One of the last times his chinny dock-worker's face appeared prominently on these pages, Don Shula was being held aloft on padded shoulders as a kind of symbolic affirmation of the heights he had reached as a football coach. It was Jan. 14, 1973 and his Miami Dolphins had just won the Super Bowl, completing an unprecedented 17-0 season. The next year the Dolphins won again, and at the end of the 1970s, enough thinking people in pro football were so convinced of Shula's preeminence that he was voted NFL Coach of the Decade—despite the fact that Chuck Noll of Pittsburgh had won four Super Bowls since a Shula team won its last playoff game.
On the afternoon of Miami's playoff with the Steelers two years ago, a Pittsburgh writer called it a matchup of "football's best team against football's best coach." The implication was clear enough because the "team" certainly wasn't Miami. The Dolphins were routed that day 34-14. Miami has now gone seven straight seasons without a win in the playoffs, yet even today, when two or more football people get together, chances are the consensus will be that Shula is the NFL's top coach.
How does Shula maintain this lofty status when by all logic Noll has flat outstripped him? Part of the answer lies in the fact that, at 51, Shula still ranks as the most consistent winner in NFL history (.708 on a record of 193-78-5). Part of it is that no one else ever had a 17-0 season. And yet another part, says Nick Buoniconti, the Miami lawyer/ex-Dolphin, is that Shula has been "such a positive influence on the game" and that "under the worst conditions, Shula will still be competitive."
Sure enough, there is Shula now, in his trophy-laden Dolphin office at Biscayne College, talking on the eve of training camp about how he is actually looking forward to this brave new season—looking forward to it when conditions could be worse, but not a whole lot. Shula is, to use his word, excited over the chances of a team that was 8-8 in 1980 (only his second non-winning season in 11 at Miami) and a pitiful 26th out of the 28 NFL teams in total offense. He is talking about building a new offense around a talented young quarterback (David Woodley) who wasn't even a regular in college (at LSU) and who just last year was drafted, in the eighth round, more as an afterthought than a prospect but who, nonetheless, and quite significantly, is the only drafted Dolphin to make a streak across NFL skies in years. Shula is planning to rebuild around Woodley and a supporting cast of nobodies. The great Bob Griese has retired. Only two Dolphin regulars (Guard Bob Kuechenberg and Defensive End Vern Den Herder) are still around from the Super years. And there's no Larry Csonka to kick around other people anymore, to inspire fans with implacable three-yard runs, to bleed on the shoes of his teammates in the huddle. It is a team that one recent Dolphin says "lacks in so many areas it will be the miracle of the century if he breaks even again."
For this Shula says he can hardly wait for the season to begin? Yes, and what's more he's talking about being "on the come" with this team, about it being 1970 all over again, a reference to the year Shula took over a 3-10-1 team and transformed it into a 10-4 powerhouse.
That sounds like Shula, all right, says Tim Foley, a defensive back in the glory days who retired last year after one too many knee operations. Foley says he retired convinced that "Shula can win in spite of everything." For good reason. Shula has won in spite of everything (eight AFC East championships in the last 11 years, for good example). He has won despite "pitiful, horrible drafts" (Buoniconti's evaluation) since Personnel Director Joe Thomas left in 1972, and trades that backfired more often than they helped. He has won despite the erratic, ofttimes bizarre rule of owner Joe Robbie—and, ironically, because of him, too. And he has won despite front-office turmoil that would rival the court of Louis XVI in quirks and intrigue, in divisive subplots and counterplots that would have done in or driven out a lesser man.
Consider, briefly, the latest. Robbie, against Shula's wishes, has rehired Thomas, whose one-man traveling, trading, drafting salvation show put together the early Dolphin teams, the ones Shula eventually converted to Supers. But, said Robbie (and Thomas and Shula) when the rehiring was announced three weeks ago, Thomas will not be drafting and trading. He will work under Robbie as a vice-president for "special projects," such as liaison with the new Miami sports authority, and public-relations duties, such as conducting how-to-watch-football classes for women. If that is the case, then Robbie hired Rembrandt to paint the mailbox. But a day or so later, after a few more phone calls, it was mutually understood that Thomas would also "help sign veteran players." And Thomas himself said that, although he would have nothing to do with personnel decisions, he would "attend practice" now and then. Hmmmm. More later.
Shula has won despite all the adversity Joe Robbie's money could buy—and some his money could not buy. Ah, nobody knows the adversity Shula has seen. Bear Bryant used to say a man doesn't learn about his mettle when times are good, but rather when the kids are sick and the bank has foreclosed and his wife has run off with the drummer.
