Hey, remember when Kyle Shanahan and Mike Dunleavy Jr. were underclassmen at Duke together for that one scholastic year of overlapping sports destinies?
No, no, almost nobody remembers that, actually, though it feels like a hidden origin story now. We all recall Dunleavy’s grand Duke basketball career and can recount most of his steps from there to his current role as the Golden State Warriors’ new general manager; but Shanahan’s cameo two seasons on the Duke football team seem like the blurry, sketchy, blink-and-you-missed-it prologue to a life and career that got much more accomplished and much happier for the current San Francisco 49ers head coach after his exit to the University of Texas.
But they were together for one season — 1999-2000, Shanahan’s red-shirt freshman campaign with the only major school that offered him a scholarship and Dunleavy’s first year on campus as one of the most heralded recruits in the Mike Krzyzewski era. They knew each other a little bit, bonded when the student paper sat them both down to talk about being sons of famous coaches pursuing sports, and then went their separate ways — Dunleavy for three starring seasons at Duke (including a national title in 2001) and then a long NBA career; Shanahan transferring in 2000, flourishing in Texas’ big-time football community in the 2001 and 2002 seasons, and then his coaching journey to taking over the 49ers in 2017.
This is just one layer of the solid connections and friendships between these two signature teams, but it’s the most ancient and surprising one. And when you talk to each of them about those days in Durham, N.C., the Shanahan-Dunleavy relationship sets up as a perfect example of the converging backgrounds, shared principles, ambition, recent success and self-aware sensibilities of both men and both franchises these days now that Shanahan and Dunleavy are well into their 40s.
What was it like to be around Dunleavy back then, Kyle?
“I think he had a much better career and enjoyed Duke a little bit more than I did,” Shanahan said with a smile recently.
Yeah, it’s hard to believe that Shanahan, who lives and breathes football, ever was a receiver at Duke. Or ever set foot on the stately campus of that small private school. He says it himself, suggesting that his real college career didn’t start until he got to Texas and back in the middle of high-profile, high-stakes football again, after growing up around the Broncos when his father was running that team. Which Dunleavy understood, too.
“At the time, Duke basketball is like here in terms of sports,” Dunleavy said recently, raising his hand up far above his head, “in prestige and all that. And football was still trying to find its way. … (Shanahan was) so into football and he’s so talented in that regard. When you think of football, you think of SEC, Big 12 — you should be at one of the top powerhouse colleges or conferences.”
The two met up again on the sidelines before a recent Warriors playoff game. Just recently, Dunleavy and assistant GM Kirk Lacob made a visit to a 49ers practice and spent some time with Shanahan. And if you ask Shanahan about Dunleavy now, a lot of jobs and years later, he still sounds a little bit like a JV guy talking about the BMOC.
“Oh, he was the man,” Shanahan recalled of the Duke days. “He was the biggest recruit and I was only there with him for (Dunleavy’s) freshman year, but he was the man right away. And continued to be the man for his whole career there.”
But there is something similar about these guys, which helps tie these teams together, too. There’s a directness, calm confidence, obvious passion for putting together winning teams and a determined lack of pretension. You are what you are, and you’re not pretending to be anything else. And there’s naturally something about following famous fathers into sports and then making your own way that will always connect Shanahan and Dunleavy.
“I think they grew up in the spotlight,” 49ers GM John Lynch said last week. “I know that with Kyle, not everyone soaks it in, but there has to be some level of osmosis. Does it make you better? Not everyone. But I played for his dad. Every detail, running on offense, running an organization, running a staff. I know Kyle soaked it in and just respects his dad and loves his dad immensely. And for Mike, I think it’s very similar.”
You get a better understanding of Shanahan when you talk about him with Dunleavy. You get a better feel for Dunleavy when you mention his name to Shanahan. And these days, as the Warriors-49ers fellowship flourishes, you definitely get a broader view of each team when you hear about how interested they are in each other and how much they identify with everything they see happening nearby.
“I’m just blown away by what they’ve done since they started (when Shanahan and Lynch arrived in 2017),” Steve Kerr said of the 49ers last week. “They were really rock bottom. Now they look like the best team in the league.
“In this business, we want to learn from the best and learn what the best, most efficient organizations are doing. Some of it is that. I want to see what they’re doing up close. And then some of it is they’re just great guys. Kyle and John are great guys, they’re fun to be around.”
