The joke about Don Shula—and if you know Shula, you know there aren't many—is that you can pick any hour, any day, any year and know exactly what he's doing. "Thursday, 7:30," says Dave Shula, the institution's most famous son. "I can tell you for a fact he's meeting with his special-teams coach." Big laugh. Hey, is it the autumnal equinox yet? If it is, Don Shula must be racking film of the offensive line.
Really, you have to laugh at the old man, enslaved by ritual. Certainly Dave Shula would laugh more if he had the time. But he's a head coach himself, and truth be told, he has got his own schedule. Nothing like Dad's, no big thing. But there is this typewritten sheet tacked to his office wall, inside a plastic protector. And as it happens, it's Tuesday at 10 a.m., so it's time, as it will be every week of every fall of every year he's in Cincinnati, for the Bengals' game-plan meeting.
So that's the joke about Dave Shula (there aren't many, and they aren't big): The apple doesn't fall far from the tree. In some professions, of course, this is not quite so hilarious or newsworthy. When you riffle the Yellow Pages, you are somehow comforted to discover a plumber who is third-generation. Here is a man whose loyalty to family and trade promises craftsmanship and value. He knows his way around a clogged drain, or he knows someone at home who does. There has never been anything suspicious to consumers about sons who follow their fathers into carpentry or dairy work or medicine or law. The only place in which FATHER & SON on the letterhead is thought to be weird is the NFL.
Poor Dave Shula. Named to replace Sam Wyche last winter in the Bengals' Desperately Seeking Sanity campaign, he is twice blessed by the god of novelty: He's young (33), but more important, he's the son of a Super Bowl coach. It's exciting enough to take over a 3-13 team that has been coached by a man with a predilection for loincloths. But Shula has taken that team, which was dogged the day after its opener in Seattle by a lawsuit that named 20 Bengals in connection with a two-year-old rape case, and produced a 2-2 start, putting the Bengals within one victory of their total for all of last season. And what do people want to know?
October 11, 1992
"They want to know," says Dave, resigned to his notoriety, "what it's like to be Don Shula's son."
He does not sound at all combative, but the truth stings a little. "There are eight other head coaches making their debuts in the NFL," Shula says. "I doubt your magazine covered all their openers."
As we say, he is resigned. Reporters have bounded onto Dave's doorstep and asked if, well, the youngster was somehow afraid to seek his own identity—or if, on the other hand, he was jeopardizing his psyche by risking a rivalry with his father. Among coaches, father-son relationships bring out the shrink in all of us. Given a couch and a pipe, who couldn't make $100 an hour off Dave Shula?
About your father's schedule—you mentioned that, Dave. Go on.
Well, good luck. Dave Shula has submitted to dozens of armchair analyses already and yielded nothing very Freudian or otherwise intriguing. "You must have a very complicated relationship with your father," it is suggested. He blinks. He's wondering, What could this moron be talking about?
The truth is, Dave Shula is so typical among NFL coaches that except for his lineage and youth, he might be entirely unremarkable. He's a moderate workaholic with an NFL coach's peculiar penchant for detail. Coaches around the league will simply nod their heads in recognition of this anecdote: Dave inspects a closet that has been installed in his office and discovers that the hangers will be too close to the wall and will destroy the crease of his shirts. The closet is redone. Now, this might make him a fussy house guest, but in the NFL it makes him practically generic.
Of course, there is that matter of youth and lineage.
About that youth. There have been younger NFL coaches. Curly Lambeau was 21 when he founded the Green Bay Packers in 1919. Postwar coaches Harland Svare (Rams) and Johnny Michelosen (Steelers) were also younger than Shula. Furthermore, Don Shula got his first head coaching job, in Baltimore, when he was only five months older than Dave was when he took over the Bengals. And how does Dave feel about that? Never mind. Anyway, Dave doesn't seem so young if you know he's been apprenticing for the job since he was six.
One of Dave's first memories is of standing on the Colts' sideline in the 1964 NFL Championship Game in Cleveland. He stayed next to the heater the entire game, and then, after Baltimore lost to the Browns, he walked into his dad's team's dressing room. For a five-year-old the sight could hardly have been more astonishing, and it is frozen in his mind: "Grown men crying," Dave says. "I don't think I'd ever seen my dad cry."
The next year, when Baltimore lost to Green Bay in the playoffs, it was the youngster's turn to cry. A lot of cameras captured it, Dave joining Don in tears at an informal press conference. "They all wrote that I cried because we lost the game," Dave says, savoring his first experience with media assumptions. "Well, I had smashed my hand in the door coming in. So, yes, I was upset."
