WHEN THE BALTIMORE Colts would meet the Chicago Bears, in an era gone by, it frequently happened that Donald Francis Shula and George Stanley Halas, the respective coaches, would wind up in the same church on Sunday morning, bowing their heads and praying to the same God -- before the setting and the mood changed.
Then, only hours away at kickoff time, the things they screamed from the bench most assuredly didn't come out of a prayer book. Two men wound tight, competitive and trying to get the maximum out of every play. They never directed their fire at each other because of the personal regard that existed between them, but for each man it was a war to win without guns.
Halas was the National Football League. He helped start it and if anyone had a right to try to intimidate officials, ignore some of the rules, such as remaining between the 40-yard lines, then he owned the license . . . and also the vocabulary to at least gain their attention. After four decades of devotion to a cause, Halas retired with 325 career wins.
Now along comes Shula, in his 28th season and with a total of 294 victories, closing in on Halas. If he's blessed with the health to continue in a job that is an ongoing pressure chamber then he'll not only match the record but surpass it on his way to the same Pro Football Hall of Fame that Halas helped start.
On Sunday afternoon, Shula will be back in the city where he, in fact, played his last pro football game as a member of the Washington Redskins before going off to take an assistant coaching job at the University of Virginia. Now his Miami Dolphins, 33 years later and with Shula the head coach, will be meeting the Redskins, one of three pro teams he played for, the others being the Colts and Cleveland Browns.
The stature he has achieved doesn't surprise anyone who knew Shula in his formative years. When the Dolphins were emerging as one of the NFL's dominant teams, a man who made motivational films, with offices in the Watergate Building, called from Washington and asked if we could arrange to visit him. He had been told that a sportswriter in Baltimore knew the secret to Shula's success.
After 20 minutes of conversation, the movie man looked up and said, "What you're telling me is Shula has no gimmicks, no sure-shot solutions or magic methods to get his team to win football games." That's right, he was assured. What he obviously wanted to hear was that Shula was a miracle-worker and possessor of secret powers to accomplish all the things he was doing.
That wasn't it at all. He was informed Shula had gotten to where was, and is, with perspiration, hard work, boundless energy and a competitive nature that was satisfied only when he won. Apparently, the Shula story line was too good to be true. For the film was never made, which in retrospect was beneficial because it's doubtful if Shula could have acted out a scenario that would have been more theatrical than reality.
After 20 years under Shula, the Dolphins have compiled a better winning percentage than any professional team in North America. He calls the last four years "real downers" as the Dolphins, for them, hit upon hard times as they compiled an overall mark of 30-33. Some of his earlier accomplishments were being demeaned. And it was all so unfair.
The inevitable charges were made that Shula had stayed too long; that headed into his 60s, he should think about retirement; that he couldn't get the job done any more. What hokum. The man was merely experiencing what we once heard a profound college coach, the late Lou Little, say -- that there "wasn't a coach alive who could think the ball down the field." If the players aren't available, regardless of the level of play, you can't win consistently.
As that well-known western philosopher Bum Phillips said about Shula: "He can take hisn and beat yourn or take yourn and beat hisn," or something like that. What is definite about Shula, bottom line, is he gets the most out of the talent available. And there's no more meaningful compliment that can be paid to any man who coaches for a living.