The late Gunther Cunningham, who spent 33 of his 35 NFL seasons as an assistant coach and was best known for his feared defensive units in Kansas City over two stints and nine seasons as the Chiefs’ defensive coordinator, and Mike Westhoff, who spent 32 seasons as an NFL assistant coach and is regarded as a special teams coaching pioneer, have been selected as the 2019 Paul “Dr. Z” Zimmerman Award winners by the Professional Football Writers of America (PFWA).
Cunningham and Westhoff are the 13th and 14th recipients of the Dr. Z Award, which was instituted by the PFWA in 2014.
The Dr. Z Award is given for lifetime achievement as an assistant coach in the NFL. The award is named for Zimmerman, who covered the NFL for 29 years as Sports Illustrated’s lead pro football writer.
Zimmerman’s writing career was cut short by a series of strokes in November 2008 that left him unable to speak, read and write. But his impact on the writing and football industries was profound. He’s widely considered one of the best football writers of all time, and his 1970 “A Thinking Man’s Guide to Pro Football” and revised 1984 “The New Thinking Man’s Guide to Pro Football” are textbooks to this day for young football writers trying to learn the game and trying to learn to write about the game. He was an offensive lineman at Stanford and Columbia, played on the offensive line for a U.S. Army team and a semi-pro football team. His first shot at covering pro football regularly was for the New York Post in 1966. In 1979, he moved to SI. Zimmerman served as PFWA president during the 1982 season. When he suffered his strokes, Zimmerman was still writing multiple columns a week for the magazine and its website, SI.com. He was cared for until his death on November 1, 2018, by his loving wife, Linda, known as “the Flaming Redhead” in his writings.
Other 2019 nominees for the Dr. Z Award were the late offensive line coach Bobb McKittrick, current Dallas Cowboys defensive coordinator and defensive line coach Rod Marinelli and current Jacksonville Jaguars running backs coach Terry Robiskie.
Cunningham, born in Munich, Germany, moved with his family to the United States at age 10. He was a three-year letterman at linebacker and placekicker at Oregon (1966-68), and he started his coaching career with the Ducks as a defensive line coach (1969-71). He also was a college assistant at Arkansas (1972), Stanford (1973-76) and California (1977-80) before he got his first taste of pro coaching with the CFL’s Hamilton Tiger-Cats in 1981 as the Ticats’ defensive line and linebackers coach. In 1982, he entered the NFL as the defensive line and linebackers coach for the Baltimore Colts and worked for the Colts franchise in Baltimore and Indianapolis for three seasons (1982-84). Cunningham spent six seasons with the San Diego Chargers (1985-90) as defensive line coach before he moved to the Los Angeles Raiders (1991-94) for four seasons, including two as defensive coordinator (1992-93). During his time with the Raiders, Cunningham helped coach Hall of Fame defensive tackle Howie Long. He was hired by the Kansas City Chiefs in 1995 as defensive coordinator and helped tutor the late linebacker Derrick Thomas during his Hall of Fame career. After four seasons (1995-98) as defensive coordinator, Cunningham served as the Chiefs head coach for two seasons (1999-2000), and he had a 16-16 record over two seasons. The Tennessee Titans hired him as assistant head coach and linebackers coach from 2001-03, before the Chiefs re-hired Cunningham for a second stint as defensive coordinator from 2004-08. He moved on to the Detroit Lions as defensive coordinator from 2009-13, and he spent his final three seasons in the NFL with the Lions (2014-16) as a senior defensive assistant. After his retirement from the NFL, Cunningham served as a consultant with Pro Football Focus until his death on May 11, 2019.
Westhoff played for Wyoming as an outside linebacker for the Cowboys (1965) and three seasons at Wichita State (1967-69) as a center and linebacker. He began his coaching career as a graduate assistant (1974) and freshman coach (1975) at Indiana, and he also worked as a college assistant for Dayton (1976), Indiana State (1977), Northwestern (1978-80) and TCU (1981). In 1982, Westhoff got his first NFL coaching job with the Baltimore Colts as an offensive line, tight ends and special teams coach, and he worked for the franchise for three seasons (1982-84) in Baltimore and Indianapolis. He spent one season (1985) with the USFL’s Arizona Outlaws as the offensive line coach, before he returned to the NFL in 1986 with the Miami Dolphins. Westhoff spent 15 seasons (1986-2000) with the Dolphins as special teams coach. His Dolphins’ punt and kickoff coverage units were top ranked for four seasons (1986-99), and he was voted NFL special teams coach of the year by his peers in 2000. A survivor of bone cancer, Westhoff was the Dolphins’ 1989 team recipient of the Ed Block Courage Award. In 2001, he moved to the New York Jets, where he spent 12 seasons as special teams coordinator (2001-12), and he was also assistant head coach for two seasons (2004-05). The Jets’ kickoff coverage and return units combined to rank first in the NFL in both 2001 and 2002, and the 16 kickoff returns for touchdowns over his 12 seasons led the NFL during the period. He retired after the 2012 season, but he was lured back into the NFL in midseason 2017 by New Orleans to oversee the Saints’ special teams units, and he coached with the Saints through the 2018 season. He was credited with turning Saints quarterback Taysom Hill into a multi-faceted special teams player in 2017 and 2018.
ABOUT THE PFWA: In its 56th season in 2019, the Professional Football Writers of America (PFWA) is the official voice of pro football writers, promoting and fighting for access to NFL personnel to best serve the public. The PFWA is made up of accredited writers who cover the NFL and the 32 teams daily. Bob Glauber, the national football columnist for Newsday, is the organization’s president for the 2018-20 seasons. The Athletic’s Lindsay Jones is the PFWA’s first vice-president, Bleacher Report national columnist Dan Pompei is the PFWA’s second vice-president and ESPN.com’s Mike Sando is the PFWA secretary-treasurer. At-large members include ESPN.com’s Jeff Legwold, ProFootballtalk.com’s Charean Williams, Sports Illustrated’s Jenny Vrentas and USA Today’s Mike Jones. Follow the PFWA at ProFootballWriters.org and on Twitter at @PFWAwriters.
PAUL “DR. Z” ZIMMERMAN AWARD WINNERS (For lifetime achievement as an assistant coach in the NFL): 2014 – Jim Johnson, Howard Mudd, Fritz Shurmur and Ernie Zampese; 2015 – Dick LeBeau, Tom Moore and Dante Scarnecchia; 2016 – Monte Kiffin and Wade Phillips; 2017 – Bud Carson; 2018 – Joe Bugel and Emmitt Thomas; 2019 – Gunther Cunningham and Mike Westhoff