Taking over Denver’s favorite team as his first NFL head coaching job, the former CU Buffalo brings a world of experience from the gridiron and the greens.
By Sam Adams
Portrait by Justin Tafoya
Buffed, both physically and sentimentally, Vance Joseph stands under a hot sun hovering above the Denver Broncos’ practice ﬁeld at Dove Valley. Freshly showered after putting his team through a two-hour practice, the team’s head coach has exchanged his coaching gear for golf attire. He willingly takes a break from football film study and roster decisions for photographs and golf conversation.
Joseph sports a bright, tight-ﬁtting orange shirt bearing a Broncos logo. For the ﬁrst few photos he pulls a Titleist driver from the bag, and removes the buffalo head cover that serves as a clear proclamation of his University of Colorado allegiance.
The Broncos’ 16th and newest head coach also could be the strongest in the franchise’s 58-year history. It’s highly unlikely that Mike Shanahan could ever match the 420-pound squats Joseph posted in the weight room during his playing days at Colorado and two seasons in the National Football League.
When asked to show off his muscles during one pose, Joseph laughs—bellowing the trace of his smooth baritone voice that’s quite suitable for crooning any R&B slow jam in a karaoke catalog. It’s the same rich voice that greets arriving passengers aboard the train that shuttles them to the main terminal at Denver International Airport.
In between snaps from the camera, Joseph, who turned 45 years old September 20, explains why big biceps don’t necessarily translate into great golf scores.
“Football is an explosive sport,” Joseph says. “In football we do everything hard and fast, and that can work against your golf swing. You want timing, rhythm and smoothness. Most football players struggle with that. They swing way too hard. I struggled with that for a long time when I was younger. It’s the tempo of the swing, letting the club do the work.
“I’m more into accuracy versus distance now. I used to swing out of my shoes. But there’s a way to explode without over-swinging.”
Joseph’s best round is an 87, shot at the Omni Interlocken in Broomfield — which is one of the Colorado courses (along with Sanctuary and Fossil Trace) he enjoys.
Lowering scores, let alone ﬁnding time to relax with a round of golf, is tough for Joseph because of the daily demands on a head football coach’s schedule — especially at the NFL level. He’ll get in an occasional round with his wife, Holly. He’s also enjoyed time on the links with Cincinnati Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis, and the man he replaced as the Broncos’ coach, Gary Kubiak.
“I don’t play a lot — usually it’s a business outing,” Joseph says. “When I retired I was obsessed with golf. Then I got a real job and that obsession went away quickly.” Laughing, Joseph adds, “And then when we had kids, it was nonexistent.”
Broncos defensive line coach Bill Kollar has witnessed the Vance Joseph golf experience. Kollar and Joseph worked together as assistant coaches on Kubiak’s staff with the Houston Texans. “Vance is so competitive,” Kollar says. “The ﬁrst time we went out to play, he bought a box of Pro Vs, and he’s killing the ball. But it was a really tight course so every now and then it’s oops, in the trees here or in the trees over there … he just ﬂat killed the ball.
“But you know how it is. In our line of business guys are competitive. You want to win no matter what you’re doing and that’s how Vance is.”
Joseph has not taken golf lessons. He picked up the gist of the game while in college, by hanging out with some of his CU teammates. “We would go to the range, Kordell Stewart and I, and just hit balls,” Joseph says. “And I watched a lot of golf videos. I’m a visual learner, so I pick things up pretty quickly. After I ﬁnished playing in the NFL, that’s when I started to play more.
“I’d play with Alfred Williams, Charles Johnson … we had a good group of guys who played together for about two years, playing three times a week.”
Playing golf with the fellas from his college days usually resulted in plenty of gripping, ripping and good-natured ribbing. More chirping than birdies, for sure. “Our outings were epic. We couldn’t tell you the ﬁnal results,” Johnson says. “Golf etiquette be damned, we would beat up on each other verbally.
“Vance was ‘Air Hammer’—he used to play with an Air Hammer driver. It was a gimmick driver that came out about 15-20 years ago. It had holes in it, and it would whistle when you’d swing it. VJ would swing so hard, to make that thing whistle louder. And he’d hit the ball a mile—in any direction.”
Those friendly rounds aren’t played as frequently. But Joseph makes sure those playful jabs have legs among former Buffs. “I always enjoyed playing with Alfred,” Joseph says of Williams. “Alfred’s best club is his pencil. Print that. If it’s not right (on the scorecard), he’ll make it right.”
Joseph declares decency with his Scotty Cameron putter. It’s control of the Ping irons that gives him the most concern. “The worst part of my game is my short clubs and ﬁnishing,” Joseph says. “That’s the bad part of my game. I can’t finish.”
Not being able to finish was the Broncos Achilles Heel last year. The team’s red-zone percentage for touchdowns was 28th in the NFL—and they were worse at punching it in at home than on the road.
Sub-par play from the linemen was a major concern for the Broncos’ offense. When the team held its annual team golf outing this summer at Sanctuary Golf Course, Joseph decided to get a close-up view of the players responsible for opening holes and protecting his quarterback.
Instead of joining foursomes with any of his team’s assistant coaches or front-office personnel, Joseph chose to get into the fairways with some of his offensive linemen.
“You can learn a lot about football players through golf—especially the big guys,” Joseph says. “It’s no different than watching a big guy play basketball. You watch a big guy swing a golf club, his hand-eye and timing, watch his hips and his hands work, the timing and twitch. Absolutely, you can tell from golf if a guy is an athlete.”
