Drive to succeed keeps Shula at top of his profession

John Steadman

November 08, 1993|By John Steadman

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — EAST RUTHERFORD, N. J. -- Supplanting George Halas in the NFL record book, by reason of simple arithmetic, is going to have to wait. It's on hold. There's still one more to go.

Don Shula and the team he coaches, the Miami Dolphins, had a long afternoon in losing to the New York Jets, 27-10, yesterday and thereby delayed the chance of any immediate revision in the all-time coaching standings.

Yet it's inevitable that Shula is going to get there. He's still tied with Halas in all-time coaching wins, 324, so the next opportunity comes when the Dolphins are in Philadelphia to meet the Eagles on Sunday.

Shula has been able to close in on Halas, the legendary founder, player, coach, general manager and owner of the Chicago Bears, in 31 years compared to the 40-season stand of his one-time rival.

Halas would have had more wins except he twice retired, both times prematurely, and also went away to serve as a Naval officer in World War II, which took years and victories off his coaching life.

There are striking similarities to Shula and Halas. Shula is Hungarian; Halas was a Bohemian. "We both have Bohemian blood," said Shula of their ancestral lineage.

There are other parallels. Halas was strong-willed, demonstrative and a user of strong language when he felt the occasion demanded. That almost sounds like a description of Shula or any successful battlefield commander.

A man who has been with Shula for almost all of his coaching career is John Sandusky, who knew him when they played with the Cleveland Browns. He subsequently watched him close-up as an assistant through most of Shula's 31 years as coach in Baltimore and Miami.

Asked for his personal and professional assessment of Shula, Sandusky answered, "He's always involved. Nothing gets past him. He refuses to submit to defeats or bad breaks."

How about his attachment to football? "That's his entire focus," LTC replied Sandusky. "His interest is devoted to football. He doesn't allow himself to be distracted. But he never burns out.

"Don isn't one of those coaches who sleeps in his office, wakes up and goes back to looking at film. He does what has to be done and, even though he doesn't let up in his effort, is so organized he doesn't hold meetings lasting long into the night."

Sandusky, of course, is aware of Shula's ability to handle emergency situations, making the best of conditions when he loses a starting quarterback and is forced to replace him with a backup. It happened in Baltimore when John Unitas injured his arm, in Miami when Bob Griese damaged a knee, and again as Dan Marino tore an Achilles' tendon.

Shula has a way of winning in spite of problems. He doesn't feel sorry for himself and refuses to let down. It's an attitude the players around him quickly recognize and follow.

A Dolphins defeat of the Jets yesterday could have brought the Shula Watch to an end but, in discussing a bad performance, he simply said, "We just didn't get it done."

The Halas involvement had nothing to do with the way his players performed yesterday. But it would be easy for Shula to wonder if the squad is caught up in the hype of his trying to get past the record and has lost some of its concentration.

"The record of the team is what's important," he said. "I tried to deal with it [the Halas chase] and keep it out of my mind. I'd like for it to happen during a season when there's a team accomplishment."

The fires that burn so fiercely within Shula, ever the competitor, haven't dimmed, even at age 63. After this season, there's another year left on his contract. Then he says he'll decide if he will continue to coach.

"I can't say what'll happen, but I know I want to be close to football," he said. "I'd like to get involved in ownership or run a team, the way Paul Brown did at Cincinnati or Vince Lombardi in Green Bay and Washington."

And don't forget Halas. That's what Papa Bear did since he was at all times the owner and general manager of the team he founded in 1920. Shula knew Halas and reveres his name and love of the game.

"Every year I ask myself as a test if I'm working as hard now as this time last year," Shula said. "That's how I try to measure myself."

So far, there has no let-up in his drive or motivation. Only one more victory puts him in a position of excellence that no coach, not even the legendary Halas, has ever reached.

Then Don Shula will be at the head of the class in a league that has been operating for 74 years. It's inevitable.

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