Shula reaches brink while bending with the times Ability to adjust helps in chase of Halas' mark

October 03, 1993|By Scott Fowler | Scott Fowler,Contributing Writer

Miami -- Back when he was younger and NFL coaches could afford to be as strict as schoolmarms, Miami Dolphins coach Don Shula once instituted what he called "The Tuesday Rule."

The Tuesday Rule meant that players couldn't have intimate contact with their wives or girlfriends after Tuesday if there was a game on Sunday.

You can say many things about Shula, but you can't accuse him of not adjusting.

"If you're going to succeed, you have to change," says the 63-year-old coach, whose Dolphins (2-1) play host to the Washington Redskins (1-2) tomorrow night at Joe Robbie Stadium.

Shula's players today have the sort of freedom he only could dream about when he spent seven years as a mediocre cornerback in the NFL in the 1950s.

Mustaches and beards used to be banned in a Shula locker room. Now the players wear their hair any way they want and can pin on earrings that dangle nearly to their shoulder pads. If they are named Bryan Cox, they shoot both middle fingers at Buffalo fans and get fined $10,000 by the NFL -- $5,000 per finger -- and nothing by Shula. One of them -- quarterback Dan Marino -- is even allowed to talk back to Shula.

It is a different game and a different time. But Shula and his jaw are still here, as customary as an end-zone spike. The coach now needs only five more victories to pass George Halas and become the winningest coach in NFL history.

"I can't afford the luxury of thinking about that right now," says Shula, who began his head coaching career with the Baltimore Colts, from 1963 to '69. "Good things will happen if we keep preparing this team well and it keeps doing things right."

That's a stock answer for Shula, but his family members and friends say nothing is more important to his career than surpassing Halas. It is one of the primary reasons he has signed on to coach the Dolphins through the 1994 season -- even a full-blown Dolphins collapse this season shouldn't keep him from destiny.

But the promising Dolphins aren't expected to falter short of the playoffs this season. Shula has assembled a team of talented offensive skill players led by Marino, a decent defense and an up-and-down offensive line upon which the year probably will hinge. He hates free agency and testified against it and for the NFL at the trial last season. But after the players won free agency, Shula -- who still controls all major personnel decisions for Miami -- made the first big acquisition by grabbing tight end Keith Jackson from Philadelphia, and Miami has since improved with fullback Keith Byars and tackle Ron Heller, also from the Eagles.

"You play within the rules, whatever they are," Shula says. "You've got to adapt to them."

The way Shula has handled the Cox situation this past week is also instructive of his adaptability. Cox is the emotional, frenzied heart of the Dolphins, and Shula knows that to tame him is to tame the entire defense.

"I can't condone what he has done," Shula says. "This was carrying things too far. . . . But I also don't want to take away what makes him Bryan Cox. We need that sort of enthusiasm on the field."

It's not exactly as if Shula has become a modern guy, however. The small-town roots of Grand River, Ohio, (population: 2,000) where he was born and grew up, still cling to him. Shula's $2,500 suits are numbered along with matching shirts and ties to ensure that he doesn't put the wrong combination on. In 1990, when asked for the name of his favorite comedian, he responded with "George Burns and Gracie Allen." When TV star Don Johnson appeared with his entourage at a Dolphins practice in the mid-1980s, riding the crest of his "Miami Vice" TV fame, Shula thought Johnson was a real police officer and told him to keep doing a good job protecting Miami's streets.

Yet Shula does pretty well for a man with five grandchildren. He is remarkably healthy and has missed only two days of practice due to sickness in his career.

"I don't get ulcers, I give them," Shula says.

Shula's wife of 32 years, Dorothy, died in 1991, after a six-year fight with breast cancer. The loss affected Shula deeply. Dorothy had been his partner in everything -- she once persuaded then-NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle to refund $150 of a $350 referee-baiting fine against her husband because "it was a first offense." But Shula has found renewed happiness with girlfriend Mary Anne Stephens, a wealthy political and charitable organizer from Arkansas, and keeps up closely with coaching sons David (the head coach at Cincinnati) and Mike (Chicago's tight-ends coach).

Shula actually coached against Halas, the man he should pass sometime this season, on nine occasions. He held a 5-4 edge against Papa Bear, who liked the young Shula, once calling him "a born leader."

In South Florida, where an expressway, a golf course and about half of the township of Miami Lakes is named for him, Shula is prone to thinking he is on equal terms with anyone.

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