One of the last times his chinny dock-worker's face appeared prominently on these pages, Don Shula was being held aloft on padded shoulders as a kind of symbolic affirmation of the heights he had reached as a football coach. It was Jan. 14, 1973 and his Miami Dolphins had just won the Super Bowl, completing an unprecedented 17-0 season. The next year the Dolphins won again, and at the end of the 1970s, enough thinking people in pro football were so convinced of Shula's preeminence that he was voted NFL Coach of the Decade—despite the fact that Chuck Noll of Pittsburgh had won four Super Bowls since a Shula team won its last playoff game.
On the afternoon of Miami's playoff with the Steelers two years ago, a Pittsburgh writer called it a matchup of "football's best team against football's best coach." The implication was clear enough because the "team" certainly wasn't Miami. The Dolphins were routed that day 34-14. Miami has now gone seven straight seasons without a win in the playoffs, yet even today, when two or more football people get together, chances are the consensus will be that Shula is the NFL's top coach.
How does Shula maintain this lofty status when by all logic Noll has flat outstripped him? Part of the answer lies in the fact that, at 51, Shula still ranks as the most consistent winner in NFL history (.708 on a record of 193-78-5). Part of it is that no one else ever had a 17-0 season. And yet another part, says Nick Buoniconti, the Miami lawyer/ex-Dolphin, is that Shula has been "such a positive influence on the game" and that "under the worst conditions, Shula will still be competitive."
Sure enough, there is Shula now, in his trophy-laden Dolphin office at Biscayne College, talking on the eve of training camp about how he is actually looking forward to this brave new season—looking forward to it when conditions could be worse, but not a whole lot. Shula is, to use his word, excited over the chances of a team that was 8-8 in 1980 (only his second non-winning season in 11 at Miami) and a pitiful 26th out of the 28 NFL teams in total offense. He is talking about building a new offense around a talented young quarterback ( David Woodley) who wasn't even a regular in college (at LSU) and who just last year was drafted, in the eighth round, more as an afterthought than a prospect but who, nonetheless, and quite significantly, is the only drafted Dolphin to make a streak across NFL skies in years. Shula is planning to rebuild around Woodley and a supporting cast of nobodies. The great Bob Griese has retired. Only two Dolphin regulars (Guard Bob Kuechenberg and Defensive End Vern Den Herder) are still around from the Super years. And there's no Larry Csonka to kick around other people anymore, to inspire fans with implacable three-yard runs, to bleed on the shoes of his teammates in the huddle. It is a team that one recent Dolphin says "lacks in so many areas it will be the miracle of the century if he breaks even again."
For this Shula says he can hardly wait for the season to begin? Yes, and what's more he's talking about being "on the come" with this team, about it being 1970 all over again, a reference to the year Shula took over a 3-10-1 team and transformed it into a 10-4 powerhouse.
That sounds like Shula, all right, says Tim Foley, a defensive back in the glory days who retired last year after one too many knee operations. Foley says he retired convinced that " Shula can win in spite of everything." For good reason. Shula has won in spite of everything (eight AFC East championships in the last 11 years, for good example). He has won despite "pitiful, horrible drafts" (Buoniconti's evaluation) since Personnel Director Joe Thomas left in 1972, and trades that backfired more often than they helped. He has won despite the erratic, ofttimes bizarre rule of owner Joe Robbie—and, ironically, because of him, too. And he has won despite front-office turmoil that would rival the court of Louis XVI in quirks and intrigue, in divisive subplots and counterplots that would have done in or driven out a lesser man.
Consider, briefly, the latest. Robbie, against Shula's wishes, has rehired Thomas, whose one-man traveling, trading, drafting salvation show put together the early Dolphin teams, the ones Shula eventually converted to Supers. But, said Robbie (and Thomas and Shula) when the rehiring was announced three weeks ago, Thomas will not be drafting and trading. He will work under Robbie as a vice-president for "special projects," such as liaison with the new Miami sports authority, and public-relations duties, such as conducting how-to-watch-football classes for women. If that is the case, then Robbie hired Rembrandt to paint the mailbox. But a day or so later, after a few more phone calls, it was mutually understood that Thomas would also "help sign veteran players." And Thomas himself said that, although he would have nothing to do with personnel decisions, he would "attend practice" now and then. Hmmmm. More later.
Shula has won despite all the adversity Joe Robbie's money could buy—and some his money could not buy. Ah, nobody knows the adversity Shula has seen. Bear Bryant used to say a man doesn't learn about his mettle when times are good, but rather when the kids are sick and the bank has foreclosed and his wife has run off with the drummer.
In recent months the Shula equivalents seemed to make the news every other day. Csonka, his beloved former fullback, was involved in a grand jury investigation of marijuana smuggling and pleaded the Fifth. Griese, after painfully dragged-out speculation over his ailing arm, retired. Delvin Williams, the premier running back for whom Shula had traded four years ago and who had gone from the penthouse to the doghouse in record time, said he wouldn't be caught dead in a Dolphin uniform again, and demanded a trade. Last year Williams reportedly fell asleep in team meetings; he was subsequently benched for running as if he were asleep. His agent said the sleeping problem was a "physical" quirk—that Delvin falls asleep in restaurants, too, and "when he's talking to you on the phone."
Then the Dolphins lost the best answer to the what-do-we-do-for-a-running-back-now dilemma by allowing the Montreal Alouettes of the Canadian Football League to whisk their No. 1 draft choice, David Overstreet of Oklahoma, from under their upraised noses. Overstreet's agent said the Dolphin personnel man, Bill Davis, wasn't available to talk when it got down to the nitty-gritty. Shula was understandably appalled. Davis then resigned—but for other reasons, he said, including a contract dispute with Robbie (Are you beginning to get a picture?).