No frequent flyer is a big fan of the cross-country trip. But San
Francisco 49ers special teams coach Bruce DeHaven was relieved to
be making the five-hour flight from Atlanta to Northern
California on Sunday night because it would keep him far from the
national telecast of the Buffalo Bills-Tennessee Titans game, a
rematch between the teams that had played in the Music City
Miracle wild-card playoff game last January. "It'd be torture to
see," DeHaven said last Saturday, on the eve of the Niners'
season opener against the Atlanta Falcons.
The Bills' special teams coach last season, DeHaven had watched
his kickoff coverage unit allow the Titans to pull off a wacky
return for the winning touchdown in the game's final seconds.
Three days later DeHaven got a call from Buffalo coach Wade
Phillips, who told DeHaven he was fired. "You mean I'm getting
fired on the basis of one play?" DeHaven recalls saying.
Phillips, he says, explained that he just had to make some
changes. DeHaven, 52, a 30-year coaching veteran, including 13
seasons with the Bills, still has emotion in his voice, almost
eight months after the right side of his coverage team
collapsed. "I have no excuses," says DeHaven, who built some of
the league's best special teams while in Buffalo. "It happened
on my watch. I take the blame."
Not that he necessarily deserves it. In the days leading up to
the game, DeHaven had watched tape of the Titans and realized
that they loved gadget plays; he alerted his players to that
during the week. In the seconds after Steve Christie kicked the
field goal that gave the Bills a 16-15 lead, he remembers yelling
to his return unit, some members of which were being pressed into
coverage duty because of injuries, "Be ready for anything!
They're going to be desperate! Watch for laterals! Stay in your
DeHaven called for a high, medium-range kick to give his squad
time to surround the return man. Lorenzo Neal caught the ball at
the 25, and the right side of the coverage angled toward him.
Neal handed the ball to Frank Wycheck, who lateraled to Kevin
Dyson, who breezed 75 yards for the winning score. "I felt like
I'd been shot, like it was the end of the world," DeHaven
September 10, 2000
According to DeHaven no player on the coverage unit, before or
after the firing, apologized for the gaffe. But he estimates that
70 people around the league contacted him, including Steve
Walters, the Titans' wide receivers coach. "You don't know me,"
Walters told him, "but I just wanted to tell you how terrible I
feel for you."
Two weeks later DeHaven chose the 49ers from among five teams
that had inquired about his services. His faith in the game, and
his love for it, was renewed. "I love football. I love coaching,"
says DeHaven, whose San Francisco special teams had a
less-than-stellar start, allowing kickoff returns of 57 and 48
yards in a 36-28 loss to the Falcons. "If I hadn't gotten a job
in the NFL, I'd have tried to coach in college, or high school,
or junior high, which is where I started in 1970."
If DeHaven is bitter, he won't say. But as he talked about his
firing, his voice cracked when he spoke of how tough it was to
move a family--wife Kathy, three-year-old son Tobin, one-year-old
daughter AnnieMaude--that never wanted to leave Buffalo. "I hope,"
he said, sighing deeply and pausing for several seconds, "that
someday I can show my son how I handled this, that everything
doesn't always go the way you want it to. Life is about moving