Before meeting Mike McDaniel, the smallest, funniest and most over-educated Miami Dolphins coach, you need to walk down a hallway. It’s in his great-grandmother’s home.
Family photos line its walls, dozens of smiling faces through the years at picnics or school events, the kids becoming adults as you walk the hallway, the years turning into generations. McDaniel passed these photos hundreds of times until one day when he was 5. He stopped then and studied them.
“Wow, this is odd,” he thought. “I look different than everyone else.”
That set off a chain of events in which his 5-year-old mind couldn’t answer the most fundamental of questions: Who am I? It did, however, explain why his father’s family used different combs — picks, they were called — compared to ones with more teeth in his mother’s family.
Soon, some of his white mother’s family refused to see him for part of his youth — “a hiatus,” as he calls it — until realizing, as he says, “I was light enough for them.” It was a similar, if contrasting story on his Black father’s side, exacerbated after his parents’ divorce when he was 3. Visits with his father decreased after that. By McDaniel’s high school years, they saw each other only a couple of times. He last saw his father while in college, two decades ago.
So McDaniel grew up with the self-awareness he wasn’t a cookie-cutter fit, even in his family. What’s more, he never felt the need to be the same, thanks to his mother’s encouragement and own strong mind.
“As opposed to making me feel inferior about being different, I thought, that, ‘OK, maybe I can be special,’ ” he said. “Not limiting myself to anything. Determining my own territory.”
He went through phases finding that territory. He joined the skater crowd in middle school with a bowl hair cut. He pierced his ears and grew his hair at Smoky Hill High School in Denver. He hung with the brain-iacs, considering he was one of them, taking advanced placement and International Baccalaureate classes. He also was a jock, an accomplished wide receiver on the football team — “a leader, someone people gravitated to,” as coach Dan Gallas remembers.
If McDaniel fit nowhere as a biracial, only-child, single-parented, money-challenged, smart and athletic kid, he discovered he fit everywhere, too. All his youth — all his life, in some form —became a walk down his great-grandmother’s hallway, realizing he was different and embracing that his path would be, too.
He had a who-am-I epiphany standing before his father’s family photos that day. His life is full of such moments, defining snapshots that, strung together, don’t just plot his path toward becoming the Miami Dolphins coach. They answer the question he sought since standing in that hallway at age 5: Who is Mike McDaniel?
The second defining moment came in college. McDaniel continued his model-of-one journey as the lone student from his Smoky Hill class of more than 700 to attend Yale. The kid from the Rocky Mountains went east to New Haven, Conn.
“I got smacked in the face and completely humbled,” he said.
Some Yale students had a proud family name. Many came from the developed culture of prep or boarding schools. Most had money. McDaniel had no name or cultured background and had such little money he said, “putting pepperoni on my pizza was a budgetary decision.”
A couple of constants carried him. One was realizing a repeating pattern of not being a stereotypical fit into any group.
“I was back to being the middle school nerd in the social hierarchy,” he said.
Back in middle school, he was a good friend to girls due to his social skills, without being popular with them in the manner he wanted. He figured out how to be popular by high school. His quirky sense of humor helped. His boyhood friend, Dan Soder, is a stand-up comedian and acts on shows like HBO’s “Billions.” Yale provided the, “next crash course,” as he said, in using his personality to be accepted by different groups.
His second constant was football. His admission to Yale was aided by his preferred walk-on status in football. Many such walk-ons got in the school and left the team when they didn’t play. McDaniel didn’t play his first three years. He played some as a senior receiver despite never catching a pass.
Teammates respected his drive — and his mind even more.
“From the first moment I met him, he understood schematics, techniques, opponents and playbooks and was incredibly technical on the field,” said Tony Reno, the current Yale football coach who became receivers coach in 2003 when McDaniel played there. “One of the things that struck me early on is he would spend endless hours working before and after practice with guys on the fundamentals like hand positions, foot placement, how to run the top of a route.”
As McDaniel remembers, his sense of self emerging, “I got my first taste of coaching there.”
The third defining moment came Dec. 30, 2008. McDaniel remembers exact dates that impacted his career, and he was fired by Houston Texans’ coach Gary Kubiak on this day. Kubiak remains a friend and mentor, saying, “Mike’s a highly intelligent, did a really good job and I hope our time together helped him.”
McDaniel was 23 when Kubiak hired him in 2006 due to his hard work, good mind and a chain of fortunate events. Upon leaving Yale, McDaniel intended to use his history degree toward a business job and asked Denver Broncos coach Mike Shanahan to write a recommendation.
