(DeHaven photos courtesy of the Buffalo Bills)
By Rick Gosselin
Talk of Fame Network
Back in the 1980s, before the media was identified as the enemy by NFL teams, I was covering the Kansas City Chiefs and got to know Frank Gansz. If there was a Hall of Fame for special-teams coaches, Frank would be in it.
Gansz would invite me into his office and educate me on special teams. He showed me on film what he looked for in kickoff coverage and kickoff returns, punt coverage and punt returns and also the art of blocking kicks. He would show me specific blocks he designed for that week’s opponent, probing a weakness in protection, and few did it better.
Many NFL teams didn’t have special teams coaches back then. And some of those that did often had them double up as tight ends-special teams coaches or linebackers-special teams coaches. So each year Gansz would compile his own set of special-teams rankings to determine how the Chiefs fared that season against the other 27 teams in the kicking game. The NFL didn’t care much about special teams then, so the coaches always had to generate their own stats.
Gansz gave me a copy of his formula in 1986, and I started tracking special teams myself. Initially, there were just a dozen categories, but I bulked the rankings up over the years so that they are now based on 22 categories. Word got out in NFL circles that I was compiling these rankings, and, one by one, the league’s special-team coaches started calling me, asking for their copy.
One of the callers was Bruce DeHaven, an old friend from my days covering the Big Eight while working for United Press International in Kansas City. DeHaven coached at Kansas from 1979-81 and I used to get over to Lawrence, Kan., quite often back then to see his Jayhawks play games. It was only an hour’s drive, and there usually was a plate of ribs involved later in the evening.
Bruce moved on from the Big Eight to the USFL, then followed a USFL head coach into the NFL — Marv Levy at Buffalo. Marv was another old friend from the special-teams fraternity, one of the very first NFL special teams coaches ever hired in 1969. I covered Levy during his stint as a head coach of the Chiefs from 1978-82. It was Levy, in fact, who brought Gansz to Kansas City.
I got to know all the special teams coaches over the years as the rankings grew in popularity. Bill Belichick started his NFL coaching career as a special teams coach. So did Bill Cowher. And John Harbaugh. I’ve long believed some of the best coaching done in the NFL is by these special teams gurus because they aren’t working with the stars. They work with the bottom half of the roster, generally the non-starters. And their casts of characters tended to change with the annual roster churn.
But with Marv and Bruce, Buffalo had something special — a head coach devoted to the kicking game and a special-teams coach obsessed with teaching it. There was a roster commitment to the kicking game, so much so that the Bills were among the very first NFL teams to include special-teams statistics in their annual press guide.
With Adam Lingner snapping the ball, Scott Norwood, Steve Christie and Chris Mohr kicking it and Mark Pike and Steve Tasker chasing those kicks, special teams became an annual edge for the Bills during their run of four consecutive AFC championships from 1990-93. Tasker became a seven-time Pro Bowl selection and a Hall-of-Fame candidate under DeHaven’s tutelage, and the Bills’ special team’s edge became legendary on January 3, 1993 when Buffalo came back from a 32-point deficit to beat the Houston Oilers in an AFC wildcard playoff game.
That day DeHaven’s special teams recovered both an inadvertent squib kick and an onside kick to set up two scores and returned a muffed Oilers’ field goal attempt 70 yards. In the end they would win in overtime on a Christie field goal, 41-38. It remains the largest comeback in a playoff game in NFL history and DeHaven’s special teams did much to make it happen.
“Bruce was a great guy,” recalled Patriots’ head coach Bill Belichick. “He’s one of the real good guys. When I came in, there were no special teams coaches really to speak of, and then he was one of the, I’d say, first wave of lifers … kind of … at that position.
“Those were signature plays (against the Oilers), no doubt about it. I think those plays always, when you see those plays, whether it was the [Dontari] Poe pass or the special-teams player in some kind of unusual onside kick or whatever it is — a fake field goal that works — I mean, those plays always kind of stick out. It’s nice to have one of those in your resume if you can pull it off. But I think the more important thing is just the week-in and week-out consistency and performance of (DeHaven’s) units.”
DeHaven finished first in my special-teams rankings with the Bills in 1996, and I remember making the phone call to both inform and congratulate him. He dropped that Kansas, “Aw, shucks,” line on me – “It’s the players,” he said. “They’re out there making the plays. All we do is coach ‘em.”
Bruce moved on from the Bills, coaching with six other teams over the next 17 seasons, including a stint in Dallas with the Cowboys where we could talk special teams on a more regular basis. Often the conversation strayed to his Kansas roots and his beloved rock ‘n roll. At least once in every conversation, the 1960s group MC5, rockers from my hometown of Detroit, would come up in the discussion, always with a chuckle. And, occasionally, there’d be a plate of ribs involved.
DeHaven’s last stop was with Carolina, where he learned in May, 2015 he had prostate cancer and was given anywhere from five months to five years to live.
I last saw Bruce at the Super Bowl in February, where he once again deflected talk of himself and his issues. “This week is about the players,” Bruce said, “it’s not about me.” I talked once on the phone since then, just to check in on him, to see how he was doing and ask what music he was listening to.
I never got to make a second call. DeHaven passed away this week.
He was more than an NFL special-teams coach. He was a friend. And he excelled in both capacities.
Listen to the Bruce DeHaven interview now.