Shula exits with grace -- and despair Playoff loss, inability to reclaim Super Bowl adds to resignation pain

Winningest coach with 347

Johnson likely heads Dolphins' successor list

January 06, 1996|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,SUN STAFF

Don Shula tried hard to put a positive spin on his decision to retire as the coach of the Miami Dolphins. He thanked Dolphins owner Wayne Huizenga for offering him a contract extension instead of a pink slip. He thanked all of his players for helping him become the winningest coach in NFL history. He even said some positive things about likely successor Jimmy Johnson.

It was a graceful exit, conducted in much the same square-jawed manner that Shula has coached for the past 33 football seasons. Certainly more ceremonious than the treatment he had received from the fans and talk-show types of South Florida as the well-heeled Dolphins sputtered through a 9-8 season.

Shula went voluntarily, informing the team of his decision on his 66th birthday Thursday, but it was not the way he wanted to go out. Not after a career that included 347 career wins. Not after waiting 22 years to win the Super Bowl again. The Dolphins slipped into the playoffs after a bumpy season, then went down hard in the first round against the rival Buffalo Bills last weekend.

Shula's future had been the subject of media speculation for months, and that embarrassing defeat only increased the local clamor for a coaching change.

"That was a real disappointment," he told reporters during a teleconference yesterday. "I went into the year with high expectations. Then we struggled and there were a lot of disgruntled people. I could understand that. We went into the playoffs and we had beaten all four of the other [AFC] teams during the regular season. We thought we had as good a chance as anybody, and then we played so poorly in that game.

"But to be honest, the only way we would not have been disappointed was if we had won the final game [the Super Bowl], considering the expectations we started with."

There was one year remaining on Shula's contract -- one more chance for the NFL's top coach to go out on top -- but he decided to trade that final season for a figurehead position in the Dolphins front office. He insisted yesterday that he was not forced out, that Huizenga had offered him a contract extension, but he wasn't ready to make a commitment beyond 1996 and didn't feel another year of uncertainty would be healthy for the organization.

"I was ready to honor the final year of my contract," Shula said, "but we weren't going to be able to attract good coaches if it was just a one-year situation. Wayne said, 'I'm willing to extend it if that will help,' but I didn't want to think about an extension at this point in my career. The more I thought about it, the more it made sense for the club to move in a new direction."

Huizenga wasn't ready to speculate which direction that might be. Johnson's name has been flying around Miami ever since he was ousted as coach of the Dallas Cowboys two years ago. He would seem like a natural to return to the city where he built his coaching reputation (University of Miami), but the Dolphins also could turn to former NFL quarterback Steve Spurrier, who has had tremendous success as coach at the University of Florida.

Neither would comment on the Dolphins' opening yesterday, but Johnson said recently that he is more open to the idea of coaching again than he was when he left the Cowboys. Spurrier apparently likes coaching at the college level, and -- thanks to Nebraska Tuesday night -- he still has some unfinished business there.

The Dolphins announced that Shula will stay with the team as part owner and vice chairman of the board of directors, leaving room to wonder if he'll be in a position to handpick his successor.

"That's going to be Wayne's decision," Shula said. "I'm going to be available for any input he needs from me or recommendation. The important thing is that he get the best man available."

Even Johnson, who became a thorn in Shula's side just by his weekly presence as a football analyst for the Fox Network?

"Certainly. The best coach. That's the thing I'm encouraging Wayne to do. I'm sure that's what he wants. The best possible coach. If it's [Johnson], fine. He's had a great career.

"The important thing right now is to formulate a plan and start gathering names of people who may be interested, look at their background and make recommendations from there. We want the best available. That's what I hope happens with this organization. I'm very proud of the record here since 1970. Hopefully, we can bring in a guy who can take the club back to the top."

Shula may have sounded like a man looking forward to a relaxing retirement, but he would not entirely rule out a return to coaching. He would be the sentimental choice to coach the Baltimore Browns, or whatever NFL team ends up moving here, since he spent his playing days in Baltimore and, at 33, became the youngest head coach in pro football when he was hired to coach the Colts in 1963.

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