The Miami Dolphins, a slightly unreal football team made up of a quarterback named Bob Griese, a linebacker named Nick Buoniconti, a wide receiver named Paul Warfield and a lot of people called Who's That?, beat the Baltimore Colts 20-13 before a multitude in the Orange Bowl last Saturday night. It was an exhibition game, but it was played for blood by both the Dolphins and the Colts, and for good reason.
The Colts, who are probably a better team than the Dolphins, wanted to beat their old coach, Don Shula, who deserted Baltimore for warmer weather and more money back in February. Shula, who now owns a piece of the Dolphins as part of his recompense for breaching a 5-year contract with Baltimore, naturally wanted to increase the value of his investment. He did.
The Dolphins in the pre-Shula era were about as sparkling as a spotted grouper. Since Shula took over and instituted a crash program they have suddenly become the toast of Miami. The young ladies who haunt the bars on Collins Avenue in Miami Beach offering their company for the evening in exchange for cash were offering their favors for tickets to the game Friday night. There were no takers.
This was the fourth straight preseason victory for the Dolphins, who had never won more than two games in a row in their four-year history. Miami's win streak is reminiscent of the preseason achievement of Tom Fears with the New Orleans Saints in their first year—they won five in a row after dropping the first, then lost 11 of 14 regular-season games. Shula, of course, was faced with the same problem as Fears; although the Dolphins aren't a brand-new team, they have been a spectacularly unsuccessful one, and Shula had to adopt heroic methods to create fans.
Shula came to the Dolphins almost by accident. After the draft meetings in January, Bill Braucher and Edwin Pope, two Miami sportswriters, were talking to Joe Robbie, the Dolphins' owner, trying to get him to commit himself on whether he was going to fire Head Coach George Wilson. Rumor had it that Wilson was through, but Robbie hadn't made any formal statement.
Robbie asked the scribes—as sports-writers are often termed in the South—who he could get to replace Wilson. Braucher, who attended John Carroll University with Shula, brought his name up, half in jest. Robbie, who isn't known for having one of the world's great senses of humor, suggested that Braucher contact Shula to see if he would be interested. Not long after that, Shula called Robbie.
The deal was worked out in a matter of two or three weeks, but Colt Owner Carroll Rosenbloom knew nothing about it until St. Valentine's Day, when he was in Hawaii on his way home from a tour of the Orient.
"I had forgotten to disconnect my phone and it rang about 8 a.m.," Rosenbloom said the other day. "It was Don, and I had no idea what he wanted until he told me he had an opportunity to go to Miami and acquire a percentage of the club. I reminded him that he had a five-year contract with me, but I told him, too, we had a policy of not keeping people who didn't want to be with us. He told me about the deal he had with Miami and I think he was offering me a chance to match it, but I didn't."
Actually, Rosenbloom wasn't very disturbed at losing Shula. After their conversation he went back to sleep. He had been somewhat disenchanted with Shula ever since the Colts lost to the Jets in the Super Bowl.
"We didn't play well last year," Rosenbloom said. "We had only a couple of good games—against bad teams. We didn't even look good winning. If Robbie had come to me and asked for Shula I wouldn't have objected strenuously."
What Robbie did, of course, was against league rules; no club can tamper with the personnel, coaching or playing, of another team. However, he got off with a surprisingly light penalty from Commissioner Pete Rozelle and the Owners' Executive Committee, which decides on reparations in cases like this.
The Dolphins gave up their first draft choice in 1971 for Shula, which makes him only half as valuable as Dave Parks, a wide receiver signed by the Saints in 1968 after he had played out his option with the San Francisco 49ers. As payment for Parks, Rozelle awarded the 49ers Kevin Hardy, who had been the Saints' first draft choice that season, plus their first draft choice the following year. And Parks was legitimate game for New Orleans, since he was a free agent at the time the Saints signed him.
The Colt players shed no tears when Shula left. "I think it was a good deal for both clubs," said Guard Dan Sullivan. "The Dolphins needed a rah-rah guy and a strict disciplinarian and that's what Shula is. And we're better off with Don McCafferty. He's a quiet guy, but he gets things done."
Shula had scheduled an early training camp for the Dolphins, since he was installing a completely new system with different terminology, a different numbering system for calling plays and new defenses. "The strike really hurt us more than any other club," he said last week. "I have no regrets about coming here—it was an opportunity I couldn't afford to turn down. Every coach wants a piece of the action I guess. But we had a tough time with the limited practice at our disposal. Luckily, I had a chance to work with Griese during the off season so that he was familiar with the offense. And we worked very hard. I explained to the club that we would have to work overtime to make up, and they did it willingly."
Shula had 13 practice sessions in the five days before the Dolphins played their first exhibition game against Pittsburgh. "The club has improved each week since then," he said before the Baltimore game. "I hope they can rise to this challenge."
Robbie's gamble has paid off not only in unprecedented victories for the Dolphins—their other victims were Cincinnati and San Francisco—but in extraordinary interest at the gate. The first two exhibitions in Miami were the second-and third-largest crowds in Dolphin history, and the Colt game drew a full house for the first time since the club began. There were 76,712 people in the Orange Bowl Saturday night, all of them howling maniacally as Griese threw a 20-yard scoring pass to Larry Seiple, Jim Kiick ran over from two yards out and Karl Kremser booted a pair of field goals.
Watching this team, it was hard to believe that Shula had had so little time to install his system. They were a well-schooled, alert club and they beat the Colts soundly with no flukes—and might even have beaten them worse.
"We could see the difference in Miami in looking at the movies," Sullivan said before the game. "We played them a couple of years ago and at that time, I remember, when you watched the defensive line it looked disorganized and confused. In the movies we saw of their exhibition games this year, they knew what they were doing. It was a different club."
Actually, the Colts had a fairly legitimate excuse for losing. Their flight from Denver was held up for five hours in New Orleans by a faulty engine, and the stress of the long wait made Tom Matte's chronic stomach ulcer kick up; he was hauled to the hospital at 4 a.m. Since Matte is the Colts' top running back, his loss was a serious one but not serious enough to account for the astonishing Miami victory.
Of course, despite the unusual amount of emotion generated by the circumstances surrounding this game Don McCafferty, knowing very well that the Colts will play the Dolphins twice more during the regular season, didn't go full blast. Much of the second half he used a young offensive line, young linebackers and old Earl Morrall.
Shula, though, deserves a great deal of credit for the job he has done in creating a disciplined, good football team from a bunch of players who were a good deal less than that a year ago. On this warm, windy night he kept his first two units in the game all the way except for two series of downs late in the game, when the Dolphins had the ball deep in Baltimore territory with time seeping away. It is doubtful that Miami will be able to beat Baltimore in either league game, when the first-line Colts go all the way.
But Joe Robbie, not the best-liked owner in the league by a wide measure, won his gamble. The overflowing house that came to see this game will be back; the Dolphins have already sold some 4,000 more season tickets than they had at this time last year. And Robbie got a bargain in Shula, even with giving him a part of the club and dealing the Colts a first draft choice. The Colts will probably use that choice to pick a quarterback next year, since John Unitas, who played the first half—in which the Colts had to settle for a couple of Lou Michaels' field goals—and Morrall, who threw a 10-yard touchdown pass to John Mackey, are both in their 15th season. With Griese, Shula doesn't need a quarterback. All he needs is a little more time, and he'll have that. And the girls on Collins Avenue will have to go back to asking for cash. No one in Miami is going to be giving up a Dolphin ticket for anything.