Profile: Miami's sound machine: Don Shula

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The Independent Online
DON SHULA'S grandchildren have a nickname for the Miami Dolphins head coach that no one in American football finds silly or inappropriate: Grandfather Mountain. He dominates the landscape of the sport.

Imagine Bill Shankly and the game's folklore suggests that it would require double his will to win to get close to Shula's drive. Multiply the time he has been in charge by two and you put him properly into perspective too.

Shula has been uncompromisingly and loudly calling the moves in the National Football League since before President Kennedy was assassinated. At 63 he has been a bull-headed and belligerent head coach for 31 seasons in a world where longevity is usually commented upon after half a dozen. Today he could become the most successful in the history of the game.

If the Dolphins can defeat the Eagles of Philadelphia - and the expectation is that they should - Shula will move one victory ahead of George Halas, the Chicago Bears owner-coach who won 324 games over 40 years. It will be a feat of gigantic proportions. 'What he has done will never be repeated,' Bill Parcells, the New England Patriots coach, said. 'It's impossible. It's remarkable.'

American football oozes statistics but Shula's loom large over the data mountain. If he retired today his nearest active rival, Chuck Knox of the Los Angeles Rams, would need to average 10 wins a seasons for the next 14 years to surpass his total, by which time Knox would be 75; he has more wins than 16 of the NFL's 27 clubs; he is the only coach to have reached six Super Bowls; only one team, the LA Raiders (11-5), have won more matches against him than they have lost.

His son David, the coach of the Cincinnatti Bengals, who have yet to win this season, summed up the relentless progress of Shula Snr earlier this year. 'When I became head coach I was 306 wins behind Dad,' he said. 'Today I'm 313 behind him.'

American football has been losing ground on Shula ever since he became the youngest head coach in the NFL with the Baltimore Colts in 1963. A defensive back with Cleveland, Baltimore and the Washington Redskins, he retired in 1957 as a player of no great accomplishment; but as in Britain, where modest achievements as a soccer player are no bar to success as a manager, he found teaching easier than performing.

Within six years he guided the Colts to Super Bowl III and when defeat by the Joe Namath-inspired New York Jets in 1969 soured relationships with owner Carroll Rosenbloom he joined Miami the following year. It was a watershed for both franchises. Since then the Colts (now in Indianapolis) have barely had a season when they have won more matches then they have lost, while the Dolphins have been to five Super Bowls, winning in 1973 and 1974.

It is the first of those triumphs for which Shula is most loudly lauded, coaching the only unbeaten team (17-0) in NFL history. No club has come as close to perfection before or since.

Those who have worked with Shula - nine of his assistants have become head coaches with other teams - swear by his thoroughness. 'It's not on Sunday that he beats other teams,' Greg Cote, who reports on the Dolphins for the Miami Morning Herald, said. 'It's on Monday to Saturday. His attention to detail is fantastic. There is nothing too small to escape his attention.'

Last year Shula, whose daily routine includes a 30-minute jog, and mass at his local Catholic church, drew up a seating plan for their Dolphins and their entire entourage for a a charter flight to Berlin for an exhibition game. Jim Langer, a Hall of Fame center from the Seventies, says the record for showing a game film over and over again is 72. 'One game?' 'One play,' he answered.

The blinkers are never properly removed. Once Don Johnson, who was appearing in Miami Vice at the height of its popularity, visited the Dolphins dressing room and announced who he was to Shula. 'Glad to meet you. You guys do a fine job,' the coach replied, thinking Johnson was part of the city's police department. Last year Kevin Costner shook his hand at a tennis tournament, to Shula's total bewilderment.

That tunnel vision is backed by a temper that is legendary among peers who are not exactly noted for tact. Nobody is too important to escape a tongue lashing, even Joe Robbie, the Dolphins' owner, whom he once threatened to punch for allegedly humiliating him in public. 'My main goal in summer practice was not to make the team,' Langer said, 'but to keep Shula chewing me out. I would do anything to keep him from yelling.'

The death of his wife, Dorothy, two years ago after a long fight against cancer, has capped the volcano to an extent and his courting of and marriage to Miami socialite Mary Anne Stephens 10 days ago has introduced a tender side to their coach that their players had never believed existed under the granite exterior. 'He asked what flowers were going to be in his hotel room once,' one said incredulously.

Dan Marino, Shula's quarterback for a decade, testifies to a new mellowness but not a slackening of effort. 'He never stops expecting the best of people. We'll be ahead in games by three touchdowns with only two minutes left and he'll still be going 150mph. You want to say, 'It's OK, coach. We've won the game. Relax'.'

He does not dare, of course. 'I give ulcers, I don't get them,' Shula, who has missed only one and half days' work in three decades, said. 'My secret is that I let all my emotions out. I've screamed so hard at players, coaches and officials that I don't recognise myself when I see pictures of my face in that state. I've punched walls. I've stomped off from press conferences. My adrenalin flows and everything comes out of me.'

He has been reticent about the record, however. 'I never set out to get most wins,' he said. 'It comes down to doing your best every day, every week, every year. But if I get the record I want it to be in a successful year. It's no point if the season is a disappointment.'

By that he means a return visit to the Super Bowl to become coach in the game's finale in four separate decades. It would be a fitting testimonial.