DON SHULA is used to controlling his environment. He rules with
an iron fist and commands privacy with the flick of a finger.
Sitting behind the mahogany desk in his office at the Miami
Dolphins' practice facility last Thursday, Shula closed his door
with a remote-control device and then started sounding like a
coach in danger of losing control of his team.
Nearing the end of his 33rd season as an NFL head coach, Shula
offered no easy answers for the meltdown that has occurred in
Miami. After a 4-0 start the Dolphins lost six of eight games to
become the league's biggest flop of 1995. Though they would
rally for a dramatic 21-20 victory over the Atlanta Falcons at
Joe Robbie Stadium on Sunday--on a touchdown pass from Dan Marino
to Irving Fryar with 11 seconds left--to remain in playoff
contention with a 7-6 record, the Dolphins look more like a team
clinging to the window ledge than one poised to go over the top.
Shula bemoaned his team's performance in recent weeks even as he
tried to soften the impact of the public outbursts by some of
his players, most notably that of linebacker Bryan Cox, the
defensive captain. Shula did his best to laugh off the barrage
of criticism he has been facing, including three highly
unscientific newspaper polls in which roughly 80% of the
respondents urged his firing. Inevitably, Shula reaffirmed his
desire to coach in 1996, the final year of his Dolphin contract,
despite the fact that a certain South Floridian named Jimmy
Johnson looms as the popular and unabashedly eager choice to
"I can't let anything that Jimmy does or doesn't do influence
any decisions that I make regarding my career," Shula said, his
granite jaw jutting forward. "I've worked long and hard to get
to where I am, and I'm going to continue to do the things that
have got me here and to make decisions based on how I feel.
Right now I feel about as low as you can feel. But my
responsibility is leadership, and the minute I get negative,
that's going to have an influence on the team. So I have to make
sure that I don't let all of the turmoil drag me down."
It's a daunting task with the specter of Johnson hovering over
the organization. Since being released as coach of the Dallas
Cowboys in March 1994, two months after guiding them to a second
consecutive Super Bowl title, Johnson has turned down at least
two NFL coaching jobs. Observers say that Shula's is the only
job Johnson really wants--a chance to stay near his home in the
Florida Keys while running all phases of the football operation
and working for an owner, Wayne Huizenga, who would provide him
with nearly limitless resources but won't meddle.
Meanwhile, Shula has watched his team of high-priced talent
stumble into the middle of the AFC pack three months after many
observers picked Miami to go to the Super Bowl. In July 1994,
after signing Shula to a two-year contract extension, Huizenga
said that Shula alone would decide when his career would end. On
Monday, Huizenga told SI, "Right now Shula's got my vote of
confidence, and we're going to go through the rest of this
season and try to remain positive. Now, at the end of every
year, every person in America gets reviewed. Don will review his
coaches, the coaches will review the players, and I'll review
Shula could face the kind of humiliating finale to a glorious
career that Tom Landry endured in 1989 when he was fired and
Johnson arrived in Dallas. "It does hurt," Shula conceded last
Thursday, "especially the viciousness and the cruelty that enter
into any criticism. These are unpleasant times."
Since 1970, when Shula jumped from the Baltimore Colts and led
the Dolphins to a 10-4 record, he has become as much of a South
Florida institution as white loafers and pastel-colored linen
blazers. His presence is everywhere. There is a Don Shula
Expressway, and a resort hotel complex and a nationally renowned
steakhouse also bear his name.
Yet Shula's popularity suffers as Johnson's legend continues to
grow. It was Johnson who guided the University of Miami to the
second of its four national championships before departing to
rebuild the Cowboys. As Shula walks the Dolphin sidelines,
absorbing the boos, Johnson operates from the comfort of the
Fox-TV studio, where he is free to launch broadsides at Shula
and any other coach whose team is stumbling. Says Johnson, "It's
a delicate situation because I'm in the media business, so I'm
required by my job to talk about the Dolphins."
Similar reader polls in The Miami Herald, the Fort Lauderdale
Sun-Sentinel and The Palm Beach Post that show Shula's
popularity at an alltime low also indicate sentiment for Johnson
to succeed him. Johnson aside, the town now has another
charismatic coach to diminish Shula's luster. Pat Riley has the
Miami Heat, the city's formerly mediocre NBA team, playing with
verve--not to mention an 11-3 record through Sunday. "Here's a
guy who rivals Coach Shula for name recognition and star appeal
and in his first year turns a team around," says former Dolphin
linebacker Kim Bokamper, a radio analyst for the team's flagship
station, WIOD. "Yeah, it's hurt Don." Throw in the fact that the
NHL's Florida Panthers have also been energized by a first-year
coach, Doug MacLean, and, to the critics, Shula appears ready
for the old coaches' home.
"The fans would like to see somebody who brings a little more
fire," says former Dolphin utilityman Jim Jensen, now the coach
of the Arena Football League's Florida Bobcats. "People are
saying that Shula is not motivating his players, that it's time
to get someone who can do that."
Two years ago Shula won his 325th game, passing George Halas to
become the NFL's alltime winningest coach. He remains the only
coach to have guided teams to six Super Bowls, and he won two of
them--after the 1972 and '73 seasons. But in the 22 years since
that last Super Bowl win, the Dolphins are 9-11 in postseason
games and have not won a playoff game on the road since 1972.
This was supposed to be Shula's and Miami's year. Huizenga
shelled out $12 million in signing bonuses during this past
off-season, and the message to Shula was clear: You've got
everything you want. Now win.
When the Dolphins started 4-0, it seemed that Shula and Marino,
in his 13th season, would finally team up to win the Super Bowl.
