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IT'S TIME TO PLAY . . . THE FEUD : FOR REEVES, ELWAY AND SHANAHAN, DISLIKE IS DEEP-SEATED.

Byline: Mike Freeman New York Times

That Dan Reeves and Mike Shanahan dislike each other is no exaggeration. It is a feud with an intensity that is rarely seen in the stoic coaching world of the National Football League. But instead of consuming the two men, as such emotions can sometimes do, this feud has created one of the strangest rivalries in sports.

In many ways, their disdain for each other has pushed both men toward the excellence that has put them in Super Bowl XXXIII, where Shanahan's Denver Broncos will play Reeves' Atlanta Falcons on Sunday.

``It is pretty ironic, all of this coming together,'' said Broncos quarterback John Elway, who started his first game for Reeves in 1983. ``The relationship with Dan, for both me and Mike, just didn't work out. Now, we're all going to play each other. That is strange.''

The problems between the two men began in the late 1980s when Reeves was coach of the Broncos and his relationship with Elway had become so strained that Reeves began to think that Elway and Shanahan were plotting against him, scripting plays behind his back.

Reeves finally fired Shanahan for insubordination after the 1991 season. Instead of wrecking Shanahan's career, though, the firing rejuvenated it. The San Francisco 49ers hired him as their offensive coordinator and then he became head coach of the Broncos in 1995, two years after team owner Pat Bowlen had fired Reeves. Reeves would go on to New York to coach the Giants for four seasons, get fired again, then join Atlanta and turn the Falcons franchise around in just two years.

But Shanahan and Reeves would never forget - or forgive - each other. And each man has wanted to prove something in this most personal of rivalries: Reeves that he could win without Shanahan - something many have questioned - and Shanahan, that he could win a Super Bowl without Reeves.

Both have been proved right. Reeves has taken the Falcons to an improbable 14-2 regular-season record and then led them to the Super Bowl with a stunning upset of the Vikings in Minnesota in the conference title game. If the Falcons beat the Broncos, it will be Reeves' first Super Bowl championship as a coach after failing three times with the Broncos - all while Shanahan was an assistant with the team.

Shanahan has already won the championship that has eluded Reeves. The Broncos upset the heavily favored Green Bay Packers in the Super Bowl last season and, if they can win the title again, Shanahan will be regarded as one of the top coaches in the game.

Perhaps most important to these two, one will have defeated the other in the NFL's ultimate game.

Oddly, Shanahan and Reeves have prospered from their rivalry, according to friends of the two men. They have used each other as motivation, pushing to succeed not solely because of personal pride, but because one wanted to prove to the other that he was better. It has been a competitive, long-distance race, one of the great grudge matches in football.

``They watch each other, and if one messes up, the other loves it,'' said an assistant coach who has worked with both men.

``There is no question that Mike is working extra hard right now, because it would torment him forever to lose to Dan in the Super Bowl, and Dan is working extra hard for the same reason,'' said the assistant coach. ``That is how much they hate each other. They would rather fall off a mountain than lose the Super Bowl to each other.''

Another assistant who has worked with both Shanahan and Reeves said: ``Basically one wants to prove that the other can't coach, then rub his face in it.''

The bitterness of the feud, and its public nature, has even shocked some players. Denver tight end Shannon Sharpe, who was drafted by Reeves, said: ``I would be lying if I said I wasn't surprised. But obviously this has been eating at Dan for a long time.''

When Reeves was coaching the Giants, he would scan the papers for news about Shanahan. If the Broncos lost, Reeves would mock Shanahan in front of Giants coaches, several of those coaches said last week. When Shanahan won the Super Bowl last year, one former assistant said Reeves told him and others that the day was ``one of the saddest of my life.''

Shanahan has been equally spiteful. In the days following last season's Super Bowl victory over the Packers, Elway and Shanahan told members of the Broncos that the organization would never have reached that point if Reeves had still been the head coach, according to a Broncos official. After the Broncos beat the Falcons in September 1997 in the only other game in which Shanahan and Reeves have faced each other, Shanahan said, ``Thank God Dan and I don't have to play.'' He was only half joking.

Last week's exchange between Reeves and Shanahan spelled out for all to see just how deep-seated this feud has become.

