Shula in shadow

American football
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IN THE United States the appellation "Coach" carries the same aura of respectability as "Judge" or "Reverend". And no one commands more respect than Coach Shula of the Miami Dolphins - the longest-serving, "winningmost" coach in American football history.

Lately, though, Don Shula has found the respect of the people of Miami harder to come by. He may have won more games than any other coach, but he has had 22 years at Miami in which to do so. And success, which in football can only mean the Super Bowl, has not come his way for a long time: it's more than a decade since he took a team to a Super Bowl, and more than two decades since he won one.

The pressure on Shula has been increased by another Florida resident: Jimmy Johnson, who had as many Super Bowl victories in five years with the Dallas Cowboys as Shula has in his career. Since he left the Cowboys 18 months ago, Johnson has earned his living as a TV analyst. The Dolphins, however, might be able to tempt him to swop the pundit's headphones for a coach's cap once more.

Shula is not going without a fight. In the close season he strengthened his squad with expensive imports, and the team, led by the veteran quarterback Dan Marino, gave value for money at the start of the season with four straight victories. But then they threw away a big lead at home to lose to Indianapolis, since when their form has been as up-and-down as the Rockies.

The Dolphins have now won eight games and lost six, and today's game at the Buffalo Bills may be their last chance of making the play-offs - and Don Shula's last chance of keeping the job he has held for so long.

Andy Cohen, the editor of Dolphin Digest, the official magazine of the team, believes that Shula will have to go sooner or later. "I don't think Don is safe right now," he said. "But just as it was premature two or three weeks ago to say that it was all over, so it is premature to say the same thing at this point. The next game is very, very important."

If Shula is forced into retirement he will have left his mark upon the fabric of Miami: on the Don Shula Expressway, and the steakhouse named after him. "He's part of the place," said Rod Johnson of the Miami Herald. Johnson's readers are divided. "We get a lot of people complaining about him," Johnson reports, "and a lot calling in to support him. If it was down to those who want him replaced, it could all be over this weekend."

Andy Cohen thinks that the end is nigh. "I think he's a great man and a great coach," Cohen said. "But there comes a time when everyone has to think about retirement, and if the Dolphins lose their next two games, I think that time will have come for Don."

He would still have a family interest in the game: his son David has made a shaky start as head coach of the Cincinnati Bengals. An alternative career, as unpaid fatherly adviser, beckons for Coach Shula.