Do not—repeat, do not—challenge Shula on a football matter unless you're on very firm ground. Naturally, I repeated my mistakes. When the Dolphins traveled to Foxboro, Mass., to play the New England Patriots in 1986, Miami was struggling and things were sensitive, although I wasn't bright enough to figure that out. Shula and I took a walk near the team hotel. The New England foliage was in full color. It was one of those mellow moments when you feel you can say just about anything. Yeah, sure.
I said that I had the feeling he wasn't comfortable with the kind of team he was coaching, all that passing, not much running, that things were much better in the '70s, when he had those machines that would crank out 250 yards on the ground and throw the ball 15 times a game. I was too caught up in my own thought to notice the rage that was building. Finally it exploded.
"What would you do if you had a quarterback like Marino?" he snapped. "Have him hand the ball off 50 times a game? Geez, these experts."
Did I ever win one with him? I think I did, but I'm not quite sure. Jets versus Dolphins, 1970, at the Orange Bowl. I was a beat writer covering the Jets, who were on their way to a 4-10 season. They should never have been in it against Miami, but they were, right down to the end, when Miami won by six. Late in the fourth quarter Shula had to make some kind of decision—go for a field goal, go for a first down, I can't really remember. Afterward the New York coaches were all talking about how Shula had made the wrong decision.
So during Shula's press conference I asked him about the call. "It was the right one, anybody knows that," said Shula. I waited for the next round of questions to subside and started again: "But don't you think that in a situation like that...." I never got the chance to finish.
"I already answered that question," he said. "Who the hell is this guy?"
I left. I had a late deadline. I didn't have to write my story until I got back to New York. I was thinking about it all the way home. Dammit, it was the wrong decision, he knew it, and he blustered his way through it. When I got back to the office, I fired off this real Sieg Heil letter to Shula about how a lot of people in this world don't give a damn about football and none of you guys are finding a cure for cancer, etc. I didn't write a line about the whole thing in my story.
I never got an answer, but the next time I saw Shula, he went out of his way to be warm and friendly. I think he appreciated a guy who had shown some genuine rage but didn't go hide behind a typewriter and put it in a story.
"Coach Shula's changed in very subtle ways," says Bob Kuechenberg, a Dolphin guard of the '70s and one of Shula's alltime favorites. "Maybe the death of his wife, Dorothy, a couple of years ago had something to do with it, the slow and tragic way it happened. I saw him at a dinner after that. He hugged me. He said, 'I love you, Bob.' When he walked away, I said to my wife, 'Did you just hear what I think I heard?' It's something he never would have said in the old days. The Lombardi in him wouldn't have let him. Now he can say something like that. He isn't afraid to show that kind of emotion."
Not long ago Mercury Morris, a Pro Bowl halfback for Shula in the '70s, was in line for a job as a sports-talk-show host in Miami. He asked Shula to be his guest for the audition broadcast. It's something Shula rarely does, but he told Morris that he would do it for him. Morris, who'd been having a rough time of it lately, who had done time in the mid-'80s for cocaine trafficking, got the job.