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At long last, a Shula returns to Super Bowl: Panthers OC on his NFL journey

Panthers offensive coordinator Mike Shula, son of Don, talks about his famous dad, his NFL journey, and the Panthers' magical season.

CHARLOTTE — It was once so common to have a Shula coaching in the Super Bowl that it almost seemed the natural order of things in the NFL. A Don Shula-led team took part in four of the first eight Super Bowls, and six of the opening 19. Other than those ubiquitous Roman numerals, what else said Super Bowl more clearly than that legendary coaching name?

Which is why it's nearly unfathomable to think it has been 31 long years since a Shula last coached in a Super Bowl setting, as Carolina offensive coordinator Mike Shula—son of Don—will do Feb. 7 against Denver in Santa Clara, Calif. It seems entirely fitting that for this golden anniversary Super Bowl, with all of its fanfare and homage paid to the game’s history, there will again be a Shula involved in the festivities. The NFL seems to think of everything.

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On Monday afternoon, in the bowels of Bank of America Stadium, Mike Shula sat and reflected on the long road back to the game he once took almost for granted, thinking of it as a near annual rite of his childhood and teenage years. By now he’s logged 25 years in the NFL as both a player (one season) and a coach (24), and that’s half his life spent chasing his own Super Bowl dreams. He turned 50 last June, and that makes his just-earned trip to Super Bowl 50 even a little more well-timed.

“I’m the same age as the Super Bowl,” Shula said, smiling at the thought. “But the Super Bowl has aged better than I have. I will say I was trying to not let so much time pass since the last time a Shula was in the Super Bowl. But time was trotting along.”

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If you like symmetry and the linkage of generations connected by the game, Mike Shula making Super Bowl 50 offers even more: Don Shula’s final Super Bowl appearance came in Palo Alto, Calif., when his 1984 Miami Dolphins lost to San Francisco in Stanford Stadium, not far from where Mike Shula’s first Super Bowl coaching experience will unfold in Santa Clara, in the 49ers’ home stadium. You can’t make this stuff up.

“Yeah, I was there. I remember that game,” Mike Shula said of the Dolphins’ 38–16 Super Bowl XIX loss to Joe Montana and the 49ers, in Dan Marino’s only career Super Bowl appearance. “The last one I went to with my dad, I was in college (at Alabama). Sure, it spoils you a little going to so many as a kid. But from a personal level, you actually find out who your true friends really are, because everybody’s your friend when your dad’s going to the Super Bowl and winning Super Bowls.

“Then all of a sudden you realize it’s not like that for everyone, and you realize how hard it is to get there. You realize how high the highs are and how low the lows are. You realize how important the game is to your father, and how he always preached doing things the right way, and that hard work equals success.”

Perhaps no one is happier about the continuation of the Shula’s family Super Bowl legacy than Don Shula, 86, the NFL’s all-time winningest coach, who won back-to-back rings with his dynastic Dolphins of 1972-73. Late Sunday night, father and son connected by phone, shortly after a photo of a smiling, thumbs-up gesturing Don was sent out via Twitter, with the caption “Proud dad.”

“Somebody tweeted it, but it wasn’t him tweeting it,” Mike Shula said, laughing. “He was up at quarter till 12 when I called him, so that was big. He grabbed the phone right away from whoever answered it and he was just really excited and very proud. He said your hard work’s been paying off and you’ve got one more to go, just keep doing the things you’ve been doing.”

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Reached on the phone Tuesday afternoon, Don Shula sounded eager and ready for a next generation Shula to put his stamp on the Super Bowl, 31 years after he last coached in the game.

“That’s what just makes you that much more proud of the accomplishment, the way it ties in with family history,” Don Shula said. “He’s been around the game all his life and now he’s at the pinnacle of what it’s all about. It’s just as good as it can get in coaching, to get to that level. I want him to enjoy it and I want everyone else to be proud of him.

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Everybody’s going to want to go, now we’ve got to try and figure out how to do it. I think it’s just going to be so meaningful when all of us get out there and are at the stadium and at the game and are cheering him on.”

