Why Brian Griese left television booth to become 49ers' quarterbacks coach

ByNick Wagoner ESPN logo
Monday, October 3, 2022

SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- Brian Griese spent his entire adult life either playing football or talking about it on television. Both jobs had been at the center of the Griese family business for the better part of 55 years, but in February, Griese suddenly found himself at a crossroads.

His time in the Monday Night Football booth was ending after two years, with ESPN hiring what Griese calls a "bigger fish" in Troy Aikman to become the sole analyst. And while lucrative TV deals were almost as prevalent as large player contracts during the NFL offseason, Griese didn't have time to wait to see if one of those offers would materialize if he wanted to pursue a career path that had always been in the back of his mind.

That is how Griese ended up at dinner with San Francisco 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan and his staff on an early March evening. Only a couple of days earlier, Griese reached out to Shanahan through intermediaries in Denver, including Kyle's father, Mike Shanahan, to express interest in becoming the Niners' quarterbacks coach.

Although Griese, 47, had no previous coaching experience, Kyle Shanahan was intrigued. He had interviewed multiple candidates but had known Griese for about 25 years, dating back to Griese's time playing for Mike Shanahan with the Denver Broncos in the late 1990s and as an offensive assistant for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2004 and 2005, when Griese was a player for the Bucs.

The dinner offered a chance for Griese and the Niners' staff to get to know one another, talk about football, life and how he might fit into the San Francisco dynamic. More than that, it was a chance for Shanahan to find out how invested Griese was in such a dramatic career shift.

"Brian was very successful, has a family out in Denver, hours change a lot and they all say they know, which he does, but it gets different once you really get into it," Shanahan said. "We really tried to scare the heck out of him, tried to tell him how bad it sucked and how miserable he was gonna be and how much your wife's not gonna like it."

Despite Shanahan and his staff's best efforts at a football edition of "Scared Straight," Griese was unfazed. For every concern Shanahan or another coach broached, Griese had an answer. More importantly, he fit in easily with the other assistants, and although there'd be a learning curve, Shanahan called it an easy decision. Within 48 hours of first contact, Griese was his guy and he soon signed a two-year contract to replace departing quarterbacks coach Rich Scangarello.

For the Niners, it was a bold hire given their ongoing quarterback drama. They were about to hand the keys to promising but unproven quarterback Trey Lance and were in the midst of the seemingly never-ending Jimmy Garoppolo saga.

Whether it's a long-term career change for Griese or not remains to be seen. But for now, it's a chance to do something different and scratch his competitive itch, which he'll do again for the 49ers (1-2) when they host the Los Angeles Rams (2-1) on Monday Night Football (8:15 ET, ESPN/ESPN2/ESPN+/ABC).

"I knew this was gonna be a challenge that I was ready for, but you never know until you get into it," Griese said. "There's no winning or losing in the booth. And I enjoyed my time doing it. I really did and there were some leadership aspects to it, of leading a team of 125 or 150 people to go and cover a game and, and to do it well and to do it under the brightest lights and to communicate and to teach the game to people at home. And I enjoyed all of that, but when the game was over, you didn't know if you won or lost."

UNDER DIFFERENT CIRCUMSTANCES, coaching football would have already been a part of the Griese occupational lineage.

Five games into his 14th NFL season, Bob Griese, father to then-6-year-old Brian, suffered a shoulder injury. It was severe enough to end his 1980 season and his Hall of Fame career at 35 years old.

Long known for his ability to think his way through Miami Dolphins wins, Bob was a natural fit on legendary coach Don Shula's staff. Shula wasted no time offering Bob a position helping the team's quarterbacks, a job he accepted for the 1981 season.

In a wild football coincidence that unknowingly portended his son's first year in coaching, Bob helped Miami through that season while navigating a two-quarterback conundrum of his own between David Woodley and Don Strock, a duo that would become known as "Woodstrock." Bob helped Miami to an 11-4-1 record and an AFC playoff berth.

He was such a coaching natural that Shula asked him to stick around for the long haul. But there was one significant obstacle: Bob found himself away from his wife and three sons far too much.

"I thought I could do a good job and that's why Shula said, 'No, you love this,'" Bob said. "I said, 'Yeah, but I love my family more.' It was the hours. I know I could have been good at it because I know what it took to be a good coach. But it was the time that was the key."

BobGriese left coaching after one season and went to NBC in 1982. Broadcasting allowed him more time with his family while also keeping him close to the game. His biggest concern on game days was pronouncing names correctly and efficiently offering analysis between plays. Griese spent the next 30-plus years in either the television or radio booth calling college and NFL games.

The other prominent challenge with a life in coaching: It can be a nomadic life spent apart from family as assistants working their way up the food chain.

For ESPN college basketball analyst Jay Bilas, that, more than the hours, was what kept him from continuing to coach after serving as an assistant to Mike Krzyzewski at Duke for three seasons. It's also why he opted to step into the broadcasting booth despite receiving offers to go back to the sidelines.

