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‘Big Three’ Coaches Not Over the Hill Yet

MCCLATCHY NEWS SERVICE

The alarm clock sounds at 4:15 a.m. now.

Shirley Knox still can’t believe her husband keeps moving his clock backward. She knew people had to get up early to beat her husband, the coach, but Chuck Knox exhausted that option. The only way to get that kind of edge on Chuck Knox is not to sleep.

In Pittsburgh, Steelers offensive linemen still chuckle about Chuck Noll’s training camp meetings that lasted almost to curfew. Time just seemed to fly. Noll was having fun. Wednesday, he outlasted every player and coach on the practice field.

And in Miami, reporters and national camera crews are once again stopping by to visit their old friend, Don Shula, the dean of the super coaches. Shula clinched his first return to the playoffs since 1985 Sunday night.

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As late as last September, a football nation wondered what happened to the Big Three of NFL coaches. The concerned used phrases such as “over the hill” and “the game passed them by.”

Take heart, America. The playoffs start in slightly over three weeks. Guess what? They’re b-a-a-a-a-c-k. Knox and Noll could coach their way into a first-round playoff showdown Jan. 5-6. Shula, like in the old days, will be there waiting for them.

The only one missing from their playoff invitational is Hall of Fame coach Tom Landry, whom Jerry Jones fired when he bought the Dallas Cowboys in 1989. To a degree, Landry has decided to take on the world by dabbling as a consultant in the San Antonio franchise in the World League of American Football. Over the hill? No way. Heck, these guys created the hill.

“Guys who have been in this position a long time are going to be better football coaches regardless of their records,” Knox said. “They do a better job with personnel because they are bent on improving themselves as football coaches. Don Shula is an example of that. Tom Landry didn’t have enough time to get it down (before Jones hired former college roommate Jimmy Johnson), but Tom’s record speaks for itself.”

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EverReady could replace the bunny in its battery commercials with any one of these coaches. They keep going and going and going, and they keep winning and winning and winning. Just when you think they will slow down after a long marathon, they break into sprints.

Before the first playoff game, Shula will turn 61 years old and Noll 59. Knox, the young pup at 58, is rejuvenated by a 63-pound weight loss and a squad of overachievers that raises blood pressures in the final minutes of every game. Quitting is the last thing on their minds. Winning is.

“I don’t know how to do anything else,” Noll said with a chuckle. “It’s enjoyable. I like it. This has been my life. I don’t know how long, but it will go for a while, I think.”

After last season, in which the Dolphins showed potential by jumping to a 7-4 start, Shula decided to sign up for three more seasons at a cool $1.2 million annually. He, too, jokes about not being able to do anything else. But after 28 years as a head coach, he doesn’t want to try to find a better lifestyle.

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“I don’t know if I could do anything more appreciative with my time,” Shula said. “I’ve had a lot of good times in coaching. I’ve had a lot of good experiences. We struggled for the last four years. Not making the playoffs has been disappointing for me, and it was disappointing that we didn’t turn it around last year. We ended up losing four of our last five and not making the playoffs. But I also got my desire back. That’s why I signed the new contract.”

As much as he says he’s not looking past Sunday’s game against Shula in Joe Robbie Stadium, Knox is also looking beyond the 1991 conclusion to his contract with the Seahawks.

“Sure, I would,” Knox said about re-signing. “As long as you enjoy it and you have your health. I’m young as far as coaching is concerned. They’ve hired head coaches in this league older than me the past couple years. I haven’t thought about how long I want to coach. I just want to coach as long as it’s challenging and as long as I can win.”

Retired coach Bum Phillips said this of Shula, but the statement applies to all three: “He can take his’n and beat you’n, and he could take you’n and beat his’n.”

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By 5:30 a.m., Knox flicks on the lights in his Kirkland office and begins another day. He makes some coffee, decaffeinated. He studies tapes, adjusts game plans, prepares practice schedules, contemplates new ideas.

“I’ve never seen him work as hard as he is now,” Shirley Knox said. “He gets home by 10 or 10:30 p.m., and eats dinner then.”

The Seahawks are 7-6, and most experts don’t know how Knox has done it. Of his 18 years of head coaching, this might be his finest. Team officials walk by his desk and look to see if mirrors are behind it. On a team that is supposed to be comparatively too old or too young to win, Knox has the squad on the brink of a playoff berth.