In recent months the Shula equivalents seemed to make the news every other day. Csonka, his beloved former fullback, was involved in a grand jury investigation of marijuana smuggling and pleaded the Fifth. Griese, after painfully dragged-out speculation over his ailing arm, retired. Delvin Williams, the premier running back for whom Shula had traded four years ago and who had gone from the penthouse to the doghouse in record time, said he wouldn't be caught dead in a Dolphin uniform again, and demanded a trade. Last year Williams reportedly fell asleep in team meetings; he was subsequently benched for running as if he were asleep. His agent said the sleeping problem was a "physical" quirk—that Delvin falls asleep in restaurants, too, and "when he's talking to you on the phone."
Then the Dolphins lost the best answer to the what-do-we-do-for-a-running-back-now dilemma by allowing the Montreal Alouettes of the Canadian Football League to whisk their No. 1 draft choice, David Overstreet of Oklahoma, from under their upraised noses. Overstreet's agent said the Dolphin personnel man, Bill Davis, wasn't available to talk when it got down to the nitty-gritty. Shula was understandably appalled. Davis then resigned—but for other reasons, he said, including a contract dispute with Robbie (Are you beginning to get a picture?).
Then Linebacker Rusty Chambers, the team's leading tackier in 1978 and '79, was killed in an auto accident.
Then Robbie hired Thomas, a year after threatening he might. And to appreciate the significance of the wild speculation that caused, you have to go back into Shula's strange, strained history with Robbie. To adversities past.
The Dolphins won Super Bowls VII and VIII and were thought of as practically invincible. "I can't tell you how good I felt after that second Super Bowl," says Shula. "We were a young team, with nowhere to go but up. Then one phone call and it all changed."
The call heralded the World Football League's forced entry into the corporate life of the Dolphins, and damaged them as it did no other NFL club. Csonka, Jim Kiick and Paul Warfield were on their way to all that new WFL money. The battle between the three defectors' agent, Ed Keating, and Robbie was bitter and left scars, mainly on Shula.
Eventually, of course, Csonka came back, for one happy year of dèjà vu (1979). It is important to note that he came back to Shula, not the Dolphins per se. To Shula, the big fullback was the spirit of the Dolphins and a reflection of his own hardworking, straight-ahead, nothing-fancy style of getting from A to B. Upon Csonka's return, Shula named his collie puppy "Zonk." "It [the puppy] was always banging into things, knocking things over," Shula says. "And he was the kind of dog if he ran away I knew he would come back."
Shula built much of his 1980 offense around the Csonka contributions of 1979. The fullback had had a solid year and was voted the team's most valuable player, and Miami won its last AFC East title. Then, once more, Csonka and Robbie got into it, with shocking results.
Robbie offered Csonka a $100,000 raise; Csonka held out for another $20,000—partly because he wanted about what Williams was making, but "mainly because he didn't want to come to training camp," says Foley. Csonka always hated training camp. Robbie got his back up. Not untypically, so did Csonka. Csonka said he'd play elsewhere if Robbie didn't come around. Robbie told him not to let the door slap him in the butt on the way out.
"In the end, it all may have been good for Shula," says one Dolphin insider. "It finally forced him to quit looking to old solutions." But even though Shula didn't blame Robbie even privately for this second Csonka defection ("His offer was a fair one," Shula says), the ugly, stupid dispute opened at least the memories of old wounds and exposed the realities of life in wonderful, whimsical Robbieland.
At the annual team awards banquet in 1974, Shula was waiting for his wife, Dorothy, who was late, before ascending the dais; Robbie apparently had arrived earlier, because "it was very evident," Shula said at the time, "that he had been drinking." Joe Robbie is an enigmatic man, a case study of the type of guy who would pick a fight with Bo Derek on their wedding night. Robbie isn't happy unless the sparks are flying. He has been known to say terrible things to people in the privacy of public barrooms. He has had disputes with community leaders, the press, businessess that dunned him for nonpayments, Pete Rozelle, NFL owners and, of course, coaches, players and agents.'
The "little people" who work for Robbie complain the loudest, but usually behind his back. There he is roundly rebuked as a "skinflint." Joe Thomas himself used to chafe over Robbie's red pencil coursing through "the nickel-and-dime stuff on my expense accounts."
