Don Shula is used to controlling his environment. He rules with an iron fist and commands privacy with the flick of a finger. Sitting behind the mahogany desk in his office at the Miami Dolphins' practice facility last Thursday, Shula closed his door with a remote-control device and then started sounding like a coach in danger of losing control of his team.
Nearing the end of his 33rd season as an NFL head coach, Shula offered no easy answers for the meltdown that has occurred in Miami. After a 4-0 start the Dolphins lost six of eight games to become the league's biggest flop of 1995. Though they would rally for a dramatic 21-20 victory over the Atlanta Falcons at Joe Robbie Stadium on Sunday—on a touchdown pass from Dan Marino to Irving Fryar with 11 seconds left—to remain in playoff contention with a 7-6 record, the Dolphins look more like a team clinging to the window ledge than one poised to go over the top.
Shula bemoaned his team's performance in recent weeks even as he tried to soften the impact of the public outbursts by some of his players, most notably that of linebacker Bryan Cox, the defensive captain. Shula did his best to laugh off the barrage of criticism he has been facing, including three highly unscientific newspaper polls in which roughly 80% of the respondents urged his firing. Inevitably, Shula reaffirmed his desire to coach in 1996, the final year of his Dolphin contract, despite the fact that a certain South Floridian named Jimmy Johnson looms as the popular and unabashedly eager choice to replace him.
"I can't let anything that Jimmy does or doesn't do influence any decisions that I make regarding my career," Shula said, his granite jaw jutting forward. "I've worked long and hard to get to where I am, and I'm going to continue to do the things that have got me here and to make decisions based on how I feel. Right now I feel about as low as you can feel. But my responsibility is leadership, and the minute I get negative, that's going to have an influence on the team. So I have to make sure that I don't let all of the turmoil drag me down."
It's a daunting task with the specter of Johnson hovering over the organization. Since being released as coach of the Dallas Cowboys in March 1994, two months after guiding them to a second consecutive Super Bowl title, Johnson has turned down at least two NFL coaching jobs. Observers say that Shula's is the only job Johnson really wants—a chance to stay near his home in the Florida Keys while running all phases of the football operation and working for an owner, Wayne Huizenga, who would provide him with nearly limitless resources but won't meddle.
Meanwhile, Shula has watched his team of high-priced talent stumble into the middle of the AFC pack three months after many observers picked Miami to go to the Super Bowl. In July 1994, after signing Shula to a two-year contract extension, Huizenga said that Shula alone would decide when his career would end. On Monday, Huizenga told SI, "Right now Shula's got my vote of confidence, and we're going to go through the rest of this season and try to remain positive. Now, at the end of every year, every person in America gets reviewed. Don will review his coaches, the coaches will review the players, and I'll review Don."
Shula could face the kind of humiliating finale to a glorious career that Tom Landry endured in 1989 when he was fired and Johnson arrived in Dallas. "It does hurt," Shula conceded last Thursday, "especially the viciousness and the cruelty that enter into any criticism. These are unpleasant times."
Since 1970, when Shula jumped from the Baltimore Colts and led the Dolphins to a 10-4 record, he has become as much of a South Florida institution as white loafers and pastel-colored linen blazers. His presence is everywhere. There is a Don Shula Expressway, and a resort hotel complex and a nationally renowned steak-house also bear his name.
Yet Shula's popularity suffers as Johnson's legend continues to grow. It was Johnson who guided the University of Miami to the second of its four national championships before departing to rebuild the Cowboys. As Shula walks the Dolphin sidelines, absorbing the boos, Johnson operates from the comfort of the Fox-TV studio, where he is free to launch broadsides at Shula and any other coach whose team is stumbling. Says Johnson, "It's a delicate situation because I'm in the media business, so I'm required by my job to talk about the Dolphins."
Similar reader polls in The Miami Herald, the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel and The Palm Beach Post that show Shula's popularity at an alltime low also indicate sentiment for Johnson to succeed him. Johnson aside, the town now has another charismatic coach to diminish Shula's luster. Pat Riley has the Miami Heat, the city's formerly mediocre NBA team, playing with verve—not to mention an 11-3 record through Sunday. "Here's a guy who rivals Coach Shula for name recognition and star appeal and in his first year turns a team around," says former Dolphin linebacker Kim Bokamper, a radio analyst for the team's flagship station, WIOD. "Yeah, it's hurt Don." Throw in the fact that the NHL's Florida Panthers have also been energized by a first-year coach, Doug MacLean, and, to the critics, Shula appears ready for the old coaches' home.