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As Mike Shula spoke about the gathering to come in the San Francisco bay area, his voice caught with the emotion of the opportunity that lies ahead, and the history and meaning of this game in his famous family.

“It kind of got me a little bit last night (Sunday) when I walked down on the field and saw the big stage up there,” Shula said. “What I think of is my family, just that I know how much they mean to me and just to have them be a part of this, to be able to go back to the Super Bowl. That’s kind of how I view this. But, oh yeah, my dad will be there. He’s coming. They told us that last week. So it was a little more motivation (for the NFC title game).”

Shula’s journey to the Super Bowl has been a winding one, with plenty of career moves and setbacks. After his one-year stint as a reserve quarterback for Tampa Bay ended after the 1987 season, he remained with the Bucs from 1988-90 as an offensive assistant, and has gone on to make six other NFL coaching stops, working for a total of five teams (Miami and Tampa Bay twice each). In between was his four-year stint as Alabama’s head coach from 2003-06, where he struggled to lead his alma mater to sustained success, eventually being succeeded by Nick Saban.

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Shula’s five-year stay in Carolina has been the longest of anywhere in his coaching career, and coincides with the PanthersCam Newton era. Head coach Ron Rivera elevated Shula from quarterbacks coach to offensive coordinator in 2013, replacing Rob Chudzinski, who left to become the Browns head coach. One of the under-appreciated elements to Carolina’s remarkable 17–1 season has been Shula’s creative and versatile play-calling, and his rapport and connection with Newton, whose wildly successful season will almost certainly earn him the league MVP honor next month.

Shula deflects all praise and points the focus back on Newton, whose overwhelming production has stemmed from his development and growth in the multi-faceted Panthers offense, even after Carolina’s No. 1 receiver, Kelvin Benjamin, was lost to a preseason knee injury.

“First off, it’s not over yet, this season,” Shula said. “We have to prove it one more time. But I think his handle on our offense has grown every year, but he’s brought a bunch of things this year to the table that have opened my eyes to being more flexible and really just listening to his ideas more. My brother (former Bengals head coach David Shula) has got a great line: If you ever want to get your idea heard, you’ve got to make the coordinator think that it’s his idea. I passed that along and Cam’s done a great job with that.

“He actually had a play (Sunday) night that he called, the quarterback draw early in the fourth quarter was his idea, and we made a big first down on it. He’s just got a great feel once he gets into the game, and starts seeing match-ups, seeing the field in general, seeing the potential for weakness in coverages. He’ll find where those are. And then it’s just those little tweaks a quarterback can make. ‘Hey, we did this earlier, I think we can do this now.’ He sees it more so than I see. And he’s not afraid to take chances.”

With the back-to-back showings the Panthers have had in the playoffs—31 points against Seattle, 49 points against Arizona—Carolina looks like an unstoppable force on offense heading into the Super Bowl against the Broncos. Shula’s best work in the coming two weeks might be to squash any signs of over-confidence on the Panthers’ part. But he has yet to see any hint of it this season.

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“This team has been so resilient and so fun to coach, for a lot of reasons, but because they get the fact that you’ve got to prove yourself every week, you’ve got to move on,” Shula said. “And because of that I think it’s carried over with us (coaches). We preach it to them, but then watching them do it, helps keep you doing it. We still feel like our best football is still out there. So going to the Super Bowl hasn’t really sunk in yet, because we’ve been so focused in on, ‘Okay, what you did yesterday is over with, now you’ve got one more challenge.’ We’ve got to go prove it again.

“Cam brought up a good point last week going into (Sunday) night’s game, that not a lot of guys on the team had been in a game this big. And he was the first one to talk about it, to say, ‘Hey, let’s not dance around that.’ So because of that we’ve got to prepare even harder, and that’s how we feel obviously going into this game.”

The biggest game of all looms for the Panthers, and a Shula is back in the Super Bowl, after a long 31-year wait. That’s a pairing on Super Sunday that feels meant to be.