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Jeffri Chadiha
September 01, 2003
An NFL coach on merit, or because he rode Jimmy Johnson's coattails? This season may be Dave Wannstedt's last chance to make his case
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September 01, 2003

In Miami: The Hot Seat

An NFL coach on merit, or because he rode Jimmy Johnson's coattails? This season may be Dave Wannstedt's last chance to make his case

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But ultimately the burden rests on Wannstedt. His critics perceive him as a coaching retread who has benefited from his friendship with the man he succeeded in Miami, Johnson. "Dave's career record speaks for itself," the AFC executive says of Wannstedt's 71-73 mark. The connection to Johnson dates to 1977, when the two were assistants at Pitt. Two years later Johnson hired Wannstedt as an assistant at Oklahoma State. The two also worked together when Johnson was in charge at the University of Miami, but it was with the Dallas Cowboys that Wannstedt made a name for himself—as defensive coordinator for Johnson's 1992 Super Bowl champs. Wannstedt then went to Chicago, and after being fired he wasn't out of work long. Johnson brought him to the Dolphins as assistant head coach in '99, and when Johnson retired after that season, he recommended his friend for the job.

Wannstedt doesn't have Don Shula's aura or Johnson's ruthlessness; he's a humble man who remains true to his western Pennsylvanian roots. He's industrious like his grandfather, a coal miner, and his father, a mill worker. He's a devout Catholic and a devoted family man. If Wannstedt has a difficult day, he'll read Scripture or jog a few miles to clear his mind. "It's not that pressure doesn't bother Dave, he just doesn't lose his perspective," says Baltimore Ravens offensive coordinator Matt Cavanaugh, who held the same post under Wannstedt in Chicago and played at Pitt when Wannstedt was an assistant there. "He maintains his confidence."

Wannstedt is far more poised and relaxed than he ever was in Chicago, where he was so obsessed with micromanaging that he didn't build a relationship with his players. "I had guys like [All-Pros] Shaun Gayle, Richard Dent, Steve McMichael, and I should've spent more time with them," he says. "People need to have a clear picture of what you're after because when you communicate that, you get better results. But I thought I could build a Super Bowl team in four years. We did it in Dallas, and I thought it would be easy."

As Cavanaugh recalls, "Dave wanted all the control when he got to Chicago, and he found out that can be pretty demanding. He learned that he can't do everything and that he had to trust people. That's the big change I've seen in him in Miami: He's focused on motivating people and getting them ready to play, and he relies on other people to do their jobs."

Wannstedt had to make tough decisions when he took over in Miami, most notably pushing Dan Marino out the door. He started quarterback Jay Fiedler and running back Lamar Smith when nobody believed in them, and in his first year he accomplished something that Johnson never did—win the AFC East. He also evolved into more of a player's coach. Now Wannstedt talks so frequently with his veterans that, Thomas says, "sometimes I think he listens to us too much."

Injuries were partly to blame for last season's collapse—the passing game fizzled when Fiedler was sidelined for six weeks in October and November with a broken right thumb—but the Dolphins also didn't make enough clutch plays. Missing the playoffs was devastating for Wannstedt. He couldn't watch postseason games. He couldn't enjoy a January trip to the Bahamas, wandering off one afternoon, so deep in thought that he got lost on a trail. After he made his way to a road, he flagged a passing truck and got a ride back to his hotel.

It wasn't until Miami's first minicamp, in early May, that Wannstedt was able to put last season behind him. Being around the players helped, as did seeing the squad's reaction to the off-season acquisitions. "We sent a message," he says. "They could see that things were flying."

In a meeting room off his office hangs a banner that reads, WHY WILL WE BE A BETTER TEAM? WHAT AM I DOING BETTER TO MAKE A DIFFERENCE? Every day Wannstedt searches for new answers. "Sometimes you have to deal with adversity to achieve greatness," he says. "It will be interesting to talk about this team five months from now, because I want to see if our pain and disappointment has been channeled in the right direction. I truly believe that energy will be a powerful thing."

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