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."