"Of course, you look at that and say, 'That would have been fun,'" Bilas said. "I know I made the right decision for our family, so I'd never second-guess that part of it. But broadcasting doesn't provide the same competitive outlet that being involved in sports does."

When Brian Griese informed his father this offseason that he was considering jumping into coaching, his dad had one immediate question: What about your family?

Brian's wife, Brook, and his daughter, Lia, and son, Nathan, both of whom are in high school, stayed in Denver after he took the job with the Niners but offered their blessing.

They were the main reason Griese didn't make the jump to coaching sooner and why he chose to enter the booth first.

"My kids were young and I didn't wanna bounce around the country," Griese said. "It was really as simple as that. My family had made sacrifices for me to play for a long time, and I felt like it was time for me to be home. After 13 years, my kids were grown up, they're getting ready to get out of the house. When this opportunity came, it was the right time and it was the right challenge at that moment."

JUST BEFORE THE Niners opened training camp July 26, Griese found himself pondering what he would have been doing if he pursued another NFL broadcasting job instead of coming to San Francisco. Aside from spending time with his family, Griese reckoned he'd be meticulously studying NFL rosters for additions and subtractions, learning new coach and player names, jersey numbers and pronunciations and diving deeper into offseason storylines for all 32 teams.

Instead, Griese was planning to guide two young quarterbacks, Lance and seventh-round pick Brock Purdy, through training camp as Garoppolo loomed in the background while recovering from right shoulder surgery.

"I was so thankful to be here, let's just put it that way," Griese said, laughing.

Griese took the job assuming Lance would be the starter and Garoppolo would likely be on another team, which is why he and Garoppolo had next to no communication until Garoppolo reported for training camp. Griese spent the offseason working with Lance, Purdy and veteran Nate Sudfeld, whom the 49ers eventually released.

In some ways, it was an easy fit for Griese, whom Shanahan calls "one of the smartest players" he has ever been around. Shanahan remembers his time as a young assistant in Tampa Bay, where he watched Griese prepare for games and marveled at his ability to memorize everything and spit it back without missing a beat.

That Griese could also tap into playing experience earned him instant credibility with the Niners' quarterbacks, who mainly knew him as a broadcaster but soon understood that he spent 11 years in their shoes.

The knowledge of little things like how to control the huddle, offering tips on identifying indicators from the defense pre-snap and even how to deal with the media forged easy relationships.

Griese gained that wisdom in his 83 NFL starts with the Broncos, Dolphins, Buccaneers and Bears, which included a Pro Bowl appearance in 2000. He was also the starting quarterback for Michigan's 1997 national championship team.

"He just sees it very similarly to you," Garoppolo said. "It's tough to coach a quarterback. You have to be able to see it the same way as him, which a lot of guys think they do, but they don't. And he just has the experience of being on the field, being in those moments, and it's nice to have a guy like that around."

By his own admission, Griese is still trying to figure out his coaching style. It's an ongoing process for any coach, but also one Shanahan wants to help cultivate in an offseason in which the Niners had 14 coaches who were either new or moving into different roles.

All that turnover left Shanahan and his staff holdovers spending more time coaching other coaches on the finer points of how to teach players while understanding their individual quirks and communication needs.

"I would say that's almost all of what coaching is, is 'How do we teach?'" 49ers passing game coordinator Bobby Slowik said. "How do we instill what we know and what we want onto these individuals that may hear things we say in different ways. ... The whole process of that is really the name of the game."

IN SOME OF Griese's first weeks on the job, he'd go to Shanahan perplexed about why he would tell a player to do something and the message would seem to be received but wouldn't translate to the field.

"He'd come in and be like, 'Man, why won't they do it?'" Shanahan said. "Well, welcome to coaching, man. You don't just say it and they do it. You gotta reframe it. You gotta get a different way. Not every person thinks the same. Not everybody is physically the same. ... You gotta be yourself but you gotta reach people a different way."

While the appeal of having a result every week was a driving force in his career change, Griese also acknowledges it's a leap he wouldn't have made had it not been for the specific chance to work with Shanahan.

In some ways, Griese and Shanahan are kindred spirits, raised in the daily business of football by fathers known for their ability to be mentally one step ahead of their opponent.

"I wasn't looking and I certainly wasn't gonna just take any job," Griese said. "I wasn't gonna come here if I didn't feel 100% good about that. ... It was a unique situation and a unique timing ... those two things coming together led to an opportunity and a decision that I feel really good about."

A month into his first year on the job, Griese is helping the Niners navigate their perpetually murky quarterback waters. He's not yet thinking about moving up the coaching ranks or even how long he plans to do it. As he puts it, his priorities are becoming the best coach he can be and contributing to get the result he has been missing after games: savoring victories rather than agonizing over losses.

"One of our core tenets we talked about in our very first meeting was pushing our comfort zones and challenging ourselves," Griese said. "I'm a lifelong learner. I hope that as long as I'm on this earth, I'm learning and growing. This experience has certainly been that, and I think we are approaching or at least giving ourselves an opportunity to be our best self when we're continuing to grow."

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