Former Senior Defensive Assistant, Detroit Lions
Cunningham’s defenses in Detroit were guided by the ability to attack the quarterback and generate disruptive plays. Last season, Cunningham was instrumental in the development of rookie DEs Ezekiel Ansah and Devin Taylor, who each recorded 8.0 and 2.5 sacks respectively, while DT Ndamukong Suh was selected to his third Pro Bowl in four years. Ansah’s eight sacks also led all rookie players in 2013.
The 2012 edition of the Detroit Lions defense ranked 13th overall in the NFL in total defense and seventh in the NFC, the highest Lions ranking since 1995, despite starting 16 different lineup configurations and 14 different lineups in the secondary. Cunningham’s dedication to a consistent pass rush proved evident once again in 2012 as the Lions’ defensive line applied heavy pressure to opponent offenses week in and week out, accounting for 31 of the team’s 34 sacks. Since 2010, the Lions rank sixth in the NFL in combined sacks and tackles for loss on rushing plays with 338 under Cunningham.
From, 2004-08, Cunningham served as the Kansas City Chiefs defensive coordinator during his second stint with the organization. In 2008, he also coached the team’s linebackers as the Chiefs’ defense began a transition with six new starters and endured numerous injuries throughout the season. From 2004-07, his imprint on the defense was prevalent in several areas as Kansas City’s pass defense ranked fifth in the NFL in 2007 allowing only 188.9 yards per game.
Under former head coach Jeff Fisher, Cunningham served as the Tennessee Titans assistant head coach/linebackers coach from 2001-03. In those three seasons, the Titans defense helped the franchise earn two playoff berths. In 2003, Tennessee’s defense led the NFL in both rushing defense (80.9 yards per game) and opponents’ third-down percentage (27.7). That year, LB Keith Bullock earned a spot in the Pro Bowl under Cunningham’s tutelage as his position coach.
As head coach for the Chiefs from 1999-00, Cunningham compiled a 16-16 (.500) record. In 1999, the Chiefs were 9-7 and tied with the Seattle Seahawks with the best record in the AFC West but lost out on a playoff tie-breaker. Cunningham became the first coach in Chiefs’ history to claim nine wins in his first season as Chiefs’ head coach.
Cunningham not only has compiled great defensive units, but he has coached and mentored several Pro Bowl and All-Pro players, including Suh (2011, 2012, 2014) and DT Nick Fairley (2014 alternate). He has shared a special bond as a mentor to the late, great nine-time Pro Bowl LB Derrick Thomas, who concluded his illustrious career as the all-time leading sack artist in Chiefs history with 126.5 QB takedowns. Cunningham served as Thomas’ position coach in 1997, helping him earn his final Pro Bowl invitation. He also coached DE Neil Smith (second in Chiefs history with 86.5 sacks) and DE Jared Allen, who earned his first spot in the Pro Bowl after the 2007 season when he lead the League in sacks with 15.5.
Prior to his arrival in Kansas City, Cunningham spent four seasons (1991-94) with the Los Angeles Raiders, as linebackers coach (1991), defensive coordinator (1992-93) and defensive line coach (1994). He was also the San Diego Chargers defensive line coach for six seasons (1985-90) after originally being hired by the team’s player personnel department.
In 1982, Cunningham entered the NFL coaching ranks when he joined the Baltimore Colts coaching staff as the team’s defensive line/linebackers coach from 1982-84, learning from the late Bud Carson. Before entering the NFL ranks, his previous pro coaching experience was with the defensive line/linebackers coach for the CFL’s Hamilton Tiger-Cats in 1981 with head coach Frank Kush who also hired Cunningham in Baltimore.
As a college coach, Cunningham’s last stop was at California, where he coached the Bears defensive line from 1979-80, the linebackes in 1978 and secondary in 1977. Prior his stop in Berkeley, Cunningham coached at the Stanford Cardinal from 1973-76. He was hired by Head Coach Jack Christensen, a Hall of Fame defensive back for the Detroit Lions in the 1950s and a member of the Lions 75th Season All-time Team. While at Stanford, he coached the defensive line from 1974-76 and was the assistant offensive line and freshmen coach during his first year in 1973.
Cunningham worked at the University of Arkansas in 1972 on a staff headed by Frank Broyles that included Joe Gibbs and Raymond Berry. Prior to that, Cunningham began his coaching career at the University of Oregon, his alma mater, in 1969. He was with the Ducks program for three years from 1969-71 where he began his longtime relationship with another noted defensive coach, George Seifert. Cunningham was a graduate of Oregon and was a linebacker and kicker for the Ducks from 1966-68.
After playing his prep football at Lompoc High School in Lompoc, California. He was then recruited to play at Allan Hancock College by Hall of Fame coach John Madden. Madden left the school prior to Cunningham’s freshman year and was replaced as head coach by Ernie Zampese.
Cunningham, who became a naturalized U.S. citizen on April 6, 2010, is just one of four foreign-born individuals in League history to ever serve as an NFL head coach, joining Hugo Bezdek (Cleveland Rams, 1937-38), Jock Sutherland (Pittsburgh, 1946-47) and Al Saunders (San Diego, 1986-88). Born in Munich, Germany, he moved to Greenfield, Mass., at the age of 10 in 1956 with his mother Katharina and his adoptive father, Air Force Sergeant Garner Cunningham.
Cunningham and his wife, René, have two children, Natalie and Adam.