Through those early years he was an observer, a kid who visited his dad at the office. But by age 11 he was part of the team, a paid employee of the Dolphins at their training camps. "I always liked being around," Dave says. He painted the blocking sleds, did laundry, cleaned bathrooms and took passes from Bob Griese. He made about $100 a month. Later he helped chart plays during practices. Not many coaches had this kind of premature exposure to the pro game.
Not that Dave Shula realized he had embarked on a career path or would someday follow his father into the family business. When he played high school football in Hollywood, Fla., Dave, a budding receiver, would watch Nat Moore run his routes and try to imitate him. It was just something to do. It didn't mean Dave would return someday and...help Nat Moore run his routes.
In fact, his NFL experiences as a teenager seemed not to impress Dave particularly. He had fun, his dad was a local hero and the team won a lot, but it never occurred to Dave that he would take up the life of a coach. On the other hand, his dad's success was not so intimidating as to forever block him from that career.
Coaches did not seem supernatural to Dave. Don may have been larger than life to the players, but he seemed fairly normal at home. Of course, there was the larger-than-life influence of Dave's mother, Dorothy, the glue in the Shula family. She kept the balance among the football pursuits of Dave and his brother, Mike (a former Alabama quarterback and now a coach's assistant with the Dolphins), not to mention Don. And her three daughters managed to prosper as well. It's interesting that Dave's first reaction after Bengal victory number 1 was to dedicate the game to his mother, who died in February 1991.
Don was not the hands-on parent that Dorothy was. Still, though he tended to be curmudgeonly with the Dolphins—one of them said that the best thing about their famous 17-0 season in 1972 was not the glory of being undefeated but the relief of not having the coach "on our backs" every week—he was a doting father. Maybe he didn't make dinner every night, but while Dave was in high school, Don made 31 of his varsity games, missing only the 1974 state championship, when the Dolphins were in Oakland for a playoff game. It was a very fatherly thing to do, going to Dave's games, even though Don would have to sit alone in the last row of the bleachers, as far from the action as possible, and would still rouse the crowd with cries of "Timeout!" and other exhortations he just couldn't contain.
There was, in short, little about this childhood that would force a youngster toward a career in coaching. Says Don, "I suppose I always sort of guided my boys to football, but it was always their choice in the end."
Anyway, how serious could Dave have been about a football career if, when it came time to choose between a college gridiron power and an Ivy League school, he chose Dartmouth over Florida State? Don admits that Dave's decision to leave a Florida State scholarship on the table puzzled him. Was this really genetics at work?
But Dave wanted a broader range of experience—a tendency that, years later, would qualify him for a head coaching job well before his contemporaries. There was no tumor in his brain compelling him toward his strange choice. Dartmouth sounded...fun.
Of course, it was a lot of work, on the field and off. As a football player Shula was blessed with neither size nor speed. His talent as a wide receiver was catching passes. Hardly ever dropped one. His quarterback during his junior and senior years and his friend ever since was Jeff Kemp, an NFL journeyman just released this season. Says Kemp, "His moves and body control were head and shoulders above everybody else's. He always knew the defense, always realized that football was also an intellectual pursuit. He was open every time." Kemp and Shula set a number of Dartmouth passing and receiving records, and Shula, despite his 4.95 speed in the 40, made All-Ivy twice.
It was a life of athletic overcompensation. Dave's coach, Joe Yukica, was a great admirer of the kid. But it almost pained him to see what Shula was up to in the off-season. "He makes All-Ivy his sophomore season and could have rested on his laurels," Yukica says. "Instead, looking for a little extra speed, maybe one more step at the start, he joined the track team. Not good enough for the varsity, you understand. The jayvee track team. I'd look out my window, and there was my All-Ivy receiver finishing dead last in the 100. The jayvee 100. He didn't care. And who knows, maybe it did help him, although I don't think we ever timed him better than 4.95, no matter what he did."
Yukica was struck by one other thing: Shula's determination to blend in. Looking back, Yukica guesses that was why Shula chose Dartmouth over Florida State. At Dartmouth he was just one more famous son among a thousand. Kemp, whose father had been an NFL quarterback and went on to become a congressman and later a Cabinet member, was typical of the student body. "A lot of kids came from more interesting backgrounds than Dave's," Yukica says. Even so, the young Shula went to some lengths to pretend there had never been an old Shula. "Who knows how many Colt camps he'd been in?" Yukica says. "But you'd never know he was Don Shula's son. On the field it was always, 'How do you want it done, Coach?' That's what I remember the most about him."
