Cleveland Browns owner Art Modell met with Don Shula recently about a possible job -- as head coach or in the front office -- if the team is permitted to move to Baltimore, according to a source close to Modell.
The source, a high-ranking team official, said Modell and Shula, the league's all-time winningest coach with 347 victories, had a "preliminary" meeting Tuesday at Modell's home in West Palm Beach, Fla.
Modell was en route from his home to league meetings in Chicago and was unavailable to comment. A Miami Dolphins spokesman said Shula was traveling and could not be reached.
However, Shula, a Cleveland native who played two seasons for the Browns, told the Miami Herald: "I'm not at this time interested in coaching, but as I've said before, you never say never. There hasn't been a thing in my mind of going back to coaching. But, again, you never say never. The move has interested me probably more than anyone else because of my association with Cleveland and Baltimore. The emotional involvement has kept my interest."
Asked if he was offered the job: "Certainly there is nothing in the works and nothing has been decided."
But there are indications the talks were more detailed.
"Art has always had the utmost respect for Don Shula," said the source. "Art just wanted to know what happened in Miami, what was going on in his life, and would he like to return. Shula gave no indication, so Art told him to think about it and they'll get together in a few days.
"My impression is that if Don wants to return, Art will give him full control of the football operation from top to bottom. He will just dump it in his lap, and say: 'Do with it as you please.' "
Modell said on Nov. 6 shortly after the move was announced that Bill Belichick would remain the team's coach, and he repeated the promise several times during the season.
But soon after the Browns completed a 5-11 season, Modell said he was going to give the team a new look and direction, and added his franchise was getting a "second life" in Baltimore.
Belichick has two years left on a contract worth nearly $1.3 million. He has a five-year record of 37-45 in Cleveland, and some preseason publications picked the Browns to make the 1996 Super Bowl after an 11-5 showing in 1994.
But the Browns fell apart shortly before the move was announced, and lost seven of their last eight games.
"This is the first I've heard about it," Belichick said last night. "I haven't talked to Art in a week and a half.
"But I have no control over the situation. I'll continue to work as usual on analysis from last season, and preparing for the scouting combine this weekend."
Belichick apparently has already made some initial contacts about another job. Last week, he confirmed that he had spoken with Jimmy Johnson, who replaced Shula as Miami's head coach, about possibly becoming Miami's defensive coordinator.
There is also speculation that Belichick might join New England coach Bill Parcells' staff as an assistant if he is not retained by the Browns.
"I'm not going to comment on that. Right now, I'm the coach of the Cleveland Browns," said Belichick.
Michael Lombardi, the Browns' director of player personnel, might also lose his job since Shula is being offered total control. Lombardi has been with the Browns since 1987. He declined to comment last night.
Shula, 66, would be a sentimental favorite in Baltimore since he started his career here in 1963 at age 33, then the youngest head coach in the league.
Shula left the Colts for Miami a year after his Colts were upset, 16-7, by the New York Jets in Super Bowl III. Shula won 11 AFC East titles with the Dolphins and tied for three. He was 2-3 in Super Bowls in 26 seasons with Miami.
But the Dolphins sputtered through a 9-8 record last season despite spending millions of dollars for free-agent talent.
Shula is part-owner of the Dolphins and vice chairman of the board of directors.
"Don has gone underground to think about this proposal," said another Browns official. "This is a great public relations move for Art and the Browns, and he wouldn't have offered Shula the job unless he thought he could get the votes to move.
"Don's decision will be based on if his wife is willing to relocate, and if he is that mad at Miami owner Wayne Huizenga and Jimmy Johnson," said the official.