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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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"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?"

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