But almost as soon as the slide began, with an Oct. 8 loss to
the Indianapolis Colts, so did the bickering.
Marino has tried to remain above the fray--"With all the
finger-pointing," he says, "I don't want to get into a
discussion about coaching"--but not all of his teammates are as
discreet. Many have griped to reporters, and others have vented
their frustration in more dramatic fashion, such as when Cox
raged at his own performance during an embarrassing 44-20
Monday-night loss to the San Francisco 49ers on Nov. 20. "That's
the guy who's supposed to be our defensive leader, and he's out
there out of control," says one Miami offensive starter of Cox's
sideline tantrum. Then again, Cox is one of the few Dolphins
willing to hold himself accountable for the team's troubles.
"There are too many 'me' guys on that team," says Green Bay
Packer guard Harry Galbreath, a Dolphin from 1988 to '92.
Miami cornerback Troy Vincent agrees. "People want to point
fingers, especially when expectations are so high," he says.
"When you lose, the top just flies off the jar."
It does indeed:
After the Dolphins had blown a three-touchdown halftime lead
and lost 27-24 to the Colts in that Oct. 8 game, defensive end
Jeff Cross criticized the passive defensive strategy the team
had employed in the second half. The result was an ineffective
pass rush and coverage breakdowns.
After a 33-30 loss to the New Orleans Saints on Oct. 15 and a
34-17 loss to the New England Patriots on Nov. 12, 280-pound
power-blocking tight end Eric Green--who had been wooed away
from the Pittsburgh Steelers with a six-year, $12 million
deal--complained about Miami's lack of commitment to a running
game. Green also complained that not enough passes were being
thrown his way. "I'm so down," he said last Friday, "sometimes I
feel like just giving back the money."
In the loss to New England, free safety Gene Atkins got into a
shouting match with Shula after being burned for a touchdown,
and has since been benched. Then following a 36-28 defeat at
Indianapolis on Nov. 26, Atkins's replacement, Louis Oliver,
accused defensive coaches of failing to prepare players for
certain Colt formations.
Shula has often been criticized for unwavering support of his
assistants, especially defensive coordinator Tom Olivadotti, who
has served with Shula for nine years. Under Olivadotti, the
Dolphins have ranked in the top half of NFL defenses only twice
and have never been better than seventh. After Sunday's game
Miami's defense ranks 16th.
Vincent, who supports Shula, says that an anti-Shula faction is
evident in the locker room, with some players complaining that
the coaches play favorites. "The whole atmosphere is negative,"
says one expensive free-agent acquisition. "The coaches are
always on your ass, unless you're one of the chosen ones."
When Cox hears those comments, he looks poised to throw another
tantrum. "Look, I don't give a damn if Jesus Christ were
coaching this team, because we're not playing well. You could
have Vince Lombardi, John Madden or any of those coaches, but
you won't win if your players don't perform on game day."
Shula's greatest asset as a coach has always been his ability to
prepare his players for all possibilities and to adjust to
shifts in game situations. The man can still coach. If Shula
loses his job, his downfall may be traced to miscalculations he
has made as Miami's de facto general manager. Shula has not
spent wisely. The Dolphins have shelled out $2.15 million in
bonus money to kicker Pete Stoyanovich over the last two
seasons. They paid $1.825 million in up-front money to Atkins
before this season in a contract restructuring. Both players are
overpaid, and the team is likely to be stuck with the
disgruntled Atkins because of his fat contract. The Dolphins
also allotted significant up-front money to three
holdovers--tackle Richmond Webb ($2.8 million), Cross ($1.575
million) and linebacker Chris Singleton ($1.4 million)--but only
Webb has fulfilled his promise.
During the off-season Shula pursued Green and defensive end
Trace Armstrong, whom Miami acquired in a trade with the Chicago
Bears. The Dolphins gave Armstrong a $1.4 million signing bonus.
He has 3 1/2 sacks to show for it. At the same time, Miami
dropped out of the bidding for Deion Sanders and linebacker
Bryce Paup, who was signed by the Buffalo Bills and leads the
NFL in sacks, with 16. The Dolphins could have afforded Sanders
had they not lavished those bonuses on Cross and Singleton.
After the 1993 season Miami failed to sign linebacker Ken
Norton, a free agent at the time who had been a key player for
two Cowboy Super Bowl teams and would play the same role for
last season's champions, the San Francisco 49ers. "If you had to
point a finger at this team," says Bokamper, "the major problem
would be a misevaluation of talent in the football market."
Whatever the cause, Shula is trying to stem the growing tide of
criticism from the locker room. Last Friday he gathered his
players in a huddle and cautioned them to hold their tongues.
"Usually Coach Shula has a good handle on how players talk to
the media," Jensen says. "That's something he seems to be losing
control of now."
A few extra inches on Sunday and Shula's life would have become
a lot worse. With 2:27 remaining, the Falcons had a 20-15 lead
and a second-and-one at the Miami 27-yard line. Passing up a
45-yard field goal attempt by Morten Andersen, three times they
ran, and three times the Dolphin defense held.
Afterward Shula unwound like a ball of yarn in a cat kennel. He
skipped joyously toward the west end zone, stopping to wave to
his wife, Mary Anne, who was in her luxury-suite seat. "It was
such a tough week on her," Shula said later. "I just wanted to
share the happiness with her."
Shula stayed in his dressing room for a long while, recalling
Marino's game-winning touchdown pass and glowing over the
defensive players' decision to present Olivadotti with a game
ball. Outside Mary Anne waited for the most-maligned man in
town. "Boy, my coach is tough," she said beaming. "I tell you,
that big old jaw just grew."