KANSAS CITY, Mo. — The late Gunther Cunningham received another honor just one month following his passing, with the Pro Football Writers of America on Monday selecting him as a recipient of the Paul “Dr. Z” Zimmerman Award.
Cunningham shared the award with Mike Westhoff, a longtime NFL special teams coordinator. The “Dr. Z” Award is presented annually as a lifetime achievement honor for NFL assistant coaches.
The coaching career of Cunningham spanned 48 seasons, tracing back from his start in college as a defensive line coach at Oregon in 1968 until his retirement as a senior coaching assistant with the Detroit Lions in 2016. He joined the NFL as a defensive line and linebackers coach with the Baltimore Colts in 1982, spending the next 35 years in the pro ranks.
Cunningham achieved his greatest coaching glory as a defensive coordinator with the Chiefs. He served two stints as coordinator, first under Marty Schottenheimer from 1995 to 1998 and again from 2004 to 2008 under both Dick Vermeil and Herm Edwards. The Chiefs allowed just 16.4 points per game during Cunningham's first stint with club while leading the league in defensive scoring in 1995 and 1997.
The Chiefs hired Cunningham as head coach following the departure of Schottenheimer in 1999. Roster turnover and the tragic passing of Derrick Thomas in 2000 left the franchise in a lurch, but Cunningham still navigated the Chiefs to a 16-16 mark in two seasons.
Team chairman and CEO Clark Hunt remembered Cunningham's passion as a coach following his passing last month.
“During his nine seasons as defensive coordinator and two as head coach of the Kansas City Chiefs, he led some of the most feared defenses in our franchise’s history with his energetic and motivating coaching style,” Hunt said in a statement. “Gunther made a tremendous impact on so many lives on and off the playing field in nearly five decades of coaching.”
Cunningham, 72, passed away May 11 following a brief illness. He was born June 19, 1946 in Munich, Germany, in the aftermath of World War II. He emigrated to the United States as a child who could speak no English. He became a naturalized U.S. Citizen on April 6, 2010.
Cunningham eventually found his passion in football, which led him to play linebacker and kicker at Oregon. Future Super Bowl head coach George Seifert, then the Ducks defensive backs coach, convinced Cunningham to embark on a coaching career.
It's the second season in a row in which a former Chiefs coach received the Dr. Z Award. Former Chiefs defensive backs coach Emmitt Thomas, who retired during the offseason, shared the award last year with Joe Bugel.
The Dr. Z Award is named for longtime Sports Illustrated lead pro football writer Paul Zimmerman. His writing career was ended by a series of strokes in November 2008 that left him unable to speak, read and write. The PFWA created the as a lifetime achievement honor for NFL assistant coaches.