In the lore and romance of American football, only a few names of famous coaches stand out. Amos Alonzo Stagg, certainly. Tad Jones, maybe. Howard Jones, if you're from the West.
Hurry Up Yost was the first of the storied mentors. Knute Rockne was the most colorful. They knew something about winning football games no one else stumbled onto. Pop Warner was a great innovator. Bear Bryant knew how to play the part better than anyone else who tried it.
They were self-perpetuating. Their genius lay in the fact that the best players wanted to play for them. The pipeline was always full.
The pros were another matter. George Halas was a great organizer. He built the game, not just the Chicago Bears. Halas put in the players. He got someone else--Paddy Driscoll or Clark Shaughnessy--to put in the plays.
The pros never really had a Rockne till Vince Lombardi came along. Lombardi was not an innovator, he was a motivator. Like Napoleon, he considered it the best strategy to mass his strongest forces at the opponent's weakness and break through. He called it "running to daylight."
It was about as nifty as a cannonball, but it was executed flawlessly, meticulously. Lombardi's Green Bay Packer teams ran through the league like a hot knife through butter.
Paul Brown's Cleveland Brown teams were, like the coach, impersonal, unemotional but efficient.
With the great coaches, the reputation outlasted the man. Rockne perished in a flaming plane crash. He was barely 43 years old. Lombardi was struck down by cancer in his prime.
This left Tom Landry, the precise, poker-faced master of the finesse game. Where Lombardi charged, Landry out-flanked.
When Landry left the Dallas Cowboys unceremoniously this year--followed shortly by Bill Walsh from the San Francisco 49ers, it left Miami's Don Shula and Pittsburgh's Chuck Noll as the keepers of the flame. The last of the multiple Super Bowl coaches, the last of the super coaches.
Shula was generally conceded to be the successor to the masters. A man of uncommon probity who went to Mass every morning of his life, he was so highly thought of that, when the Miami Dolphins' owner spirited him away from the Baltimore Colts, the Baltimore owner wanted South Florida in compensation. He all but wrecked the league in his pique. He knew he had lost the equivalent of 10 touchdowns.
Shula, with his deep-set eyes and jaw that looked like something cut off a granite mountain, took a 3-10-1 team and immediately made it a 10-4 team. Within two years he was in a Super Bowl. In three, he was going undefeated--17-0--and winning a Super Bowl.
You always had Shula to beat.
But the National Football League is a malevolent overseer. It mandates parity in its ranks. It punishes excellence, rewards mediocrity.
Little by little, it dismantles dynasties. You win, you pay. In this game, you lose, you go to the windows. Champions get to pick last. Goof-ups get the cream of the crop.
Usually, the genius is the coach with the best quarterback. John Unitas, Sammy Baugh and Otto Graham made geniuses of a lot of coaches.
But Shula got to a Super bowl with David Woodley. In fact, he made it with five different quarterbacks--Unitas, Earl Morrall, Bob Griese, Woodley, and Dan Marino).
Should you quit when you're ahead? Would Rockne and Lombardi have ever seen "Goodby Vince" signs, or heard the boos if their careers had gone on?
When Don Shula's team dropped to 6-10 last year, the natives in South Florida were not only restless, they were positively mutinous. The gripes grew. Shula had lost the touch. He had forgotten the formula.
But it wasn't the game that had passed him by, it was the draft. Miami had become like a fighter with a devastating right hand and not much else.
Quarterback Dan Marino filled the air with footballs--60 in one game, more than 50 in three others--and the team needed 500-yard days from him just to stay even. The running game was non-existent to catastrophic. It was like a guy who can't putt trying to win an Open.
Finishing 6-10 disturbs the couch potatoes, but it has its privileges. You draft from the top of the barrel.
When Shula and the Dolphins picked an injury-plagued running back named Sammie Smith as their No. 1 pick, even the league purists were outraged. Miami needed cornerbacks, offensive linemen, defensive linemen, free safeties, they felt.
Shula wanted someone to keep the defenses honest. His one-dimensional attack was as easy to beat as a low straight in a seven-card game.
Sunday, in Joe Robbie Stadium down here, Shula finally had a pass rush and a line charge. But most of all, he had a runner who could keep the linebackers from pouring in like cops raiding a crap game.
Dan Marino only had to put the ball in the air 26 times. Usually, that's just a good half for Marino, never mind a full four quarters.
Sammie Smith carried the ball 25 times for 123 yards. That may not be Bo Jackson stuff but that's more yards than the whole team had in all but two of the 16 games last year. The team had game totals of 45 yards, 98, 71, 78, 91, 46, 77, 87, 58, 93 and 82. That's sandlot stuff.
Shula is not claiming to be on the verge of a record sixth Super Bowl. But he is setting out to prove that coaching, like playing the piano or riding a bicycle, never leaves you, that the joker in the deck is league policy, not coaching failure.
"There is no way to stay at the top of the hill when you go 15-2 or 14-2," he said Sunday after winning a game he had to win, 19-13, over Indianapolis. "You have to build things back up through the system.
"But it is not that I have gotten bored or take the game as less important or look at less film or live and die less with what we do. If I were to reach that stage, I would know it first."
It appears that Shula has the infantry to go with his bomber wing. That's bad news for the NFL. It appears as though the road to the Super Bowl may lie through Miami again. Don Shula will be drafting last again in no time at all.