The 49ers and Warriors are each of your favorite team’s favorite teams, pretty simply.
“I’m not a professional basketball coach, but I do love the way they play,” said Christian McCaffrey, who attended several Warriors playoff games last spring. “I grew up playing hoops. So there’s a lot to admire. Two completely different games. But a guy like Draymond Green and how tough he plays, how hard he plays … yeah, there’s definitely stuff to look at it and say that’s admirable.”
The clearest way to put this is that winners are drawn to winners and compelling teams attract each other. When the Warriors were in their floundering era, from the mid-1990s through 2011-12, there wasn’t a parade of 49ers superstars in the front row at Oracle Arena. When the 49ers were terrible before Jim Harbaugh’s arrival in 2010 and the two seasons after his departure in 2014 and before Shanahan’s arrival, you didn’t need to scan the sidelines for sports-world royalty because they weren’t there.
For years, the 49ers were actually closest to the Sharks in the Bay Area, figuratively and emotionally — then-GMs Trent Baalke and Doug Wilson were close friends. The Giants were winning World Series and had their share of famous associations. Until Stephen Curry attained full ascension a decade ago, the Warriors weren’t taken very seriously, even by themselves sometimes.
But now? Joe Lacob is a long-time suite-holder at Levi’s Stadium. Klay Thompson has been at several 49ers games, including on Sunday, and loves to chat about the latest NFL news. 49ers stars Deebo Samuel, Trent Williams, George Kittle, Kyle Juszczyk and most recently Brock Purdy have been to Chase Center several times, and Lynch and Shanahan enjoyed their trips to Chase Center during last season’s playoffs so much that they hustled up second-row tickets (right behind Kyrie Irving) for the Warriors’ epic Game 7 victory in Sacramento.
“They’re the team of this generation,” Lynch said of the Warriors. “And they’re fun to watch. I think we’re fun to watch. We play physically, we play hard. We have stars, they have stars. There are similarities.”
Good teams appreciate good teams. Rising franchises look up to dynasties. Aging superstars get energized by watching the up-and-comers. Everybody wants to witness the Curry Experience — McCaffrey said watching Curry’s famous pregame warmups was an awe-inspiring event.
And after three trips to the NFC Championship Game in the last four years and now sitting at 5-0 this season, it’s no surprise that the 49ers’ leaders are talking and acting (and winning) like Curry, Draymond and Klay. And that the Warriors’ headliners feel it, too.
“That team, they’re so well balanced,” Thompson said of the 49ers. “They have many superstars at many positions. … I mean, they’ve got a squad, and it’s such a well-balanced attack. You can tell by the way they play they don’t care who gets all the credit. They just want to win. That really resonates with us, honestly.”
That’s the larger theme: The Warriors and 49ers are full of players who know they’re good and don’t have to spend every game chasing personal statistics to prove it. Purdy’s words after Sunday’s victory could’ve come from Curry or any other top-line Warrior: “Everyone wants to win; everyone knows that they’re good. So it’s going to be just a matter of time when it’s their game.”
Of course, the 49ers’ headliners are quick to say that the Warriors, who are aiming for their fifth championship of this era, have accomplished far more than the 49ers have since their last championship 29 seasons ago. The 49ers are not shy about it — they want some of the Warriors’ glow to rub off on them.
“It’s a lot more fun to be around teams when they’re winning,” Shanahan said. “But I mean, they’ve got four championships. So I think they’re on a whole different level. But I think it’s nice that we’re at least winning some. And I think they enjoy coming to that.”
The two high-profile coaches have connected, too. The first time, Kerr spotted Shanahan sitting behind the Warriors’ bench during a 2022 finals game against Boston and the two men quietly nodded to each other. The second meeting was a little less stressful: on the golf course in an outing set up by Lynch and others two summers ago.
But the 49ers’ leaders have one quibble with Kerr: “I don’t know if we can get Steve to a game yet,” Shanahan said, laughing. “But maybe a playoff game. I know he’s watching ’em.”
Yes, Kerr turned down a seat in Lynch’s box for one of the hottest regular-season tickets in Levi’s history on Sunday.
“Well, I’m 58 and I have a dog and a remote control and a big TV and beer in the fridge,” Kerr deadpanned last week. “And I don’t have to get in my car.”
