There was a time when the scariest situation for a young sports writer in South Florida was to be confronted by The Jaw.
When Don Shula singled you out for his wrath it left an impression. That stalwart chin — often described as chiseled granite — boring in is among the images that stand out about the legendary Miami Dolphins coach who died Monday at age 90.
The first time Shula directed it as me was during the Woodstrock era, that quarterback void after Griese and before Marino when Shula was piecing it together with David Woodley and Don Strock. He heard me asking questions in the locker room aimed at getting an indication of which QB might be starting that week.
“What-a-ya getting at?” he thundered.
Shula exerted total control over his football team and in his view that extended to the media covering it as well.
I reflected on that last December at Hard Rock Stadium during the celebration of the 1972 Perfect Season when Larry Csonka talked about his former coach.
“It was his way or the highway when it came to dealing with other men,” Csonka said. “He’s sort of like a marine drill sergeant. There is no rebuttal. If he didn’t like what I was doing, I would have been blocking for O.J. [Simpson] in Buffalo the next day. We had a clear understanding. There were no ifs or buts. That may be truly missed today.”
Nothing but football
Thus, it could be viewed as a badge of honor to be chewed out by Shula. It was a challenge to cover him, and you had to operate within his parameters. Questions had to be direct, confined to a matter of the moment and by all means never ask him to speculate on anything.
If you met his standards, you could learn a lot from a Shula encounter. I made sure of being prepared once before a rare phone interview that he surprisingly agreed to, arming myself with carefully worded questions. The session proved most enlightening and enjoyable.
But during his coaching days, it had to be all about football. Everything else was outside his narrow tunnel of focus.
That was evident in the classic Shula story about being introduced to “Miami Vice” star Don Johnson during the height of the TV show’s popularity and thinking he was meeting a real detective.
I was stunned when Shula mentioned it during an interview while filming a commercial for a car dealership in 2012.
“I told him, ‘You guys are doing a great job cleaning up Miami. Keep up the good work. If there’s anything we can do, let me know.’ I didn’t know who he was, I was just so consumed with football,” Shula said, his jawing jiggling with laughter at the recollection.
Legacy of Perfect Season
Yes, Shula was a lot more fun to interview in retirement.
While still coaching, he didn’t even like talking about his accomplishments, so focused on adding to them.
But afterward, the legacy of the Perfect Season meant everything to him. And there was no secret how it was attained.
“I worked them four times a day,” he said that day in 2012, of the demands he put on his players through grueling training camps. “They didn’t know what hit them. They complained about it. Then we won our first game. Then we won again, and they started to say maybe there is something to hard work and success.”
In today’s NFL, coaches are greatly limited in practice time on the field.
But it took more than work ethic and pushing players to the max to amass 347 wins and two Super Bowl titles (yes, he also lost four times in the big game).
The times Shula impressed me the most were when he had to adapt in the face of adversity. Get funky outside his comfort zone.
Adapting to win
Most famous was while coaching the Colts in 1965 when he had running back Tom Matte playing quarterback due to injuries to Johnny Unitas and backup Gary Cuozzo. Shula simplified the offense and had the plays written on Matte’s wrist band. The improvisation worked in a 20-17 win over the Los Angeles Rams to force a playoff.
The situation was similar in 1993 when Shula was seeking his record-breaking 325th win at Philadelphia. Dan Marino was out for the season with a ruptured Achilles tendon and backup Scott Mitchell left in the third quarter against the Eagles with a shoulder injury. Rookie Doug Pederson came in and made some key third-down completions to seal the historic win.
“It reminded me of the Matte days,” Shula said with a chuckle afterward.
Shula best showed his adaptability in switching to a pass-happy offense with Marino. The Dolphins won their Super Bowls on the ground with Csonka, Mercury Morris and Jim Kiick pounding the ball behind a dominant offensive line.
One more title eluded Shula
Unfortunately, Shula the general manager let down Shula the coach in his later years. He was unable to construct a defense or rushing attack to give Marino the support needed to win.
So the Dolphins wasted the Marino years, and a career-capping championship eluded Shula.
But when you’ve won more games (347) than anyone else and forged the only undefeated run to a Super Bowl title, there isn’t much cause for regret.
My last face-to-face encounter with Shula was at one of his Shula Burger restaurants in the week leading to the Super Bowl in 2014.
It was the end of the Dolphins’ season of Bullygate. In discussing that debacle, Shula was reminded of the 1992 incident in which defensive lineman Alfred Oglesby was taped to a tree outside the Dolphins’ training camp at St. Thomas University by teammates.
Oglesby had missed practice after a night out drinking and fabricated a tale about being kidnapped at gunpoint to cover his tracks. When the truth came out, Shula rescinded the privilege of veterans going home at night instead of staying in the dorms on campus during training camp, prompting retaliation against Oglesby.
In Shula’s recollection, he was the one who cut Oglesby loose, although reports at the time indicated it was another player who did so after 30 minutes. Nonetheless, the incident broke the tension that hung over the team for several days.
“I think anything like this brings the team together. It’s much better than silent resentment. It’s just jock humor,” Shula said.
Shula was a coach for a different time, and in his world the team always came first and all that mattered was what contributed to winning. No one had the formula down better than he did.
Craig Davis has covered South Florida sports and teams, including the Dolphins, for four decades. Follow him on Twitter @CraigDavisRuns