Don Shula's fire won't let him tire

JOHN EISENBERG

November 08, 1993|By JOHN EISENBERG

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Being Don Shula wasn't much fun yesterday. His Hall of Fame quarterback was wearing a warm-up suit and a cast on his leg. His young quarterback was harried. His defense couldn't tackle or cover. His Dolphins, who had lost only once all season, were paddled by the commonplace Jets.

The 27-10 loss on a cold, windy afternoon prevented Shula from passing George Halas as the winningest coach in pro football history, but, in a way, it provided a perfect forum for understanding why Shula soon will possess a record that probably never will be broken.

His team's performance was the kind that drives coaches from the game in the big-money, big-media '90s. The kind that exhausts the spirit, turns the press into a posse, makes a man sit alone in his office and wonder if it's all worth it.

To say that Shula doesn't need the life anymore is a gross understatement. He has plenty of money, two Super Bowl titles, his own chapter reserved in the book of the game's history. He is 63, a grandfather, a holdover from the simpler days of Lombardi and Unitas. His peers are gone.

Yet, at the end of the eighth game of his 31st season as a head coach, as he stood and spoke to the reporters who had gathered for his big moment, he had a rookie's fire as palpable as those in the nearby incinerators of North Jersey.

His face was red from the wind, and his attitude matched it. Sure, he was polite, even funny, but his disgust was obvious. Ex-player that he is, he probably wanted to go out and poke somebody. Obviously, he couldn't wait to get to practice, to the films, to next week's game at Philadelphia. Get this mess straightened out!

And there you have it: Whatever the demons that drove away Gibbs and Parcells and Madden when they were young, children by comparison, Shula is immune from them. That is the story of his triumph. What burns out others only gets him going. He is, simply, too tough to quit.

No, he does not have the brilliant mind of a Chuck Noll or Paul Brown. No, he is not regarded as an innovator, a Bill Walsh or a Tom Landry. He has won with and without a passing game, with and without a running game, with and without a defense. His teams are known mostly for their preparedness and resourcefulness.

What he is, however, is tough. Old-school tough. His father emigrated from Hungary after the turn of the century and raised a family on the cold, hard shore of Lake Erie, near Cleveland. Shula has had a tan for 20 years now, but you are what you are. Shula just won't give in.

He won't give in to the way players have changed, refuses to use it as an excuse. He got along with the Alex Hawkins, he gets TTC along with the Louis Olivers. He has gone from crew cuts to earrings and kept the quality a coach needs most: the ability to get players' attention and respect.

He won't give in to the increased microscope, to the fluff and distractions that come with the job now. Amateur analysis, talk-show heat, even flattering pub. He wants to "get the record out of the way," he said yesterday, so he can get back to trying to make the playoffs. He has a restaurant, a hotel, a talk show, a highway named after him -- but none of that matters when he is coaching.

Most of all, he won't give in to failure. He hasn't won a Super Bowl in almost two decades. It hasn't exhausted him. It's just driving him crazy.

You want an explanation? Sorry. Aside from the stirring of his blood, there isn't one. He is a freak of nature. It's meant as a compliment. Halas, Landry and Noll were the same way. They had the same qualities, the resilience, the concentration, the temperament.

These new coaches are no less smart or talented, and their jobs certainly are more complicated in the football age of taunting and agents and million-dollar rookies. But they're all higher-strung, more immediately wealthy, pampered, obsessive to a fault. To keep going, as Shula has, is simply beyond them.

That's why Shula's record, like DiMaggio's hitting streak, might exist for as long as the game is played. A coach who lasts even a decade these days is a hollow-eyed ghost. "I don't think anyone will even approach Don's record," said Jets coach Bruce Coslet.

Shula, meanwhile, will continue coaching at least through 1994, when his contract is up, and probably beyond. He has approached Halas' record with the same vigor he showed running the Colts in 1963. People keep asking him to reminisce, and he has, but you can see the protest in his eyes. He doesn't want to talk about yesterday. He's trying to win tomorrow's game. He's a busy man, for crying out loud. He just wants to coach.

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