The joke about Don Shula—and if you know Shula, you know there aren't many—is that you can pick any hour, any day, any year and know exactly what he's doing. "Thursday, 7:30," says Dave Shula, the institution's most famous son. "I can tell you for a fact he's meeting with his special-teams coach." Big laugh. Hey, is it the autumnal equinox yet? If it is, Don Shula must be racking film of the offensive line.
Really, you have to laugh at the old man, enslaved by ritual. Certainly Dave Shula would laugh more if he had the time. But he's a head coach himself, and truth be told, he has got his own schedule. Nothing like Dad's, no big thing. But there is this typewritten sheet tacked to his office wall, inside a plastic protector. And as it happens, it's Tuesday at 10 a.m., so it's time, as it will be every week of every fall of every year he's in Cincinnati, for the Bengals' game-plan meeting.
So that's the joke about Dave Shula (there aren't many, and they aren't big): The apple doesn't fall far from the tree. In some professions, of course, this is not quite so hilarious or newsworthy. When you riffle the Yellow Pages, you are somehow comforted to discover a plumber who is third-generation. Here is a man whose loyalty to family and trade promises craftsmanship and value. He knows his way around a clogged drain, or he knows someone at home who does. There has never been anything suspicious to consumers about sons who follow their fathers into carpentry or dairy work or medicine or law. The only place in which FATHER & SON on the letterhead is thought to be weird is the NFL.
Poor Dave Shula. Named to replace Sam Wyche last winter in the Bengals' Desperately Seeking Sanity campaign, he is twice blessed by the god of novelty: He's young (33), but more important, he's the son of a Super Bowl coach. It's exciting enough to take over a 3-13 team that has been coached by a man with a predilection for loincloths. But Shula has taken that team, which was dogged the day after its opener in Seattle by a lawsuit that named 20 Bengals in connection with a two-year-old rape case, and produced a 2-2 start, putting the Bengals within one victory of their total for all of last season. And what do people want to know?
"They want to know," says Dave, resigned to his notoriety, "what it's like to be Don Shula's son."
He does not sound at all combative, but the truth stings a little. "There are eight other head coaches making their debuts in the NFL," Shula says. "I doubt your magazine covered all their openers."
As we say, he is resigned. Reporters have bounded onto Dave's doorstep and asked if, well, the youngster was somehow afraid to seek his own identity—or if, on the other hand, he was jeopardizing his psyche by risking a rivalry with his father. Among coaches, father-son relationships bring out the shrink in all of us. Given a couch and a pipe, who couldn't make $100 an hour off Dave Shula?
About your father's schedule—you mentioned that, Dave. Go on.
Well, good luck. Dave Shula has submitted to dozens of armchair analyses already and yielded nothing very Freudian or otherwise intriguing. "You must have a very complicated relationship with your father," it is suggested. He blinks. He's wondering, What could this moron be talking about?
The truth is, Dave Shula is so typical among NFL coaches that except for his lineage and youth, he might be entirely unremarkable. He's a moderate workaholic with an NFL coach's peculiar penchant for detail. Coaches around the league will simply nod their heads in recognition of this anecdote: Dave inspects a closet that has been installed in his office and discovers that the hangers will be too close to the wall and will destroy the crease of his shirts. The closet is redone. Now, this might make him a fussy house guest, but in the NFL it makes him practically generic.