McDaniel knew Shanahan from being a Broncos’ ball boy as a youth, a role that grew out of riding his bike starting at age 8 to watch the team’s summer practices at 7 a.m. He’d remain at the complex collecting players’ autographs until 7 p.m. One year he befriended a Broncos video official, whom he introduced to his mother. He soon became McDaniel’s stepfather. McDaniel, always at camp, became a ball boy for Shanahan’s teams.
Upon graduating from Yale, McDaniel received more than a recommendation from Shanahan. He was offered a coaching internship. McDaniel’s smarts and work ethic took over from there, performing grunt jobs others didn’t like, carving a niche for himself and soaking up coaching methods.
Kubiak, a former Denver coach and quarterback, hired McDaniel as an offensive assistant in 2006. McDaniel didn’t get an office, setting up in the corner of a meeting room. In the other corners: Robert Saleh, now the New York Jets coach; Matt LaFleur, now the Green Bay Packers coach; and Richard Hightower, the Chicago Bears’ special teams coach.
If the trading of young ideas helped McDaniel’s development, so did his responsibility under offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan: working with receiver Andre Johnson. Here, as always, McDaniel was different in a way that wasn’t lost on him: An unknown 23-year-old one year out of college coaching a rare 25-year-old talent whose first three years fell in the good-not-great category.
“My thought was, ‘How, in his mind, am I going to be a resource for him?’ ” McDaniel said. “I knew I’d better be super-prepared for any meeting or conversation. That’s an asset. ‘I’m going to have to be good at my job.’ That’s what I wanted to do, anyhow.”
Shanahan constantly showed Johnson the manner Baltimore receiver Steve Smith impacted games. Johnson became upset at the constant comparison. That’s where McDaniel entered, explaining how the bigger and stronger Johnson could dominate if he honed similar ball skills of pass catching and running after the catch.
“He changed the manner he worked,” McDaniel said.
Johnson didn’t top 79 catches his first three seasons. He led the league with 103 his first year with Shanahan and McDaniel in 2006. After being injured in 2007, Johnson led the league with 115 catches and 1,575 yards in 2008.
By then, a different issue arose around McDaniel.
“I don’t know how Mike will describe it,” Kubiak said. “There was a situation where it was, ‘OK, time to grow up, straighten up a little bit.’ It’s something he went through as a young coach, trying to find a way, and I was hard on him.”
McDaniel remembers Kubiak would call him in the office like clockwork at 6 a.m. each day.
“I was young and going out at night,” he said. “I’d broke up with my girlfriend, and one or two times he called my desk at 6 and I wasn’t there.”
There was a feeling an NFL job came too quickly to McDaniel. He was just 25 after the 2008 season. McDaniel remembers Kubiak telling him he was fired and, “You’re young, you have an unbelievable future, but I think you need some perspective. I’m just hoping we can look back in five years and say this was the best thing to happen to you.”
McDaniel doesn’t disagree with Kubiak’s decision today. He also remembers leaving Houston’s Reliant Stadium with Kubiak’s world already a reality.
“I am going to make this the best thing to happen to me,” he told himself.
Feb. 15, 2011. This day was the next snapshot on McDaniel’s path. He was hired back to the NFL after a two-year hiatus as running back coach with the semi-pro Sacramento Mountain Lions. Former NFL coach Dennis Green was the Mountain Lions coach. Longtime University of Miami assistant Art Kehoe was the line coach.
“He was smart, that’s what I remember,” Kehoe said of McDaniel. “He went to school, where, at Yale, and was always trying inventive things. I didn’t know if some would work until you’d see them on the field.”
Blocking angles. Running schemes. His running back, Cory Ross, became the United Football League’s offensive player of the year with plays like taking a full-speed pitch as if going outside and running back inside at a rare angle.
“He worked his ass off chasing his dream,” Kehoe said.
When Mike Shanahan became coach in Washington in 2011, McDaniel came an offensive assistant. He also was reunited with Kyle Shanahan, the offensive coordinator who he would be with for most of the next decade.
“I was fortunate because I had a couple of coaches that empowered me,” McDaniel said.
He wasn’t sure of his role in Washington as Kyle Shanahan, future Los Angeles Rams coach Sean McVay and others dissected the passing game. McDaniel, seeing where he could help, offered to oversee the running game.
More than his new role was his new perspective. He became one of the first to the office each day, ready to answer any 6 a.m. phone call.
