In Mike McDaniel, the Dolphins might have their Spo

No one entirely understood what they were watching last Sunday, as the Greatest Show on Surf swamped the visiting men from the mountains. But perhaps one man had a bit more perspective, sitting in a Hard Rock Stadium booth with his sons, taking photos with former Dolphins such as Shawn Wooden and all-time sporting greats such as Wayne Gretzky.

“I love watching Mike’s offensive plans,” Miami Heat coach Erik Spoelstra texted back, as South Florida’s sports fans everywhere continued celebrating a 70-20 Miami Dolphins victory.



Even Spoelstra’s Heat — with their 12 playoff appearances, six NBA Finals appearances and two championships since his ascension in 2008 — have never been quite so overwhelming as Mike McDaniel’s Dolphins were last Sunday. Not even during a 27-game winning streak. Not even with LeBron James and Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, and now Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo.

But that’s the thing.

It’s not about the short term, no matter how spectacular, as Spoelstra and his new friend McDaniel know.

It’s about what you sustain.

And so that brings us to today, Sunday in Buffalo, against the only squad that stands in the way of AFC East supremacy — with the Jets and Patriots each in some semblance of disarray.

And that brings us to tomorrow, and whether McDaniel can prove as resilient, resourceful and permanent as Spoelstra has proven, just just for a game or season but for more than a decade.

McDaniel had more working against him than Spoelstra did when each was hired, even though he was roughly the same age. While the Heat have been the model of stability since Pat Riley’s arrival in 1995, with Spoelstra just the third official head coach in that time, McDaniel is the 9th, and 12th if you include the interims. The Heat have been the sturdy ship while the Dolphins have been a pool float over the past quarter-century, and so any hire is met with skepticism, as this one was. Yes, McDaniel was touted as a genius by many who had encountered him, but so was Adam Gase. He hadn’t played professionally, nor did he look the part, not for anything but the IT department. And unlike Spoelstra, whose rise was also unconventional in that he came up from the Heat video room, McDaniel didn’t have anyone of the gravity of Riley, someone who had seen him day after day, anointing him.

But McDaniel and Spoelstra, while somewhat different in terms of personality — McDaniel, for starters, enjoys silly media repartee while Spoelstra loathes any such small talk — share some qualities that may have been overlooked by many initially. It’s not just the willingness to innovate, norms and critics be damned, from Spoelstra’s Pace and Space to McDaniel’s “Cheat Motion” that will is now an NFL rage.

It’s their relatability — each self-deprecating in his own way, each willing to take the bullet for those under their command.

And, mostly, it’s their empathy.

Spoelstra has shown that in spades since he’s become the Heat’s singular voice during the season, with the way he speaks about and treats his players, others in the organization, opponents and even reporters — I have too many stories I could share. I’ll never forget the lengthy message Spoelstra sent a media colleague after his son passed, a message that turned my friends to tears as he showed it to me at the memorial.

McDaniel seems the same.

That quality has allowed his quarterback, Tua Tagovailoa, to shrug off all the skeptics and take this satisfying star turn, following all the negative reinforcement from prior coach Brian Flores. McDaniel did more than just believe in Tua. He was vocal and adamant about such belief — again, critics be damned. And he was consistent with his support, not only for what Tua was doing and would do, but what had been done to him by the doubts of the prior regime.

That is a rare quality for a coach, and maybe that’s why McDaniel and Spoelstra have become so chummy so quickly.

A year ago at this time, I was in the Bahamas for Heat training camp and pulled Spoelstra aside to get his view of McDaniel, who was less than a month into his first NFL season. Spoelstra smiled broadly. He likes this stuff more than talking about tired NBA narratives, for sure.

And it was clear how much he liked McDaniel’s approach, from a visit to the Dolphins’ 2022 training camp.

When I noted that McDaniel was about the same age as Spoelstra was in 2008:

“It’s amazing. And he’s way more advanced. And just understands the picture and dynamics of building a team. I was really impressed. Our whole staff was impressed. By the whole vibe up there. During training camp, when we saw it, they were working really hard. And it was one of those South Florida hot days. But they had fun out there too. So they were trying to get something accomplished, they were doing it with joy, I really enjoyed that day, and came away impressed with him. Yes, he looks young. He fits right in. But his maturity and understanding of how to teach football, it belies his years.”

Of their shared unconventional path, Spoelstra said he related, “Just even talking to him. The sports are different. But how you think, I always find that really interesting in talking to people. I tend to now, at this point of my career, learn more from people outside the industry….. You tend to look at things a little bit more differently when you go outside our sport. That’s why I’ve enjoyed those kind of visits….. We had a terrific day, and he was very gracious to give us a couple hours afterwards, and just talk some shop. And you can kind of see how he in general thinks differently, and that leads to innovation. When you’re questioning things, and questioning the norm, and being open to new possibilities. It may be obvious but because it’s not what everybody else is doing, we all tend to fall into that trap sometimes.”

What did McDaniel want to know from Spoelstra?

“You know, I get that a lot of what it’s like to coach teams that are ready,” Spoelstra said. “And to take that real step. That was probably a decent amount of the conversation. He was probably getting frustrated with us, because every time he turned it to us, we flipped it and we were asking more questions about what they do and how they got to that point. I might not understand all the schematics of how they do it, but I loved seeing the process of ‘OK, how did you start with this, and why did you think of it differently to get it to that?’ And if the whole league is zigging and you may be zagging in different pockets, how can that create a competitive advantage.”

Sp9elstra found ways to create plenty of competitive advantages with an undermanned Heat roster this past season, particularly in the postseason, and McDaniel was there to see it, sometimes with Dolphins GM Chris Grier, sometimes with others, watching warmups, sitting in a courtside seat — with Spoelstra strolling and stomping right in front of him — and then spending time in the back tunnels, politely and earnestly chatting up Spoelstra, players and the staff.

Friday, I mentioned that Spoelstra not only was in attendance for the Dolphins’ scoring deluge against Denver, but praised McDaniel on his plan.

Why does McDaniel believe the men — leading two organizations that haven’t always felt aligned — have bonded so much?

Have they spoken about strategy?

“No, I think we’ve talked about the commonalities which we share, and different ways to look at the game,” McDaniel said. “And really the biggest commonality that we’ve shared is we’re in a business where our job is to motivate and curate and get the best out of the players that we have. And you know, it’s a complicated life of the professional athlete, where you have so many people in your ear, there are so many people making money off of you, and to be able to take these highly successful individuals and make them a team, I think there’s a shared experience that we have mostly focused on when we’ve talked. Because it’s some of the biggest problem solving that you really need to undertake.”

No matter the sport.

“I use basketball references all the time, and I think watching the Heat play gave me all sorts of motivation in the offseason, just by team over everything, and what is the saying, ‘The sum is greater than the parts… or whatever,'” McDaniel continued, in his typically folksy style. “That’s what I see from them. And I think that pretty much applies to professional football in general, because you always have talented players across the board, but working together is what generates results. We have a cool relationship. It’s not direct X’s and O’s. Like I can’t help watching basketball and following the ball. And I know that to be wrong from a coach’s perspective, because when I watch football I see all the things moving at once, I’m not just staring at where the ball is going. But I can’t do it in basketball. So I would be very little help. It would be very one-sided. Like, ‘Tell me how you do things again.’ And we have a more equitable friendship, I would say.”

He need not follow the ball in Spoelstra’s sport.

Just the success, and then sustain.

It’s been quite a start.


Ethan Skolnick is the CEO of Five Reasons Sports Network.





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