The Don of coaches rarely was conned, even as Colt player

John Steadman

November 15, 1993|By John Steadman

PHILADELPHIA -- From where no National Football League coach has been before, at a rarefied height that may never again be reached, stands Donald Francis Shula, who climbed his own Mount Everest and chiseled an imposing inscription of achievement.

Shula has surpassed legendary George Halas, an equally intense and vocal rival he once faced as both a player and coach. The Shula record in 31 years shows an all-time mark of 325 wins as a result of his Miami Dolphins beating the Philadelphia Eagles, 19-14, yesterday in a history- making event that may signify an unattainable mark of excellence.

The ever-resourceful Shula lost quarterback Scott Mitchell with a shoulder separation against the Eagles. Earlier in the schedule he was deprived of Dan Marino, who tore his Achilles' tendon, so against the Eagles he finished up with a third-stringer, Doug Pederson, at the controls.

In his career, Shula, who defies adversity when it strikes and then seems to be even more determined to succeed, has had to use backup quarterbacks in 37 games and has won 29 of them. What a remarkable footnote.

Shula's longevity in a precarious pursuit -- coaching football -- allowed him to overtake Halas, but first he had to be a winner. And the demanding personality of the man -- on himself and those he leads -- was all the motivation needed to fuel the furious fire that burned within.

Now at the top of the coaching ladder, Shula replaces Halas, an old competitor who helped organize the NFL as a founder and charter member in 1920.

Shula actually remembers the first dialogue he had with Halas. It was when Shula, a cornerback for the Baltimore Colts, heard Halas uttering some descriptive language during the pre-game drill (yes, Papa Bear was warming up his vocabulary even before the kickoff).

"Hey, coach," Shula hollered, "do you think that's the proper way to talk for a man I saw in church this morning?" Halas dropped his head and turned away. Silence reigned . . . temporarily.

Still later, Halas looked at Shula from in front of the Bears' bench and, typically, tried to get the rival player's mind off what he was doing. Harlon Hill, a wide receiver for the Bears, was flanked to the left. "Kid, this guy is getting ready to fly right past you," Halas screamed.

The fact Halas often asserted himself with a litany of strong words and Shula was known to do the same certainly takes nothing away from either as football leaders. Battlefield generals have never been known to address the troops as if they are talking to Little Lord Fauntleroys. Players, the same as an army in combat, understand one thing -- assertive discipline.

Halas was a God-fearing man; Shula the same. "I always respected him," Shula said. "When I came in the league, the best organizations were the Bears and Cleveland Browns. Halas and coach Paul Brown of the Browns were opposites, but highly professional."

Now Shula has gone past Halas, who was around for 40 seasons. Had Halas not retired twice and also spent three years in World War II, the chase would still be on because the Bears, in the midst of the extensive Halas era, were perennial contenders. That would have added considerably to Halas' numbers.

If there was an embarrassing moment for Shula as a player in Baltimore, it was the start of the 1954 season. He had the coverage on Volney "Skeets" Quinlan of the Los Angeles Rams, who appeared to leave the field after the opening kickoff.

But Quinlan, on a pre-arranged plan, let himself be a "sleeper," near the Rams' sidelines, and Norm Van Brocklin passed 80 yards for an immediate score in what became a 48-0 rout in Weeb Ewbank's first game as a head coach.

The league would later tighten the rules so it never could happen again. "I still remember," Shula said. "I was wondering why Van Brocklin was throwing the ball so far downfield. I found out."

As a player, Shula often coached the coaches. "I remember some teammates telling me to pay attention to what I was doing and leave them alone," he said. "But I was intense. I studied defenses and understood what had to be done."

It was obvious Shula knew what he was talking about. After playing for the Colts four years and coaching as an assistant at the University of Virginia and for the Detroit Lions, he returned to Baltimore in 1963. That came after players Gino Marchetti and Bill Pellington told owner Carroll Rosenbloom if he was ready to fire Ewbank that Shula would be the perfect replacement.

That's exactly how it worked. Shula remained in Baltimore seven years and, when it appeared he was about to be released, got permission from Steve Rosenbloom, Carroll's son, to negotiate with Miami.

Dolphins owner Joe Robbie wanted Paul "Bear" Bryant, who rejected his offer. It was then that Bill Braucher, a sportswriter for the Miami Herald, who had played football with Shula at John Carroll University, became the intermediary and found Shula eager to pull out of Baltimore before Rosenbloom gave him the boot.

Because Shula was the Colts coach in Super Bowl III, the upset by the New York Jets annoyed the egotistical Rosenbloom to a point he said it left him with the legacy of being the first NFL owner to have a team lose to the AFL. Tut-tut.

Shula's exit amounted to perfect timing because he quickly lifted the Dolphins to respectability, then dominance. Rosenbloom was to eventually trade the entire Colts franchise for the Los Angeles Rams and then, in 1984, Baltimore was left without a team.

"I owe much to Baltimore," Shula said. "I didn't like being let go as a player in 1957. To come back as a coach was fulfilling. Baltimore was a big city with a small-town atmosphere. Hard-working people spent their entertainment dollars watching the Colts."

Now he would like to see a team back there -- the place where Shula played and then coached en route to his relentless ascent to the head of the coaching class.

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