When Thomas' successor, Bobby Beathard, quit as personnel director in 1978, his swan song was acid rock. He said his scouts had gotten one raise each in four years, and that Robbie wouldn't even pay their way to the Super Bowl. He said Robbie was "just not an honorable person." Nice knowing you, Joe. See you around, Bobby.
But there is that other, equally remarkable side of Robbie—the businessman extraordinaire who from his own piddling investment ($20,000 to come in as "managing partner" on Actor Danny Thomas' coattails in 1966) ultimately wrested full control of a franchise now valued at $30 to $40 million. Today he is a rich man with a flair for flashy spending (a $10,000 party for the cast and crew of Black Sunday in Miami; an $80,000-a-year contribution to his favorite university, Notre Dame, both accounted for under Miami Dolphins, Ltd.). And although it was revealed in the spring of 1980 that the IRS says he owes $600,000 to $700,000 in back taxes and that he has had to get huge loans to pay his debts, when it comes to Shula's football operation, Robbie has been an absolute angel.
Shula gives him full credit. Despite Robbie's hassling over contracts, a couple of years ago the Dolphins were revealed to be the highest-paid team in the NFL (Robbie himself revealed it). And, of course, Shula is the highest-paid coach, at $450,000 per.
But more remarkable than that, Robbie stays out of Shula's hair. It is in their contract that Shula will get no interference from Robbie's office—in fact, that office is 13 miles away from Shula's. Except on salary matters, says Shula, Robbie has never intruded on a single decision involving the hiring, firing or position to be filled by a player. In the age of Steinbrenner, Turner, Irsay, Davis et al., Joe Robbie stands out as a coach's dream.
Nonetheless, on the night of the team banquet, Shula saw Robbie advancing. Expecting "some kind of greeting," he was stunned to hear Robbie railing at him for being late and ordering him into the banquet room. Shula doesn't take well to railing-at. That big iron jaw is no lie. "Yell at me again," he said to Robbie, "and I'll knock you on your ass."
The two didn't speak for weeks afterward. Under normal circumstances, it would seem too long ago to worry about, an incident one might even laugh over in time. Shula himself is famous for flying off the handle, but once the irritation is off his chest, he forgets it. His relationship with Robbie, however, has never warmed; they aren't even close to being good friends. Dick Young of the New York Daily News wrote some years back that whenever Shula referred to Robbie privately it was never by name, but by "that ass." (Actually, says a Dolphin insider, the term Shula used was "that ass——.")
There has always been speculation they would eventually split, but each time his contract came due Shula wound up signing on for another tour. The last time was in 1980, for three years. But they were an excruciatingly long time coming to terms. By then Shula had sold back to Robbie his 10% interest in the club. At one point it appeared Shula might even wind up at Notre Dame, the one college job he had coveted as a younger man. The pressure, he says, was on. "I played golf with Moose Krause [then the Notre Dame athletic director]. Moose said there was no hurry. He'd accept my decision after we finished the front nine."
By hiring Thomas, of course, Robbie has opened a 10-gallon drum of worms. Shula told Robbie a year ago he would not have Thomas in his end of the operation ("We have no room"). It was also a personal matter. The two had never had words. They had, in fact, parted friends in 1972, and subsequently had dinner together a number of times on the road. Like Shula, Thomas is a proud, personable, strong-minded football man.
But Thomas became known for cavalier handling of personnel at Baltimore and San Francisco, his next stops after Miami, and became a "non-person" to Shula (says one Shula associate) by "doing in" Shula's friends.
Thomas was general manager at Baltimore when John Sandusky and then Howard Schnellenberger were fired as head coaches. He was general manager at San Francisco (where he himself was fired in 1979) when Monte Clark quit in a dispute over who was running what. All had been Shula assistants, and close friends.
After his hiring, Thomas called Shula to "set the record straight" on those matters, and Shula apparently was willing to accept some of Thomas' explanations. Although he still felt "Monte got the short end," Shula said last week that he bore Thomas "no deep resentment." But as far as Thomas' job description went, "This is still my product. I'm in charge of decisions that affect this team." He then hired Charley Winner, the former St. Louis Cardinal and New York Jet coach, to fill Davis' spot, but without the title of personnel director. He agreed to let Thomas "help sign players," obviously because he didn't want a repeat of the Overstreet fiasco.
But the clinker in all of this is Robbie. What does Robbie have in mind? Why did he force the issue in the first place when he knew it would irritate Shula? As an all-league grudge-holder, and a formidably vindictive man, how well has it really sat with him to have been told by an employee that he was going to get knocked on his ass? But more than that, as an equally proud man, how much has it bothered him to be thought of only as the guy who rode Danny Thomas' coat-tails into the candy store?
