Dolphins' Shula gets royal treatment on and off field


August 23, 1992|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,Staff Writer

MIAMI — Miami--Down here in the land of swaying palm trees, withering humidity and jai alai, Don Shula is king. He is, quite literally, everywhere.

Interested in a round of golf? Head out to Don Shula's Golf Club in Miami Lakes for 18 picturesque holes.

Like your steaks cut thick and big? Amble over to Shula's Steak House, where the eating is good. Make sure to bring your appetite.

If you're not in the mood for beef, there's the lighter fare of SHU's All-Star Cafe, where pictures of celebrities from all sports decorate the walls.

Need a place to spend the night? No problem. You can try one of two hotels. The first sits adjacent to the Golf Club, where the bus boys wear golf knickers. The second -- Don Shula's Hotel, what else? -- sits on Main Street at the heart of this Miami Lakes development, surrounded by some 50 shops.

And you thought Shula was just a football coach.

His seeming entrepreneurship aside, Shula is first and foremost a football coach. Three years ago, he was persuaded to lend his famous name and prominent jaw to a multitude of properties -- worth $30 million -- in Miami Lakes, not far from where he lives. Did we mention Shula's Athletic Club, just a post pattern down the street from Don Shula's Hotel?

All of this prime real estate is so much Monopoly money on top of Shula's illustrious football career. At age 62, the architect of the Miami Dolphins is king of the hill, not over it.

In a coaching career that spans 30 years, Shula comes full circle Thursday night when the Dolphins play the New Orleans Saints at Memorial Stadium. The nationally televised preseason game is designed to enhance Baltimore's NFL expansion bid.

It will be a nostalgic trip for Shula. At Memorial Stadium, he will rekindle the memories of Baltimore's proud NFL past. That is where he spent four years as a scrappy corner back with the Colts from 1953 to 1956, where he launched his head coaching career in 1963.

"I remember the first game [I coached] against the Giants, running onto the field through the band," Shula said. "It was very exciting."

"[All the memories] are good. I enjoyed my young adult life there. I started a family there. I loved the city as a player and went back as a head coach. The support we got from the fans was just overwhelming."

The love affair didn't last long enough. Six years after he took over the Colts, Shula guided them to Super Bowl III. One year after that monumental 16-7 loss to the New York Jets, he was Miami-bound. The Colts' worst loss became the Dolphins' greatest gain.

These days, Shula rides toward a sunset only he can see. The Dolphins gave him a two-year, $3.7 million contract extension in July that once again makes him the league's highest-paid coach. It also keeps him with the team through 1994, by which point he should have passed Chicago Bears immortal George Halas as the NFL's all-time winningest coach.

Instead of mulling retirement plans, Shula, the NFL's second oldest coach behind Buffalo's Marv Levy, is still drawing up game plans. But he has more on his mind than the 20 wins he

needs to overtake Halas' mark of 325:

* He has, for the past 19 months, had to deal with the loss of his wife of 32 years. Dorothy Shula died in February 1991 after a courageous battle with breast cancer.

* He has watched from afar as his oldest son, David, prepares for his first season as head coach of the Cincinnati Bengals. Familial pride fairly pours out of Shula when he talks about David's opportunity there.

* He wants badly to return the Dolphins to power and to the Super Bowl. He hasn't been there since the 1984 season, and has missed the playoffs five of the past six years. Should he make it this decade, he will become the first man to have coached in Super Bowls in the 1960s, '70s, '80s and '90s. Even Shula, who disdains talk of personal glory, admits, "That would be something to be very proud about."

There has been speculation that Shula might step down if he is unable to return the Dolphins to the playoffs. In fact, when Shula got his extension a month ago, there was speculation that he would leave when the contract was up.

Shula doesn't tip his hand: "I never thought about walking away. What I've always said is at the end of a contract year, I'll look at where we are and how I feel, and make another judgment. It's hard for me to predict."

John Sandusky, a longtime Dolphins assistant who also served with Shula in Baltimore, doesn't see the end coming any time soon, though.

"I don't envision him leaving [when the current contract expires]," Sandusky said. "He's lived football all his life. He's doing what he loves. His competitive flame is still high."

Shula appears to have no greater pride than that of seeing David embark on the same journey the elder Shula began in Baltimore. But he is careful not to add to the burden that his son carries with the family name. Unreasonable expectations loom as an inherent danger.

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