a head coach. If you don’t play as well as you can, you feel like it’s your fault. Losing that last game is something you never want.”
Following a 12-year run with the Broncos, Reeves took the Giants to the playoffs during his first season in 1993. But his four-year run in New York ended after a 6-10 season in 1996, prompting his move to Atlanta.
Reeves’ second year with the Falcons was a huge success as they made their first Super Bowl before losing to the Broncos, 34-19. It was quite a thrill for Reeves to return to his home state and lead Atlanta to the Super Bowl.
“It was exciting to get an opportunity to coach the Falcons,” Reeves said. “I felt very fortunate to get to the Super Bowl. We had a good quarterback in Chris Chandler, and we were able to sign some players in free agency who really helped.”
The 65-year-old Reeves and his wife, Pam, have been married 45 years and live in Atlanta. They have three children and six grandchildren.
Though he’s still connected to the NFL through his game-day radio broadcasts, he misses being around the game every day.
“I miss coaching, the competition and the relationships you build on a team,” Reeves said. “I miss that feeling of working for something together. But I still get to see quite a few coaches and players that I knew when I was in the league. I’ve made a lot of good friends in this game.”
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