And then there was 1: Shula is last of 3 titans from '70s

PRO FOOTBALL

December 29, 1991|By VITO STELLINO

In the 1970s, which may be remembered as pro football's Golden Age, three coaches became living legends while setting a standard of excellence for the sport.

Chuck Noll, Tom Landry and Don Shula combined to win eight Super Bowls as they matched wits and drove each other to new heights.

They became larger-than-life figures in an era when the focus was on the game on the field before it was tarnished by regular-season strikes, franchise shifts, antitrust trials and 8-8 playoff teams.

They also set records for longevity that may not be matched. In the 1980s, Bill Walsh quit after winning a third Super Bowl for the San Francisco 49ers, and Bill Parcells of the New York Giants walked out after winning a second.

Landry, Noll and Shula stood the test of time, but that time is passing.

Landry, who went 3-13 in his final year in 1988, was fired after 29 years as the Dallas Cowboys' coach by a new owner. Noll resigned Thursday as the Pittsburgh Steelers' coach after 23 seasons. He had just one playoff season in his past seven years.

Only Shula is left. He's coached 29 seasons, the past 22 for the Miami Dolphins. And he's getting some flak for making the playoffs only once in the past six years.

The Dolphins lost their last two games and their playoff bid by blowing fourth-quarter leads to the San Diego Chargers and the New York Jets.

Shula is struggling with the same factors that hurt Landry and Shula late in their careers. The years of drafting late have taken their toll.

When Shula was asked last week about whether the team needed someone to help him with personnel decisions, he said, "I don't feel like I have to apologize for what's happened around here since I've been here."

Like Landry and Noll before him, Shula can stand on his record.

But the days of coaches lasting more than two decades with one team may be over. Joe Gibbs of the Washington Redskins and Dan Reeves of the Denver Broncos are a distant second to Shula in seniority. Both have been on the job 11 years.

The fortunate thing for Noll is that he was able to go out on his own terms instead of being sacked by a new owner the way Landry was.

When Noll departed Thursday, he said it would have been nice to go all the way one more time and then say goodbye. It wasn't to be.

Maybe Shula, who'll turn 62 Saturday, can pull it off before he calls it a career.

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Father and son: Mike Brown and David Shula always will be known in pro football circles as sons of famous fathers.

Brown, the president of the Cincinnati Bengals, is the son of Paul Brown, who virtually invented the modern pro football game. David Shula, who was born in Baltimore 32 years ago, is Don Shula's son.

That's why it was almost fitting that Brown hired Shula to replace Sam Wyche as Bengals coach. Don Shula started his pro football career in 1951 playing for Paul Brown's Cleveland Browns.

But this somewhat sentimental move may backfire on Mike Brown. Although David Shula is only a year younger than his father was when he became the Baltimore Colts' head coach in 1963, pro football is a different game now. The pressure and the stakes are much higher.

Also, there's nothing in Shula's background to indicate he's likely to be a good head coach. He didn't get along with Dan Marino in Miami or Troy Aikman in Dallas and was demoted by Cowboys coach Jimmy Johnson before he left for Cincinnati this year.

It's also difficult to predict how an assistant coach will fare as a head coach. After all, pro football people laughed at Bears owner George Halas when he hired Mike Ditka, a Dallas assistant, as Bears head coach in 1982. Ditka was considered a raving lunatic who wasn't suited to be a head coach. Instead, Ditka proved he could coach as well as rant and rave. But the odds are against David Shula.

His hiring also will fuel the debate about the lack of minority head coaches in the NFL. It's hard to argue that minorities aren't qualified when David Shula gets hired at age 32.

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Still looking: Shula's hiring left seven teams (Tampa Bay, Green Bay, Pittsburgh, San Diego, Los Angeles Rams, Seattle and Minnesota) looking for coaches. An eighth team, Indianapolis, is interviewing coaches, but hasn't decided whether to keep Rick Venturi as coach or hire a new coach and demote Venturi to defensive coordinator.

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Parcells' choice: NBC-TV couldn't ask for more buildup for its pre-game show today with all the rumors swirling around Parcells' coaching future.

Parcells has denied all the reports that he's been offered the Tampa Bay job. Will he announce on NBC today that they're true or will he continue the denials? And if he continues the denials, will his nose be in danger of growing like Pinocchio's?

Stay tuned.

*

Handley vs. Simms: Ray Handley still doesn't seem to have the hang of this head coaching business.

The New York Giants' beleaguered rookie head coach went on his radio show last week and said Phil Simms might be considering retirement as one of his options.

All that did was further aggravate the sensitive Simms' situation.

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