JERSEY CITY, N.J. -- LSU was a few months removed from winning its first SEC championship in more than a decade when Adam Gase, then a young graduate assistant under Nick Saban, drove home to Michigan to ponder his future.
Gase sat down with one of his father's friends at an Applebee's restaurant in Mt. Pleasant to interview for a job selling insurance, and with his student loans piling up and his future at LSU in flux, he thought seriously about taking it.
"It was just kind of that stage where, I may or may not have got kicked out of grad school because I didn't go to class, so that may have been part of it," Gase recalled Wednesday. "(LSU was) trying to find a role for me to stay there. That's not an easy thing to do at that level. I don't know, it was just a weird deal."
Three of Gase's former college roommates from Michigan State flipped when they heard he might quit coaching, and after LSU created an assistant recruiting position to keep him, Gase took their advice and decided to stay.
A year later, former Lions scout and Free Press contributor Russ Bolinger brought him to Detroit as an intern in the personnel department, and on Sunday the 35-year-old whiz kid offensive coordinator for the Denver Broncos will coach in his first Super Bowl against the Seattle Seahawks at MetLife Stadium.
Gase is considered one of the top young assistants in the NFL, and his rise from student helper at MSU to one of the league's hottest coaching commodities is nothing short of meteoric.
He spent four years working for Saban at Michigan State, was the only member of the Spartan staff who followed Saban to LSU, apprenticed under Mike Martz with the Lions and San Francisco 49ers, and after four seasons of working with Josh McDaniels and Mike McCoy in Denver was promoted to coordinator last winter.
Gase credits "a little bit of luck" and "meeting the right people at the right time" for his success, but people who know him say it's more about his tireless work ethic and willingness to immerse himself in every aspect of football.
"When I was in Detroit, Adam was in the scouting department and he came to me and he said, 'Coach, I really, really want to get into the coaching side. I don't want to be putting names up on the wall and watching film of these guys that are getting drafted in the eighth round,'" former Lions coach and current NFL Network analyst Steve Mariucci said. "So we sat down and I just got a feel for his interest and his desire to be a football coach, and we had some Michigan State connections and some common friends. That got my attention a little bit, and so after visiting with him I realized how sure and how determined he was to become a coach.
"Maybe I'm a little sentimental toward those kind of guys, but that's how I got into the league. John Robinson gave me a chance to work for nothing for the Rams and be a quality control coach in 1985, and I was getting my feet wet in the NFL. Sometimes we need that break, we need a chance just to show what we can do and so I thought I would give him that chance. I wasn't with him long, just the one year, but the next staff kept him because he was a worker and he wasn't getting paid a lot of money. It's like 'Hey, you want to do this? You do it for nothing, sleep on the couch. OK, that's what you want to do.'"
Gase, an Ypsilanti native, said he always liked football but "just was terrible at it" at Marshall High.
With no chance to play collegiately, he stumbled into coaching after then-Michigan State defensive coordinator Dean Pees visited Marshall his senior year. A Marshall coach introduced Gase and Pees, and Pees gave Gase his business card and told him to look him up when he got to campus.
When Gase arrived at Michigan State in the fall of 1996, he unloaded his stuff, went to the football building and started work as a student assistant.
"I showed up, I gave the secretary the card, I sat in his office probably for an hour and he gave me (a scouting report) from the Cleveland Browns," Gase said. "I remember duplicating it out of my dorm room. I had just got a computer for graduation, I just remember him going, 'Do you know how to use a computer?' I was like, 'I got a computer.' I mean, I had no idea what I was doing."
Gase worked in various low-level jobs at Michigan State and LSU, printing scouting reports, breaking down tape and catering to the needs of visiting scouts.
Martz took him under his wing in Detroit, and after Martz got fired in San Francisco, Gase landed a job in Denver with McDaniels, his old friend from MSU.
He coached receivers his first two seasons with the Broncos, quarterbacks in 2011-12, and after McCoy took over as San Diego Chargers coach last year, Gase became Peyton Manning's right-hand man in developing and devouring an offense that set an NFL record for points this year.
Manning and Broncos executive vice president John Elway have gushed about Gase and his football acumen and preparedness in recent weeks, and almost everyone expects him to be a head coach soon.
Gase, in fact, had opportunities this year, but he declined interviews with the Cleveland Browns and Minnesota Vikings in order to focus on Denver's playoff run. Gase said he never talked with the Lions about their coaching vacancy.
"My mindset was on what we wanted to do to get to this point right here and try to finish this off," Gase said. "I just remember how I felt last year after we lost that Baltimore game and me personally, I would not have been able to forgive myself if something would have happened that first playoff game and I felt like I didn't spend enough time doing what I needed to do to fulfill my role."
(c)2014 Detroit Free Press
Visit the Detroit Free Press at www.freep.com
Distributed by MCT Information Services