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....