Says one Dolphin source who knows them all, "It has really burned Robbie all these years that Shula got all the credit for those Super Bowl teams. He thinks he gave 'em to him on a platter. But, of course, the Dolphins were 3-10-1 before Shula. And it was Thomas who drafted the players and made the trades to get Griese and Csonka and Little and Warfield and Buoniconti and all those guys, not Robbie.
"It would have been nice if he had been able to take full credit for finding Shula, but he couldn't even do that. Bill Braucher [then a Miami Herald sports-writer] was an old friend of Shula's, and he put them together. So about the only thing you can really give Robbie credit for is staying the hell out of the way."
Ultimately, Shula himself accepts the responsibility for the many poor drafts and trades, and therefore the blame. To keep a team on top, says Thomas, the thing you must do is keep a stream of good athletes coming into the program. In 1973, the year Thomas moved to the Colts, the Dolphins' top pick, Oregon Center Chuck Bradley, couldn't make the club even for a season. Information on some more recent players simply didn't reveal enough about the persons they were, Shula says. Two of the Dolphins' high draftees in 1974, Don Reese and Randy Crowder, were arrested for selling cocaine in 1977 and dropped by the Dolphins. After a year in the Dade County stockade, they went to other clubs. No. 1 Darryl Carlton (1975) got in trouble with the law (a barroom brawl, a high-speed chase of his car by police) and is out of football.
Too, Shula says, "When you're winning, you're drafting 26th, 27th and 28th. You can't help yourself much drafting that low." The Miami drafts of 1975 through '77 produced only one offensive starter still with the club—Wide Receiver Durjel Harris. In effect, then, Shula has been a victim of his own dogged success. But while the Dolphins were drafting the Bradleys and the Carltons, other clubs were picking up Harvey Martin, Danny White, Jack Lambert, Dave Casper and Joe Ferguson after Miami had made its first choice. It didn't help, either, that Thomas' rebuilt Baltimore teams beat Miami four straight in 1975 and 1976.
Shula believes the drafts have been better under Chuck Connor, a former high school coach from Pittsburgh. There are 22 players on the Dolphin roster from Connor's first three drafts. Of course, it remains to be seen how good they are.
So, to waltz it around one more time, what is Robbie doing bringing Joe Thomas back to Miami? Is he cushioning himself for a fall if Shula finally calls it a career after three years? Is he cushioning himself from criticism if Shula doesn't rebound from last year's 8-8 the way he did after going 6-8 in 1976 (mainly on account of an unbelievable string of injuries that resulted in 10 knee operations and 144 games lost by starters)? In 1977 Shula huffed and puffed and turned it around to 10-4 and almost won the division championship.
But this isn't an injured team now; it is a new team. With many question marks. Joe Thomas is a personnel expert (he was obviously miscast as a general manager in Baltimore and San Francisco). He's also a very outspoken guy. Will Robbie be going to him when the team looks bad? Robbie has been quoted privately by a close friend as saying that if Shula doesn't get the Dolphins back to the Super Bowl in three years, there would be a "change."
Could Joe Robbie ever fire Don Shula and make anybody in Miami like it? Well. what if he could say he had Joe Thomas "sitting around for two years, and Shula never asked him to help"?
Meanwhile, what is Shula doing? Why, he is out on the practice field, hard at work, of course. Getting ready to win again. Being positive. Being Shula. He says he has high hopes for some of the Dolphins' recent acquisitions. That Jon Geisler and Eric Laakso have helped solidify the offensive line. That Alabama All-America Don McNeal is already a star in the secondary. That young Place-kicker Uwe von Schamann has already proved himself by winning three games for Miami last year.
And, of course, there is the 6'3", 205-pound Woodley, rugged and quick, running the offense. And running the ball, too. That's a new twist that Shula is having fun with—mainly in tormenting rival teams with the prospect of having to defend against an option offense. Woodley averaged 3.9 yards on 55 carries in 1980. Shula will let him run again, at least some of the time.
Shula says he likes Miami. He enjoys the sun. He likes to play tennis and golf year-round ("I shot an 84 the other day"). Two of his five kids are still in school there. He makes local commercials and is a popular television host. He plans to stay a while.
As Foley says, "There are more question marks than ever, but it's an exciting time. And that's when Shoes is at his best."