Rumors that his job was on the line gnawed at him slightly. “I never have any doubt about my ability to coach,” Knox said. Even the non-doubters thought it would take a great coaching effort to lift this squad above the five- or six-victory plateau.

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Reggie McKenzie, the retired guard who helps coach offensive linemen, challenged Channel 11 reporter Jesse Jones at training camp, shouting across the field that “No bleeping Chuck Knox team would finish 5-11.” After victory No. 6, McKenzie caught Jones while he munched on a piece of chicken.

“Are you eating crow?” McKenzie said.

Most people are. How can this team have seven wins? It’s down five starters because of injuries; six if center Grant Feasel can’t start Sunday because of knee and neck problems. This season’s draft only started a rebuilding phase, but somehow, Knox, vying for his fifth coach-of-the-year honor, has worked miracles.

“I think this situation, because of the way it’s unfolded, has been the greatest challenge in my coaching career,” Knox said. “It’s been that way because of all the adversity that we’ve faced. We started 0-3. There were tough games we lost early. We have three starting linebackers out on defense. It’s enough to give you a full head of gray hair.”

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Tom Catlin’s defensive game plans have disguised weaknesses well enough that the Seahawks have allowed only 21 defensive touchdowns in 13 games. They’ve stayed competitive.

Shirley Knox, however, wishes one thing would stop. She’s sick of hearing everyone say that Knox looks sickly weighing 173 pounds.

“I had been on him a long time to lose weight,” she said. “People say that he needs to put on 10 pounds. I hate to have people say that. I think he looks good. His energy level is more than it’s been in a long time.”

The smoothest way for Shula to top the 300-victory level is to win his next five games. That would enable the Dolphins to clinch the AFC East title and go to the Super Bowl. After being dubbed over the hill, Shula would love to climb back atop the mountain.

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“I think every situation is different,” Shula said. “At one time, we were in good shape.”

That’s an understatement. His six Super Bowl appearances is the most of any coach. He is the only coach to have an undefeated season (17-0 in 1972). He was the youngest coach to win 100 and 200 games. But from 1986 through 1989, the Dolphins missed the playoffs and Shula had a 30-33 record.

“All of the teams, Dallas, the Raiders, the Steelers, the Seahawks and the Dolphins were hit about the same time. The system determines that the weak teams can get strong,” he said.

This year, he changed five defensive starters, reassembled the league’s youngest offensive line (seven years combined experience) and kept the passing game going despite injuries that put four receivers on injured reserve.

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Joe Greene, the Steelers’ Hall of Fame defensive tackle turned coach, offered this observation about Noll’s 200 career victories: “You have to be lucky, you have to be good and you have to be old.”

During his four-year playoff drought from 1985 to 1988, Noll appeared older than his years. He mentally blocked out all criticisms, but they wouldn’t go away. Owner Dan Rooney suggested changes in his coaching staff. Noll heard that and almost resigned. Changes were made on the staff. This year the Steelers could win their first division title since 1984.

“I didn’t hear the criticisms so it didn’t bother me,” Noll said. “It’s a problem obviously when you have good guys, good players and you draft late. You get the turnover. You don’t replace them with the same kind of people. It takes a while to get going, get them back in.”

Perhaps the biggest national embarrassment came after opening losses last year to the Cleveland Browns and the Cincinnati Bengals by a combined score of 91-10. ESPN analyst Pete Axthelm asked Noll after those games whether football had passed him by. With a strong finish, the Steelers answered the question. It hadn’t. The Steelers entered the playoffs and beat the Houston Oilers.

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“I guess that’s news,” Noll said. “If you lose, lose big. If you just lose it’s not bad. We had some injuries early last year, which was a problem. We had a new defense going in. We had a few rookies who missed training camp and we were forced to play because of injuries. You struggle early.

One of Knox’s favorite saying these days is that there are two elements to coaching. One is winning. The other is misery. Noll, Knox and Shula experienced some misery. Now, they are back to giving it to others.

When Tom Flores resigned from the Los Angeles Raiders four years ago, he said it was difficult in this era for an NFL coach to keep the fires going more than 10 years.

“He was working with Al Davis,” Noll said. “Ten years of Al would wear on anybody.”

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Take that, NFL.


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