Gunther Cunningham was a defensive mastermind. As the Chiefs defensive coordinator for four seasons before becoming head coach, the team allowed the fewest points in the NFL.
Cunningham died on Saturday after a bout with cancer. He was 72.
After spending four seasons with the Raiders, Cunningham was hired by Marty Schottenheimer as the Chiefs defensive coordinator ahead of the 1995 season. He worked with star players such as Derrick Thomas and Neil Smith, and the Chiefs had the top-ranked scoring defense in Cunningham’s first season.
“He was intensity personified, a fully committed coach, and a brilliant defensive coordinator,” said Carl Peterson, the Chiefs general manager during Cunningham’s two tenures with the Chiefs.
When Schottenheimer resigned after the 1998 season, Cunningham was hired as head coach.
“We were trying to maintain continuity and the consistency we had built with Marty, where we had been to the playoffs seven of the past nine years,” Peterson said. “We had an excellent defense, and felt like if we could sustain that and improve the offense a little we’d be right back in the playoffs.”
The Chiefs came close in Cunningham’s first season, finishing 9-7, the best record by a Chiefs rookie head coach.
The Chiefs needed a victory over Oakland at Arrowhead in the regular-season finale to clinch a playoff spot but after taking a 17-0 lead fell 41-38 in overtime.
After the Chiefs finished 7-9 the following season, the first after the tragic death of Thomas, Cunningham was fired and replaced by Dick Vermeil.
After three seasons on the Tennessee Titans’ staff, Cunningham returned to the Chiefs as defensive coordinator in 2004.
“A lot of people said that was impossible to do, for Gunther to return after I had made the decision to (fire) him as head coach,” Peterson said. “But people didn’t know the relationship we had, Dick, Gunther and myself. We needed a defensive coordinator and Gunther wanted to be here.
“It was an indication of how much he loved the Chiefs, Arrowhead and the atmosphere.”
Cunningham remained with the Chiefs until 2008. He joined the Detroit Lions in the same capacity in 2009 and was defensive coordinator until 2013, when he became a senior coaching assistant.
Cunningham left the Lions in 2017 and worked remotely for Pro Football Focus. He had spent more than 30 years in the NFL, serving on staffs with the Colts and Chargers before working for the Raiders. Along the way, Cunningham coached some of the game’s greats, like the Chargers’ Leslie O’Neal and the Raiders’ Howie Long.
Helping build Cunningham’s ferocious Chiefs defenses were players like cornerbacks Dale Carter and James Hasty, tackle Dan Saleaumua and linebacker Donnie Edwards.
“He was an excellent teacher,” Peterson said. “He took a lot of young player and made them Pro Bowl players.”
Peterson called Cunningham a “players’ coach,” and not just on the defensive side. Center Tim Grunhard who played from 1990-2000, said he always found a place to sit near the wall that separated offensive and defensive players during prep the night before games. “So I could hear him get the defensive players psyched up,” Grunhard said. “We all fed of his intensity and enthusiasm.”
Chiefs Chairman and CEO Clark Hunt issued a statement:
“My family and I are deeply saddened to hear the news of Gunther’s passing. During his nine season as defensive coordinator and two as head coach of the Kansas City Chiefs he led some of the most feared defenses in our franchise’s history with his energetic and motivating coaching style. Gunther made a tremendous impact on so many lives on and off the player field in nearly five decades of coaching. Our heartfelt condolences go out to (his wife) Rene, (children) Natalie and Adam and the entire Cunningham family during this difficult time.”