ATLANTA — Dan Reeves, who won a Super Bowl as a player with the Dallas Cowboys but was best known for a long coaching career that included four blowout losses in the title game with the Denver Broncos and the Atlanta Falcons, died Saturday. He was 77.
A statement released by his family through former Falcons media relations director Aaron Salkin said Reeves died of complications from dementia. The statement said he died “peacefully and surrounded by his loving family at his home in Atlanta.”
“His legacy will continue through his many friends, players and fans as well as the rest of the NFL community,” the family said.
Reeves was a versatile player who played a key role in the Cowboys becoming an NFL powerhouse in the 1960s under Tom Landry, but his own coaching career — stretching over three teams and 23 seasons — is where he truly left his mark on the league.
Including a stint with the New York Giants, Reeves totaled 190 coaching victories — the ninth-most in NFL history. But he was never able to win the biggest game of all, going 0-4 in the Super Bowl, each of them by double-digit margins.
Reeves, Marv Levy, and Bud Grant are the only coaches to lose four times in the Super Bowl.
“Dan Reeves leaves a lasting legacy in our game as a player and coach," said Falcons owner Arthur Blank, who fired Reeves from his final job in 2003. “His track record of success in Dallas, Denver, New York and Atlanta over several decades speaks for itself, marking a long and successful life and career in football.”
Just 37 when he took over as coach of the Broncos in 1981, Reeves acquired quarterback John Elway in a trade and built a team that made three Super Bowl appearances, earned six trips to the playoffs and won five AFC West titles over his 12-year tenure.
But Denver never won an NFL title under Reeves, losing 39-20 to the Giants in the 1987 Super Bowl, 42-10 to Washington in 1988 and 55-10 to the San Francisco 49ers in 1990 — still the most lopsided loss in the game's history.
Despite those defeats and a bitter parting after the 1992 season, Reeves is remembered fondly in Denver, where the Broncos inducted him into their Ring of Honor in 2014.
“Coach Reeves set the foundation for the Broncos’ decade of dominance in the 1980s and championship tradition for years to come," the team said in a statement. “Reeves coached the Broncos with integrity, character and toughness along with sincere appreciation for his players and coaches.”
After a falling out with Elway and allegations that the star quarterback had colluded with then-offensive coordinator (and eventual head coach) Mike Shanahan to force a change, Reeves was fired by the Broncos.
He took over the Giants in 1993 and led the team to the playoffs in his first season, but that would be his only postseason appearance in New York. He was fired after four seasons but quickly caught on in 1997 with the Falcons, a homecoming of sorts for the Georgia native.
In just his second season with a franchise that had experienced little success, Reeves guided a team known as the “Dirty Birds” to a 14-2 record in the regular season and their first trip to the Super Bowl.
After Reeves underwent emergency heart surgery, the Falcons beat the heavily favored Minnesota Vikings in an overtime thriller at the Metrodome to claim the NFC championship, prompting the coach to attempt the arm-flapping dance that star running back Jamal Anderson and other players had made the team's trademark.
Reeves again came up short of a championship, losing to Shanahan, Elway, and the Broncos 34-19.
Reeves engineered a trade that brought Michael Vick to the Falcons and made his final playoff appearance in 2002, when Atlanta became the first road team to win a playoff game in Green Bay.
But Vick was injured during the 2003 preseason, and Reeves was fired after the team won just three of its first 13 games.
He ended his coaching career — and 39 uninterrupted years in the NFL — with a record of 190-165-2.
Reeves remained in Atlanta after his retirement, most notably serving as an adviser to Georgia State when it launched a football program that now plays in the Sun Belt Conference.
Daniel Edward Reeves was born in Rome, Georgia, but grew up in the Americus, in the southwestern part of the state, where he played football, basketball, and baseball in high school.
Reeves attended college at South Carolina, where he was a three-year starter at quarterback from 1962-64 and also played baseball for the Gamecocks.
Better known as a runner than a passer, Reeves was not drafted after college. He signed a free-agent deal with the Cowboys, who initially wanted him to play safety but wound up moving him to running back.
Reeves emerged as one of the team's key players just as the Cowboys were establishing themselves as the successful franchise that would become known as “America's Team.”
He started all 14 games at halfback in 1966, leading the Cowboys in rushing with 757 yards and eight touchdowns. Dallas made its first playoff appearance but lost to the Green Bay Packers in a 34-27 shootout for the NFL championship, missing a chance to play in the first Super Bowl.
The following season, Reeves rushed for 603 yards and five TDs, again starting every game, as the Cowboys made another run to the playoffs. Again, they were thwarted by Green Bay one win shy of the Super Bowl, losing to the Packers on a touchdown in the closing seconds of the famed “Ice Bowl” game at frigid Lambeau Field.
A knee injury in 1968 limited his effectiveness, and Reeves played only a limited role the rest of his career. But Landry recognized his abilities off the field, asking Reeves to serve as a player-coach while runner such as Duane Thomas and Calvin Hill took on more prominent backfield roles.
The Cowboys made their first Super Bowl during the 1970 season, losing to the Baltimore Colts on a last-second field goal, but finally won the championship the following year with a 24-3 victory over the Miami Dolphins.
Reeves retired as a player after the 1972 season, becoming a full-time assistant on Landry's staff.
As a head coach, Reeves was known for his gruff, no-nonsense approach and an offensive philosophy that favored a physical running game. But he also coached two of the game's most dynamic offensive players, Vick and Elway, defying those who labeled him as old-fashioned.
With his distinctive Southern drawl, Reeves could be honest to a fault, such as when he spoke openly of the rift that led to his departure in Denver — and opened up a lot of old wounds — during the lead-up to the Falcons facing the Broncos in the 1999 Super Bowl.
“There's still a lot of hurt that won’t ever go away,” Reeves said. “You never will forget those things.”
But Reeves rarely held grudges, even with members of the media that he had clashed with.
In his later years, he would gladly take phone calls to discuss the issues of the day, once joking when a reporter identified himself, “OK, what did I do wrong now?”
Reeves is survived by wife Pam, his high school sweetheart; children Dana, Lee and Laura; as well as grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Funeral arrangements have yet to be announced.