Joseph’s athleticism shows up on the course too, especially off the tee. “Driving is the best part of my game, especially in Colorado,” he says. “That’s from my baseball background.”
Baseball? The word around camp is that Joseph often compares himself to Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson. “Before there was Russell, there was Vance Joseph,” the Broncos head coach says without hesitation. “A 5-foot-10, 5-11 quarterback wasn’t accepted when I played.”
Wilson was drafted by the Colorado Rockies in 2010, and had 315 Minor League at-bats before returning to college for his senior year at the University of Wisconsin.
Joseph maintains he was also skilled enough to have been selected in Major League Baseball’s amateur draft. His high school football coach, Hank Tierney, says Joseph threw a baseball “harder than any 11-year old I’ve ever seen.”
Tierney also takes credit for preventing Joseph from playing baseball in high school. Joseph attributes the power of his golf swing to his youthful days swinging a baseball bat. When speaking to friends about Joseph’s golf game, it’s easy to believe he must’ve hit a lot of really long foul balls. Then again, one shouldn’t poke fun at a guy who could win a pec-to-pec weight room chest-off with Shannon Sharpe.
When he arrived at CU Joseph was a highly touted football prospect because of his ability to play quarterback in a run-oriented option offense. As a freshman, he backed up Johnson and Darian Hagan during CU’s national championship season. He was converted to running back after helping to recruit Stewart, a fellow Marrero La. native, to play quarterback.
He wasn’t drafted after his senior season at CU, but Joseph’s raw athleticism was good enough to earn him an NFL tryout. He made the New York Jets’ roster as a free agent in 1995, was converted to defensive back and played 17 games (with six starts) in two seasons playing for the Jets and Indianapolis Colts.
Kubiak isn’t the only Broncos head coach who can boast of scoring a touchdown while wearing the team’s uniform. Joseph did it in while in training camp with the Broncos in 1997, during a preseason game against the Buffalo Bills. He intercepted Bills quarterback Jim Ballard, and returned the pick 99 yards for a touchdown.
“It was my proudest moment in the NFL,” Joseph says. “It was my best camp because I was ﬁnally physically ﬁt to be an NFL defensive back. It’s different than being a quarterback. But I couldn’t stay healthy.” Joseph suffered a torn groin late in the ﬁnal preseason game, and his release from the Broncos eventually led to the end of his NFL playing career.
Joseph feels the path he traveled as a player to reach the NFL helps him greatly as a coach, especially when it comes to relating with his players. “This business—talent gets you here, but it won’t keep you here,” Joseph says. “There are a lot of guys with the talent but they don’t have the mindset, the work ethic or the wherewithal or the engagement to stay here. The love of the game—that’s what keeps you here.
“As an ex-player who was a free agent who had to work every camp to make a team, you recognize guys who are talented but don’t have the right mindset. I know, as a coach, I don’t want those guys because when it gets hard, they will get you beat.”
Joseph’s leadership qualities in athletics were evident at an early age. As a 14-year-old sophomore he quarterbacked Archbishop Shaw to a state football championship. He also was the starting point guard for the school’s state championship-winning basketball team.
“Not only was he 14 years old, but Vance was following his brother (Mickey), who was one of the most highly recruited players in America, not to mention the history of Louisiana,” Joseph’s high school coach Tierney says. “So Vance had nothing but pressure on his shoulders. All he did was bring the school to its first—and to this day, its only—state football championship.”
The Joseph family name is famous on the West Bank of the Mississippi River for producing star athletes at Archbishop Shaw. Vance’s older brother Mickey played football at Nebraska, and currently coaches the wide receivers at Louisiana State. Younger brother Sammy played football at CU as a freshman before transferring to LSU. And Terry Joseph, Vance’s cousin, was drafted by the Chicago Cubs (13th round) in 1995 and currently is the defensive backs coach at the University of North Carolina.
“I’ve coached many more talented players, but none that could get the results from A to Z like Vance did,” Tierney says. “He’s a natural leader, and very driven from within. I knew that whatever he chose to do, he’d be successful.”
Joseph interviewed for the Broncos’ vacant head coaching job in 2015, but the team hired Kubiak while trying to lure Joseph away from the Bengals to be the defensive coordinator. The Bengals, however, would not release Joseph from his contract.
That time Joseph spent in 2015 with the Broncos’ current president of football operations John Elway proved propitious the second time around. In January, less than two weeks after Kubiak stepped down as head coach, Elway announced Joseph’s hiring.
“When it happened, it felt normal,” Joseph says. “In my mind, my entire life has been like this—I’ve expected to have success. For me, I knew this day was going to come. I didn’t know when. So when they offered the job and I said yes, it wasn’t like a shock or surprise because I’d played it in my mind 150 times or so. I didn’t have time to get excited or think that it was huge.
“I went right to work.”
Last season the Broncos became the ﬁrst defending Super Bowl champion to miss the playoffs after starting a season 4-0. They also failed to reach the postseason for the ﬁrst time since 2010. At the time of this posting, the team was off to a 2-1 start.
With expectations at Dove Valley always raised high, Vance Joseph is eager to show that the weight heaped upon a first-time NFL head coach is not too heavy for his broad shoulders to bear—and that, unlike his experiences in the often exasperating game of golf, he’s confident of a strong finish.
CAG Contributor Sam Adams (samadamscomedy.com) is an award-winning sportswriter and standup comedian.
This article appears in the Fall Issue 2017of Colorado AvidGolfer, the state’s leading resource for golf and the lifestyle that surrounds it, publishing eight issues annually and proudly delivering daily content via coloradoavidgolfer.com.