SI Vault
Richard Hoffer
October 12, 1992
Cincinnati Bengal coach Dave Shula is no clone of his legendary father, Don, but he aims to reach just as high
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October 12, 1992

Here Comes The Son

Cincinnati Bengal coach Dave Shula is no clone of his legendary father, Don, but he aims to reach just as high

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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

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.

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