At Dartmouth, Shula was developing another kind of reputation too. Kemp remembers that he called Shula Mother, as in mother hen. On spring breaks Shula would make the reservations, designate driving partners, assign shifts and then, at the beach destination, oversee the partying, wake everybody up in the morning and organize workouts. "I don't mean to say he was a boring guy," Kemp says. "But he was more level-headed, protective and cautious than the rest of us. He was very deliberate and superprepared, whether it was studying or in football."
That sounds a little like a coach aborning. But Shula thought he was going to be an NFL player. "I knew I had to see how far I could take that," he says. For a player of his modest gifts, he took it surprisingly far, even making the Colts in 1981 as a free agent and becoming the team's sure-handed punt returner. But a year later he was cut. The coach, Frank Kush, said, "I don't want to embarrass the young guy, but he simply doesn't have the speed." And that was that, as far as Shula was concerned, for the NFL. He was accepted into the University of Baltimore law school and was ready to reenter real life.
In doing so, was he reacting against the powerful example of his father? "There's no question that Dave had a bigger challenge than I did," says Kemp. "His father was such a dominant figure. And there's no question that Dave worked especially hard to establish himself. But he wasn't the kind of guy to back off from a challenge. Nor does he have so much pride that he needs to set himself apart."
Anyway, setting himself apart would prove to be impossible. A PM Magazine television crew followed Don Shula's son through his first days in law school. There was no escaping Don Shula. Dave would be his son forever.
But this was not necessarily a bad thing. Bengal general manager Mike Brown, the man who hired Dave and whose father had drafted and signed Dave's father, doesn't know why father-son relationships have to be psychological tangles. Mike adored his father, the late Paul Brown, and saw nothing complicated about succeeding him. It was all he wanted while he was growing up and Paul was coaching in Cleveland. Mike saw the lifestyle and wanted to pursue it. "But Dad insisted not," he says. "He didn't want me to go through what he went through. But to me, it looked glamorous." The young Brown instead was "shunted off to law school," he says, and even practiced law in Cleveland before joining his father with the Browns. "I don't know if my heart was ever in the practice of law," Mike says. After the elder Brown started the Cincinnati franchise, Mike became part of the Bengal front office. And he enjoyed a uniquely satisfying relationship with his father.
"We were best of friends," Mike says. "I could talk to him as I could to no one else." Asked if working for a famous and powerful father was a problem, Brown seems confused. "If it made things difficult for me, I don't ever regret it. I thought I was rather lucky."
Dave Shula's luck came in 1982. Don's Dolphins were heading for the playoffs when one of their offensive coaches, Wally English, resigned to become head coach at Tulane. That left only two assistant coaches for the offense. Dave happened to be home from law school at the time to watch brother Mike in a high school game. A desperate Dad suggested that Dave help out—not actually coach but just pitch in. Dave began working with the game films and, as the Dolphins won more and more, put off law school for a while. He tabulated coverages, broke down tendencies and did the coach's grunt work. "It is not rocket science to figure out a coverage," Dave notes.
One thing that Dave resents is the widespread notion that his dad hired him out of the blue and greased his career. "He didn't hire me!" Dave protests. Dave wasn't an assistant coach. He didn't want a coaching career. He says, "Am I going to tell Nat Moore, 'Look, next time you run a comeback, this is what you do to double-move this guy'? I was just there to help out."
The only thing he did that resembled coaching was to deliver a presentation once to the receivers on the week's coverage. His father suggested that Dave rehearse it before him. "Which I did, and he of course pointed out all the flaws," Dave says. This was simply a level up from painting the blocking sled. Dave's wife, Leslie, never suspected the stint would amount to anything. "It never occurred to me he'd become a coach," she says.
He could have gone back to finish law school, and indeed he kept that option open for three more years. But his dad noticed that Dave hadn't ruined the Dolphins' passing game ("Would he have fired me if I had? Why not?" Dave asks), and so Don invited him back for 1983. A one-year contract, of course. Those would have been glory years for anyone who happened to be coaching Miami's receivers—Moore and Mark Duper and then Mark Clayton, with David Woodley and then Dan Marino throwing at them and the Dolphins going to the Super Bowl twice in three years. By the end of 1985, with three-plus seasons under his belt, Dave Shula decided he was no longer a law student on leave.
