Shula bows out after 33 years at the top

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The Independent Online
American football

MATT TENCH

An era has come to an end in American sport with the announcement by Don Shula that he is retiring as the head coach of the Miami Dolphins. Shula, who was 66 on Thursday, departs with an NFL record 347 wins to his name after 33 years at the top of his profession.

However Shula's inevitable accession into his sport's Hall of Fame will be suffused with a certain ambiguity. Brilliantly successful in his early years, he has consistently failed in recent times to make the most of a talented roster, and in particular to give his quarterback nonpareil, Dan Marino, the stage his talents deserve.

Great things were expected from the Dolphins this year after they spent heavily last spring in an attempt to return to the Super Bowl for the first time in a decade. When a promising start disintegrated in mid-campaign Shula, for so long apparently immune to criticism, came under fierce attack. By the end the Dolphins fans greeted him with the same mixture of veneration and scepticism that characterised Brian Clough's final days at Nottingham Forest.

Miami did make the play-offs, but were badly beaten in Buffalo last weekend, which put the question as to whether Shula would see out the final year of his contract into sharp focus. The initial indications were that he would, but on a radio show on Thursday evening Shula said his reign was over. At a news conference yesterday Shula said that the decision had been taken after meetings with Wayne Huizenga, the Dolphins owner, this week. "As I talked with Wayne, the more I became convinced that it would be difficult for a one-year situation," said Shula, who said that Huizenga had offered to extend his contract.

There will be no shortage of candidates eager for the job. The Miami brief, with its plum location and gifted team, is arguably the most prized in the league. But it is safe to assume that if Jimmy Johnson wants it, no one else need apply. Having guided the Dallas Cowboys to back-to-back Super Bowls until his acrimonious departure nearly two years ago, Johnson's status as the best head coach not calling plays remains undiminished.

As a Florida resident, and former coach to Miami's college team, Johnson has made little attempt to hide the fact that one of the few NFL jobs he would return to would be with the Dolphins. All the same, as a well- paid and apparently contented TV analyst his appointment is not a foregone conclusion.

Shula, meanwhile, was left to reflect on a career which took off in1963 when, at the age of 33, the Baltimore Colts made him the youngest head coach in league history. He joined the Dolphins in 1970 and two years later his team achieved the unique feat of going through a season unbeaten. The Super Bowl was retained a year later, but Shula was never able to emulate this early success.

For all the recent controversy, at least one of his current players was sure Shula's absence would soon be felt. "South Florida doesn't know what they're going to miss yet," Bryan Cox, the loquacious linebacker said on his weekly radio show. "Next year at this time they'll be talking about, 'We want Shula back.' "

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