“The idea when I was out of the NFL, every day, moving forward, was when I was back in it I’d never forget and lose perspective of where I was,” he said. “I said that even on those days I didn’t feel like grinding through or felt I was miserable, I’d appreciate where I was.”
Jan. 4, 2016. This next moment on McDaniel’s journey was his first day of sobriety. His drinking became noticeable enough inside the Atlanta Falcons that he was confronted by other coaches and assistant general manager Scott Pioli.
“He and I had what I’ll call an intimate talk that led later to a tougher talk,” Pioli said. “I cared about him, and we talked about his responsibility to all of us. I give him a ton of credit. The thing I remember is how honest he was in that talk.”
“We had a tough conversation,” McDaniel said. “And when I came home from work I had another tough conversation with my wife.”
Alcohol, he felt, was the outlet to another issue: Depression.
“When you drink alcohol, you can escape your problems,” he said. “When you’re very fortunate, you can feel guilty about even having problems. Drinking is escaping from that. It would snowball for me. I’m kind of an extreme, all-in person. Moderation was not my deal.
“That’s something I think, really, I took a deep dive into myself on and forced myself to realize it’s OK to have problems and work through them. Don’t run from them. It’s OK if I love my life and have a bad day or something poorly affects me, and I directly address it. Then, voila, depression gone.”
One issue bothering McDaniel at the time was a worry he was being passed by. He was only 33. But LaFleur, who he helped train, was already an NFL offensive coordinator. McVay, who was three years younger than him, was a hot NFL commodity and a year from being named the Rams coach.
McDaniel remembers looking at his wife, Katie, as they talked on Jan. 4, 2016.
“I knew I was never going to short-change her or myself ever again,” he said. “It just clicked to me. If all things stay the same and I can get this figured out, they can’t say anything about me being a party guy or a drunk — then what can hold me back?”
He went for help to become sober with the idea, “If anyone can do it, I can do it.”
“It was liberating to take control,” he said. “It’s one of my favorite things. I’m very proud of that. It was the hard thing to do and the right thing to do.”
It also played into a developed philosophy.
“If I recognize something that’s hard, especially for a lot of people, that’s immediately an opportunity for me to separate myself,” he said. “Why spend time avoiding hard things? Find hard things that you need to push through for the journey and for satisfaction.”
Feb. 6, 2022. He can time-stamp this date at 2:46 p.m. That’s when he got the call to be the Dolphins head coach. He was the San Francisco 49ers’ offensive coordinator under Kyle Shanahan by that point after a few seasons as their run-game coordinator.
His schemes helped Pierre Garcon lead the league in catches and receiver Deebo Samuel become a dual threat as a running back. The 49ers’ run-game philosophy was, “the best in the NFL,” Hall of Fame coach Jimmy Johnson said. “Their blocking angles and running lanes have been better the last few years than anyone out there.”
Beyond the X’s and O’s, McDaniel came to understand his best asset. It’s his lifetime of being different. He can talk to anyone and relate to everyone. That’s important because he understands football plays don’t consist of X’s running or O’s blocking. People do that. He can relate to and win over players in a manner the one-time middle school nerd won over girls.
You can find NFL coaches who have some of his attributes: biracial, single-parented, alcoholic. He’s not, for instance, the first history major from the Ivy League to rise to an NFL coach — Hall of Fame coach Marv Levy was a history major at Harvard.
But the full, 5-foot-8 package from biracial background to quirky sense of humor is something the NFL hasn’t seen. He knows his size and scope doesn’t match people’s thoughts of an NFL coach. From offensive linemen to media, he sees their understated first impression of him and is both amused and motivated by now.
“I like having to earn people’s trust and respect, of not being entitled to any sort of legitimacy,” he said. “It’s the same with hearing, ‘Can Mike McDaniel lead men?’ I would’ve expected that. I have to earn it.”
His general manager in Atlanta, Nicholas Dimitroff, who had a few quirks of his own, said that McDaniel “beats to a different drum in the NFL. That’s not easy to do and something I can relate to. Some people in football felt they had to march to the same beat to be respected and tried to be someone who they aren’t. Mike was smart enough to trust being who he is.”
In some manner he’s still walking down his great-grandmother’s hallway and realizing he’s different than everyone in the photos. It’s just the NFL coaches’ photos he doesn’t fit now. He’s fine with that, too. Because if people don’t know who Mike McDaniel is, he sure does, after a life of walking that hallway.
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