He stayed with the Dolphins through 1988, advancing from receivers coach to quarterbacks coach and assistant head coach and earning a reputation as an NFL whiz kid. All that time, of course, he was the coach's son, and inevitably there were charges of nepotism. But they became silly as the Dolphins' passing game prospered. What has lingered, though, is the faint aroma of team discord that centered on the coach's son during his last season in Miami.
Years later, the story that the quarterbacks coach couldn't get along with his quarterbacks still remains vague. The talk—there was talk—surfaced when the Dolphins hit a rough patch and Don Strock, Marino's friend and backup, was released. "Yeah, there was a lot of talk," admits Jim Mandich, a former Dolphin tight end who was by then circulating through camp as a radio personality. "But I never bit on it. There was no basis in fact. To me Dave Shula was the kind of person the game needed to attract. He was passionate, approachable and candid. And he brought an intellectual level to the game that you don't often see."
As far as Mandich could tell, the only thing going against Shula was the Shula name. "That name was an anchor," he says. "If you observed this kid in a laboratory setting, no name to him, you'd have made him a head coach in a very short time."
And isn't that exactly what Norman Braman, a good friend of the Shulas and the owner of the Philadelphia Eagles, had tried to do? In 1986 Braman made a stab at hiring the 26-year-old Shula. Officially there was no offer, not from the Eagles' point of view. But Shula remembers it differently. Braman wanted him for five years and then came back with a contractual addendum that could have tied Shula up for five more. Shula asked his dad about that, and they agreed that 10 years was a long time for a 26-year-old to commit to.
Meanwhile, the story of Shula's imminent hiring was making the rounds, and Philadelphia fans and certain NFL front-office types were expressing their doubts as well. Fan thinking was that Braman wanted somebody cheap (this was apparent when he tried to lowball his next choice, Jim Mora) and somebody malleable. NFL thinking was that this was another of Braman's jokes. "What was my reaction?" asked Bobby Mitchell, an assistant G.M. with the Washington Redskins. "You mean after I stopped laughing?"
The "offer" dried up and blew away before Shula could reconsider. The Eagles finally settled upon Buddy Ryan, and Dave Shula stayed with the Dolphins. If the episode somehow cast doubt on his reputation, at least it moved him a bit from under his father's shadow. Someone besides his family thought Dave Shula was employable.
Following the 1988 season, Jimmy Johnson, who had coached nearby at the University of Miami from 1984 to 1988, approached the elder Shula and asked permission to talk with Kid Shula. Don granted the request and watched, bemused, as his own son was hired away by the Dallas Cowboys, who proceeded to go 1-15 the next year. If, as Yukica says, every head coach ought to have some playing experience—"ride on the bus with the guys, take showers with them, develop some sympathy for the players"—then he should also have a hand in a 1-15 season. Then he can enjoy some sympathy too.
Still, Shula has no regrets about joining Johnson, even if it meant a period of failure in his life. Seeing an organization taken apart and rebuilt was instructive. It was also a little weird. Tex Schramm had always been close to the Shula family, and here were people walking about the halls, mocking the Cowboys' former architect. "I wasn't torn," says Shula, "but it was interesting. I mean, I have an autographed copy of Tex's book in my bookcase. I doubt Jimmy has one." But worse than that was the wunderkind's demotion in rank on the Cowboy staff. Shula was orchestrating the least effective offense in the game (not that he had much talent to work with). Johnson, telling Shula he needed more and newer ideas, left him as offensive coordinator but cracked him down from assistant head coach to quarterbacks coach. It was handled well—Johnson extended Shula's contract to demonstrate his faith—but it was nonetheless "hurtful," says Shula.
Again, there is nothing specific on which to pin Johnson's decision. But some believe that Shula, who had spent his formative years in a rather autocratic environment, didn't recognize the collegial aspect of Johnson's staff. The Cowboy coaches-remain Shula's friends, but they may have been a little put off by the youngster's strong stand on each and every issue. Johnson will only speculate that some football people are more suited to being head coaches than assistants. Some are meant to contribute namelessly, and others are meant to walk the halls and poke their heads into nameless people's offices. Shula says that Dallas was the only place in his career where his age seemed a problem among the staff.
No wonder Shula jumped in 1991 when Sam Wyche offered him a fresh start in Cincinnati as the Bengal receivers coach. Here was a strong franchise with apparent stability. Wyche had two years left on his contract. There would be time to start over.
But who knew Sam Wyche was going to self-destruct? Professionally, Wyche was an eye-opener for Shula. Wyche would sit in his office on Mondays and fill legal pads with new plays. Game-plan day was a frenzy of innovation. "At Miami you could take film from a game 10 years ago and recognize plays you used last week," says Shula. "With Sam, you might not recognize plays from week to week. The fun was, How were we going to get our players to execute those plays? I always looked forward to seeing what was on those yellow pads."