Whether Kerr ever decides to fight the traffic and get to a 49ers game, he’s absolutely a huge NFL fan. Dunleavy semi-jokes that he and Kerr can always talk about their alma maters Duke and Arizona during basketball season, but they usually chat about the NFL when it’s football time. And Shanahan and Lynch are definitely NBA fans, though recollections of their postgame shooting session on the Warriors’ practice court after a playoff game last season (in front of several Warriors players) have taken on legendarily amusing proportions.
It all works because the 49ers and Warriors understand each other and love to laugh with each other.
“There’s a ton of respect, obviously,” Shanahan said. “But I also think we genuinely like each other. When we’ve gone up there for the playoff games, John and I, they’ve been so genuine to us, taken care of us. Just to hang out with Kent (Lacob), Kirk (Lacob), Joe, getting to see (Dunleavy) last year.
“So there’s relationships there that have gotten stronger. I think John’s always been real close to Bob Myers. I know they’re good friends. And (Kerr), from being from San Diego, has always been tight with John. So there are some connections there. I think we all genuinely like each other.”
Myers, who might’ve been the most connected sports executive in Bay Area history and is a huge 49ers fan, was, not shockingly, at the center of this before he left the Warriors last spring. Also not surprisingly, he’s still tied to both franchises. Without the responsibility to run a franchise these days, and before he starts his new role at ESPN, Myers has been able to attend the 49ers’ last two games and probably will be at more.
I’ve joked that Myers should just sign up as an official 49ers consultant while he takes time off from the NBA executive life, and nobody’s told me I’m way off on that one.
“I think Steve’s and Bob’s relationship was very similar to Kyle and me,” Lynch said. “Two guys who have a great deal of respect for each other, actually enjoy each other, are friends off the court as well. But not afraid to challenge each other. Just don’t agree on everything. And ultimately work together.”
Myers and Lynch haven’t socialized together much, but they’ve got very similar easy-going personalities and strong reputations in their roles. And they definitely keep in touch. Lynch started chuckling when he recalled getting a call from Myers during the 49ers’ slow start in the 2021 season.
“We were at (2-4) getting ready to play the Bears,” Lynch said. “I was out there on the (practice) field. Rarely answer my phone. I looked down and it was Bob Myers. … He’s that kind of guy that when you need a pick me up, out of the blue, he was like, ‘Hey, glad you took this job?’ He goes, ‘Man, I know it stinks right now. But you guys are doing it right. Just keep going.’”
The 49ers beat the Bears that weekend, finished the regular season at 10-7, won two road playoff games and had a chance to beat the eventual Super Bowl champion Rams in the NFC title game. They kept going.
And just a few weeks ago, there was another Myers moment with the 49ers. At the most stressful point of the 49ers’ negotiations with Nick Bosa, as the regular season was dawning and all sides were anticipating Bosa missing some games, Myers gave Lynch a call and some advice. Everybody involved on the 49ers’ side of the talks had to be on the same page and have full understanding of the entirety of what was going on, Myers said. No separate conversations. No assumptions. All together, all agreed, all in the same room.
If you go back and apply that logic to a few high-profile Warriors negotiations of the past, you’re probably on the right track.
“We were stuck,” Lynch recalled. “And he called me out of the blue, ‘Hey man, I’m watching this thing. I’ve been there.’ He had a really good thought that turned out to be fairly pivotal. It was really sound wisdom.”
Bosa signed his new five-year, $170 million contract just a few days before the season opener in Pittsburgh, and now they’re 5-0. You don’t have to believe that Myers’ advice was a significant part of closing that deal, but you have to understand how much Lynch appreciated that call.
If it was somebody else, with experience from another kind of team, it wouldn’t have mattered as much. But the Warriors under Myers, and now under Dunleavy, have always swung for the fences and always ended up paying what it takes to put together the best, most balanced roster possible. So when the Warriors see the 49ers add McCaffrey and Javon Hargrave to an already-loaded roster and then weave strategies around all that talent, yeah, they take notice.
“They’re so creative, the way they attack,” Kerr said of the 49ers. “What I’m most interested in, and I actually want to talk to Kyle more about this, is just how to make all of that simple for the players. I see McCaffrey moving all over, I see all this different motion before the snap. Everything I read is that it’s a really simple offense for the players to run. That stuff translates. I have learned over the years from other sports, and I think there’s something for us to learn in the way they’re teaching the players, keeping it simple but making it confusing for the defense. That’s not an easy thing to accomplish.”
