When Thomas' successor, Bobby Beathard, quit as personnel director in 1978, his swan song was acid rock. He said his scouts had gotten one raise each in four years, and that Robbie wouldn't even pay their way to the Super Bowl. He said Robbie was "just not an honorable person." Nice knowing you, Joe. See you around, Bobby.
But there is that other, equally remarkable side of Robbie—the businessman extraordinaire who from his own piddling investment ($20,000 to come in as "managing partner" on Actor Danny Thomas' coattails in 1966) ultimately wrested full control of a franchise now valued at $30 to $40 million. Today he is a rich man with a flair for flashy spending (a $10,000 party for the cast and crew of Black Sunday in Miami; an $80,000-a-year contribution to his favorite university, Notre Dame, both accounted for under Miami Dolphins, Ltd.). And although it was revealed in the spring of 1980 that the IRS says he owes $600,000 to $700,000 in back taxes and that he has had to get huge loans to pay his debts, when it comes to Shula's football operation, Robbie has been an absolute angel.
Shula gives him full credit. Despite Robbie's hassling over contracts, a couple of years ago the Dolphins were revealed to be the highest-paid team in the NFL ( Robbie himself revealed it). And, of course, Shula is the highest-paid coach, at $450,000 per.
But more remarkable than that, Robbie stays out of Shula's hair. It is in their contract that Shula will get no interference from Robbie's office—in fact, that office is 13 miles away from Shula's. Except on salary matters, says Shula, Robbie has never intruded on a single decision involving the hiring, firing or position to be filled by a player. In the age of Steinbrenner, Turner, Irsay, Davis et al., Joe Robbie stands out as a coach's dream.
Nonetheless, on the night of the team banquet, Shula saw Robbie advancing. Expecting "some kind of greeting," he was stunned to hear Robbie railing at him for being late and ordering him into the banquet room. Shula doesn't take well to railing-at. That big iron jaw is no lie. "Yell at me again," he said to Robbie, "and I'll knock you on your ass."
The two didn't speak for weeks afterward. Under normal circumstances, it would seem too long ago to worry about, an incident one might even laugh over in time. Shula himself is famous for flying off the handle, but once the irritation is off his chest, he forgets it. His relationship with Robbie, however, has never warmed; they aren't even close to being good friends. Dick Young of the New York Daily News wrote some years back that whenever Shula referred to Robbie privately it was never by name, but by "that ass." (Actually, says a Dolphin insider, the term Shula used was "that ass——.")
There has always been speculation they would eventually split, but each time his contract came due Shula wound up signing on for another tour. The last time was in 1980, for three years. But they were an excruciatingly long time coming to terms. By then Shula had sold back to Robbie his 10% interest in the club. At one point it appeared Shula might even wind up at Notre Dame, the one college job he had coveted as a younger man. The pressure, he says, was on. "I played golf with Moose Krause [then the Notre Dame athletic director]. Moose said there was no hurry. He'd accept my decision after we finished the front nine."
By hiring Thomas, of course, Robbie has opened a 10-gallon drum of worms. Shula told Robbie a year ago he would not have Thomas in his end of the operation ("We have no room"). It was also a personal matter. The two had never had words. They had, in fact, parted friends in 1972, and subsequently had dinner together a number of times on the road. Like Shula, Thomas is a proud, personable, strong-minded football man.
But Thomas became known for cavalier handling of personnel at Baltimore and San Francisco, his next stops after Miami, and became a "non-person" to Shula (says one Shula associate) by "doing in" Shula's friends.
Thomas was general manager at Baltimore when John Sandusky and then Howard Schnellenberger were fired as head coaches. He was general manager at San Francisco (where he himself was fired in 1979) when Monte Clark quit in a dispute over who was running what. All had been Shula assistants, and close friends.