There was another way Wyche was different from any head coach Shula had known. "Sam was much more concerned with how a player felt about a matter than any coach I had been associated with before," says Shula. "He'd talk to them, call them. Maybe because he'd been a player for so long himself."
Even beyond the team offices and the practice field, Wyche was of a different breed. No coach Shula had known was so inclined to turmoil. Shula says that much of it was calculated, that Wyche would brag about how he deflected critical attention from his players by creating tremendous controversy around himself. Then again, Wyche couldn't have been planning to get fired. Who calculates things so that he can become coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers?
The Bengals claim that Wyche quit, but that's another story. However you look at it, there was an opening. Shula realized that somebody was going to be coaching the Bengals in 1992. He first checked with the offensive assistants to see if any were interested in applying for the job—he would have yielded to their seniority—but nobody made a claim. In fact, realizing they were more likely to keep their own jobs if Shula ascended, the assistants threw their support behind him.
But the day after Christmas, before Shula could lobby for the job, Brown asked him if he would ever be interested in a head coaching job. "As a matter of fact," said Shula....
The two men took one night to think about it. Shula was still happy about the idea when morning broke, but he wondered what Brown's decision would be. Should he wear a suit to the office, or should he bring bags packed for a scheduled family trip to Florida? Shula put on the suit he had last worn at his mother's funeral and hoped for the best. Brown held a press conference to announce Shula's elevation that day.
The response was mixed. A Cincinnati newspaper poll disapproved of Brown's choice. Fan thinking was that Brown had hired the anti-Sam, someone he could control and someone who would work cheap. And of course someone who was Don Shula's son. Hadn't Paul Brown signed Don Shula to his first pro contract? Hadn't they served together on the NFL's Competition Committee? Hadn't Shula called Brown the "greatest influence on my coaching life"? Was this all a convoluted payback, Paul Brown's son to Don Shula's?
"The history," Mike Brown admits, "is intriguing. But irrelevant." Then again, Brown says, he is not one to hold a person's family tree against him.
So far that family tree does indeed seem irrelevant. Dave is Don Shula's son in some ways, but even through so short a season as this one, he seems more of an amalgam of influences. In fact, he may owe more to his mother than to his father. "What was my mother like?" Dave says. "The best way I can put it is: Within five minutes of talking to her, you'd feel entirely at ease. Not that my dad couldn't be charming. He could if he chose to."
The younger Coach Shula will never be mistaken for a game-show host, but his determination to make people comfortable is pleasant to come across. "Take this interview," he suggests. "I pull my chair around, instead of sitting behind a desk." Well, that's something.
More important is his relationship to his team. Some players grumbled about his five off-season minicamps, and some minibalked at the new level of discipline. Quarterback Boomer Esiason was fined $50 for being just minutes late to a meeting. Players were required to keep in motion during practice; receivers were made to play catch during idle moments. A guy like all-world Anthony Munoz, a year older than Shula, might have organized a revolt. Instead, most veterans seemed to welcome the discipline.
"He's businesslike," says Esiason, "which is what it takes to win." Of course, it's not like Shula's running a gulag, either. Before he scheduled the minicamps, he consulted with Esiason about any possible conflicts with his summer vacation plans. That kind of attention might have been something Dave learned from Wyche, or from Dorothy—who knows? But you can't imagine his father clearing camp plans with his quarterback. So that's the kind of coach Dave is: He asks if a date is O.K. with you and then fines you if you don't make it.
"Hey, I love him," says Esiason, who gave the coaching virgin his first Gatorade bath when the Bengals upset the Sea-hawks in their opener. "Besides, he's kinda soft and cuddly."
If he is, then Dave Shula is indeed his own man. "Kinder, gentler," suggests Kemp, laughing. It's an old Republican joke. Perhaps he's the new Shula (an even older Republican joke) but still a Shula. Three hundred victories will tell.
After his first, Dave got a call from Don, who was then holding at career victory number 306. It is difficult to overestimate the old man's pride. Once, when Dave was still marshaling the offensive troops in Dallas, the Cowboys reeled off a long drive against the Dolphins. Dad was disappointed in his defense, of course, yet he found himself thrilling to the kid's work. Anyway, the first moment he had, the dad called up to congratulate his son.
Dave will never forget it: "He said, 'Congratulations, I've got to go to a meeting.' "