It’s not just the easy and fun stuff that overlaps. Members of both front offices brought up the similarities between the 49ers and Warriors experiences with and failed investment in Trey Lance and James Wiseman, respectively. Both were very talented top-3 picks. Both had limited college careers. Both were expected to produce in key roles for experienced teams that couldn’t wait around for them to develop.
And last February, Wiseman was traded midway through this third season. Six months later, Lance was traded just before his own third season.
“John and I actually talked about that, comparing notes on high draft picks, who probably need some runway, need a little bit of time to grow and develop,” Dunleavy said. “And you’ve got a really good roster around them and all of a sudden you realize you should probably have a better way to do this and there’s something better for the player. There’s a lot of comparable notes that we shared. I think it’s a good learning lesson for both sides.”
Stars like to watch stars. But they also don’t like to bother each other, even when they’ve been in the same area several times.
“I’ve just been an admirer of Steph Curry from afar,” McCaffrey said. “He’s a Charlotte guy, I used to live in Charlotte, used to go to dinners all the time in Davidson.”
But you haven’t chatted Curry up, Christian?
“I don’t know him; I’ve talked to him a bit, but not like a personal relationship or anything,” McCaffrey said. “I’m trying to get him to teach me how to golf one of these days in the offseason. I can hit it, make good contact, doesn’t always go where I want it to.”
Klay and Shanahan might not have talked to each other at all, but they were both at Miller & Lux at Chase Center after a recent playoff game and somehow, the two are buddies now. Shanahan horrified his son Carter by repeatedly referencing the Jackie Moon character from the “Semi-Pro” movie and pointing to Klay. But Klay loves that movie and that character and a little while later made a point to run over for some fist-bumps with the Shanahans before Game 7 in Sacramento.
“I couldn’t believe he’s a head football coach, ’cause he’s so young,” Klay said last week. “And he’s really personable. And his son was great, too. Same with John. I mean, I grew up watching John Lynch on those Bucs teams and playing him in ‘NFL Blitz’ and all that.
“I’ve got friends on the Niners, obviously George, Sam Darnold, we’re from the same area. I see him all the time in the offseason. I just love when the local teams do well. It’s just good for the whole Bay Area, the morale.”
Yep, you hear about Shanahan hanging around with the Warriors and you understand him better. You understand he can be silly, too. He can act like a kid. Sometimes he loves acting like a kid, though never on the football field. Which brings us back to that year in Durham and the time when Dunleavy and Shanahan first intersected.
“The joke I always said was, ‘Yeah, you were trying to make it on the basketball team but you didn’t, so you transferred to Texas,’” Dunleavy said.
When they bumped into each other again before the Warriors game, Dunleavy and Shanahan immediately talked about the story in the student paper and they both brought up the story again when I talked to them separately for this story.
“They did that piece, whoever had the brilliant idea that you’re copying,” Dunleavy said with a smile. “We spent a little time together, just kind of trading war stories, our dads being in it. I think we both kind of acknowledged the damn media, the media was always writing stuff.”
There’s the shared humor. There’s the directness. A little sarcasm. No affectations. They still are who they were 24 years ago.
“I’m a head coach and still feel like I’m the exact same as I was when I was 20,” Shanahan said. “Hopefully a little more mature. But when you run into guys like that, nothing’s changed. Everyone’s the same people. It’s cool that we’re still doing kind of the same stuff.”
It has just been migrated to another coast and to a couple of very famous Bay Area teams. Could 20-year-old Kyle Shanahan and 19-year-old Mike Dunleavy Jr. have guessed this future way back in 1999? Maybe not this exactly. But neither seems shocked by their career paths, and that they’ve circled back close together again. The 49ers and Warriors just seem interrelated these days — past, present and future all joined together, with each reflected by, basking in and strengthened by the light of the other.
“The TK Show”: Go to Tim Kawakami’s podcast page on Apple, Spotify and The Athletic app.
49ers mailbag: What’s the 2023 team’s personality? Is Christian McCaffrey a marked man?
(Illustration: Eamonn Dalton / The Athletic; photos: Michael Owens / Getty Images; Noah Graham / NBAE via Getty Images)