Reeves opened the discussion last Wednesday after repeatedly being asked at his news conference about his relationship with Shanahan and Elway. Reeves finally began talking when he was reminded of a 1993 article in which Elway said it was ``hell'' playing under Reeves, who once said Elway needed to grow up.

``If John Elway had a problem with me, I'd have liked to have known about it before reading about it in the newspaper,'' Reeves said. ``That was the biggest problem I had.''

Then, Reeves began speaking of both Elway and Shanahan. ``I had a lot of great times with those guys,'' he said. ``I can be cordial to them, I can play golf with them. I won't go out to eat with them, or go socially to a function with them, but if I was sitting next to them, I would have no problem carrying on a conversation because I can look back on a lot of great things.

``There are a lot of things that I've done and decisions I've made that I didn't enjoy doing that affected people's lives, but are they going to be over the hurt of it, I don't think so.''

Reeves said if he had not believed that Shanahan had gone behind his back to undermine his relationship with Elway, he wouldn't have fired Shanahan. Shanahan responded last Thursday by all but calling Reeves a liar, saying the Falcons coach had unfairly questioned his character. Shanahan added that he and Reeves could never be friends again.

``I was disappointed that Dan Reeves, if he had a problem with Mike Shanahan, that he would at least have told me when I was an assistant coach,'' Shanahan said.

``We were golfing partners,'' Shanahan continued. ``We were as close as a head coach and assistant coach could be throughout six and a half years. It just didn't end the way I would have liked it to end, and sometimes that has something to do with communication. Perception sometimes on somebody's part, plus people get a little carried away. What he may have perceived was not the situation, and I'm sorry for that.''

Shanahan added that the relationship between Reeves and Elway was already severely strained when he got to Denver.

``Dan Reeves knew,'' said Shanahan. ``Dan Reeves knew his relationship with John was terrible. There are no ifs, ands or buts about that. It was a tough relationship from the second year on. Everybody in this town knows that.''

Said Elway on Thursday: ``It wasn't a fun time. It was a tough time for everybody. It was one of those things you wish didn't happen but it did and nobody can change that.''

Shanahan and Reeves seemed like a great match. Reeves hired Shanahan out of the University of Florida in 1984, where Shanahan had earned a reputation as a great offensive thinker. He made Shanahan wide-receivers coach and just one year later promoted him to offensive coordinator. Shanahan kept that job for three years before becoming coach of the then-Los Angeles Raiders in 1988. He was fired from the Raiders only four games into the 1989 season, then rejoined Reeves as quarterback coach.

Shanahan's value was undeniable. Elway loved his quarterback-friendly schemes, and it is no coincidence that under Shanahan as offensive coordinator, Elway went to two Super Bowls and had 60 touchdown passes and 48 interceptions. Elway also compiled all but 13 of his 41 fourth-quarter comebacks under Shanahan.

When Shanahan was with the Raiders, Elway tossed 22 touchdowns and 27 interceptions.

To Elway, Shanahan also served as a pseudo-therapist, since he listened to many of Elway's complaints about Reeves, the chief one regarding what Elway believed was extremely conservative play-calling. Reeves feels that even by listening to Elway - instead of stopping such conversations dead in their tracks - Shanahan was being disloyal. Everything quickly deteriorated after that.

``There were a lot of people hurt in the whole situation,'' said Elway. ``It wasn't just us three. There were a lot of people hurt in our families, Mike and mine and his. The thing I regret is that it got to this point. But it did.''

Late last week, Elway summed up the story perfectly to a teammate, telling him, ``I think you will see two guys in the Super Bowl who will really want to beat each other to a pulp.''

CAPTION(S):

4 Photos

PHOTO (1--Color) ``There's still a lot of hurt that won't ever go away. You never forget those things.''

- Dan Reeves, Atlanta Falcons

John Bazemore/Associated Press

(2--Color) ``(Dan) wanted complete control. He really didn't want somebody with my type of personality around.''

- Mike Shanahan, Denver Broncos

Eric Gay/Associated Press

(3--Color) no caption (Denver's John Elway)

Doug Mills/Associated Press

(4) Mike Shanahan and Dan Reeves used to be golfing buddies. These days, one cheers and celebrates when the other messes up.

Janet Reeves/Associated Press
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Title Annotation:SPORTS
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Jan 28, 1999
Words:1656
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