Sorry, Art, Shula return isn't winner

January 06, 1996|By KEN ROSENTHAL

Art Modell is going to be tempted. Boy, is he going to be tempted.

From a public relations standpoint, Don Shula would be the perfect choice to head the Baltimore NFL franchise next season.

From a football standpoint, from Shula's own standpoint, it would be a horrible idea.

Shula, 66, resigned yesterday as coach of the Miami Dolphins, resigned perhaps five years too late. He's a legend, the NFL's all-time winningest coach. That doesn't mean he should return to Baltimore to complete his career circle.

The lesson of Shula's final years is that not every story has a happy ending -- not even for an NFL institution, the man who made Miami a major-league sports town. The clamor in South Florida for Shula's dismissal grew deafening in recent years, and frankly, it wasn't that unfair.

Shula had to go.

Deep down, everyone in the NFL knows it.

Modell, though, needs to win over Baltimore fans who are uneasy about embracing a stolen team. He needs to sell permanent seat licenses to even his most fervent supporters. In short, he needs a PR bonanza, and hiring the man who revived the Colts in the '60s would be hitting the jackpot.

Baltimore is a city that never tires of its own nostalgia, a city that supported a CFL team in a desperate attempt to revive its football tradition. But this is a new era. Modell needs to pick a new name and new colors. He needs to give the city a fresh start.

Shula?

Better Modell should find the next Ray Rhodes.

Or, if he's looking to lure a big-name coach out of retirement, stick it to the I-95 rival Redskins and bring us Joe Gibbs.

Oh, Modell hasn't even fired Bill Belichick yet, but it's just a matter of time. He probably just wants to be sure the Browns will play in Baltimore next season before making the change. If he's stuck in Cleveland, he might prefer Belichick, the better to drive that city nuts.

Whatever, it's clear Modell is fond of Shula.

"Don Shula being out of football is like when Lombardi left football," Modell told The Sun's Mike Preston last night. "If not the greatest, he's one of the greatest coaches of all time."

So, it stands to reason . . .

"At this point, I have no idea of what Don is going to do -- I haven't talked to him in a long time," Modell said. "I do know that I have the highest regard for him. I will be talking to him soon, but not about any specifics."

For now, Shula will stay with the Dolphins as part-owner and vice chairman of the board of directors, but he won't be a day-to-day presence. Heck, if Jimmy Johnson replaces him, he won't even be needed much as an adviser.

Dolphins owner H. Wayne Huizenga didn't want him to resign -- quite the contrary. Shula came to realize it would be difficult to find new assistant coaches willing to work for one season. Huizenga's solution was to offer a contract extension. Shula declined, citing family considerations.

"The real test for me will be next September when that first ball is kicked off and I'm not on the sideline for the first time in 43 $H years," Shula said yesterday in a national conference call. "I know that's going to be a tough moment for me."

So, would he coach again?

"Right now, I've just walked away from coaching," Shula said. "I'm looking forward to life outside of football, off the sideline. But you never know what the future holds.

"I've enjoyed the coaching profession. I've enjoyed the NFL, college football . . . it's a great game. But at the present time, my thoughts are on happiness and relaxation and getting to know the family."

Makes sense -- Shula was in a profession that burns out coaches 20 years his junior. When he took over the Colts in 1963, 10 of this season's 29 NFL coaches were eighth-graders or younger. Belichick and the Redskins' Norv Turner were sixth-graders. Shula's son, David, was 4 years old.

Shula was a head coach 33 years when most are lucky to last three. It wasn't just that he grew old, though players told stories of him falling asleep at meetings. It wasn't simply that the game passed him by, though the Dolphins haven't won the Super Bowl since 1973, and haven't been there since 1984.

It was just time.

All these years with Dan Marino, and Miami still can't play run, still can't play defense, still can't beat Buffalo. Shula once adapted with the best, running when he had Larry Csonka, Jim Kiick and Mercury Morris, throwing when he had Marino and Johnny Unitas. But in their own way, the Dolphins were the NFL's biggest underachievers in the '90s.

Perhaps Shula might have gone out a winner if he hadn't stuck so long with defensive coordinator Tom Olivadotti. Still, the evidence is overwhelming. The Dolphins had the best winning percentage of any major pro sports team with Shula as coach. Isn't that enough?

It was unfortunate that Shula became the subject of intense criticism toward the end of his storied career. It would be even worse if he returned to Baltimore, took over a team with playoff aspirations, and flopped.

Don't do it, Art.

Let Shula enjoy his peace.

Let that famous jaw recede, once and for all.

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