Gunther Cunningham, who spent more than three decades as a coach in the NFL, including two as the head coach of the Chiefs, died Saturday at the age of 72, the Lions confirmed.
Cunningham spent the final stint of his coaching career with the Lions as defensive coordinator from 2009-13 and a senior coaching assistant from 2014-16.
“Gunther Cunningham will forever be remembered as one of the great men of our game,” the Lions said in a statement. “He left a lasting impact on every person who was fortunate enough to work alongside him during his more than 47 years as a coach — including 34 years in the National Football League, the final eight of which were spent here in Detroit. Our organization is truly honored and proud to have been included in his distinguished coaching legacy. We extend our heartfelt sympathies to his wife, René, and their entire family.”
Statement from the Detroit Lions on the passing of Gunther Cunningham pic.twitter.com/Flky2p2K9q
— Detroit Lions (@Lions) May 13, 2019
Cunningham was a defensive assistant on the college level at Oregon, Arkansas, Stanford and Cal before getting his first professional job with the CFL’s Hamilton Tiger-Cats in 1981. It took just one season north of the border before Cunningham landed his first NFL job with the Colts in 1982. From there he spent time with the Chargers, Raiders, Titans and Chiefs.
He went 16-16 in two seasons as Kansas City’s head coach from 1999-2000 between the tenures of Marty Schottenheimer and Dick Vermeil.
Despite being an elder statesman of the league late in his career, Cunningham was one of the first coaches to put stock in advanced analytics. Following his retirement from coaching in 2016, Cunningham joined the staff of Pro Football Focus as director of football oversight, where he helped improve player grading systems featured on NBC’s “Sunday Night Football.”
And despite his long football resume, the most fascinating piece of Cunnigham’s background may be his journey to U.S. citizenship after being born in Germany in 1946 where he grew up just miles from the Dachau concentration camp. When he was 10 years old, Cunninghman and his family emigrated to America, where he learned English, played linebacker and kicker at Oregon, became a staple in the coaching profession and a naturalized U.S. citizen in 2010.
“God bless America and the game of football because it has given me a great life,” Cunningham told ESPN in 2014. “When I stepped off the plane not knowing where I was, it still gives me chills thinking about those days.”
Cunningham is survived by his wife, Rene, and two children, Natalie and Adam.