Will the Son Come Up? : Dave Shula Deals With Last Name and Last Place


It is early morning in a warehouse district, trucks rumbling along an expressway overhead, chemicals spewing from a factory next door.

In a small office in the corner of an aluminum building that resembles a machine shop, a phone rings.

Dave Shula looks at it. It is not yet 8 a.m. Who could this be?

He has been talking about burdens. Despite his impeccable grooming and unmarked face, the young man has a doctorate in burdens.

Burdens so heavy, he jogs around the barrel factories and sewer plants surrounding the Cincinnati Bengals' blue-collar practice facility in an attempt to ease his mind.

Burdens so lingering that sometimes he wakes up at 4:30 a.m. and stares at the ceiling.

Dave Shula, 34-year-old leader of the Bengals, is talking about being the NFL's youngest coach, of the league's worst team, while lugging around one of the league's most famous last names.

And that damn phone is still ringing. Who could this be?

He hopes it isn't somebody who wants to ask him about his father, Don, the man who recently became the winningest coach in NFL history.

He hopes it isn't somebody who wants to know if Dave can ever live up to that greatness. If Dave can ever create his own identity. If Dave can ever just be Dave.

How can that happen if he has to keep answering those questions?

He looks at the phone again. He picks it up.

"Hey, how are you doing!" he says into the receiver, suddenly cheerful. "Can I call you back?"

By the look on Shula's face, the person on the other end of the phone just made one thing perfectly clear. We talk now.

Shula pauses.

"Can you excuse me for a second?" he asks a visitor, ushering him to the door. "I need to take this."

Ten minutes later, his office door opens.

"Was that your . . . " asks the visitor.

"Yes," he says. "That was him."


He can order his players not to wear caps during meetings, and they don't.

He can map out a schedule three months in advance, and two months later it is still being followed to the minute.

A scrap of paper falls in his office, and he catches it before it hits the ground.

Yet the one thing Dave Shula would most love to control, he can't.

It's his timing. It stinks.

"It is so unfortunate," said his wife, Leslie. "The year his father breaks the record for the most wins by a coach, Dave has not won a game."

The story of Dave Shula is that simple.

While Don Shula of the Miami Dolphins is breaking the NFL record for victories every time his team wins, his oldest son is threatening to break one at the opposite end of the spectrum with an 0-10 mark and no end in sight.

And it's gnawing at both of them.

Don, who talks with Dave by telephone at least one morning a week, has followed the Bengals nearly as closely as his own team.

Recently in New Jersey, before the Dolphins lost to the New York Jets during the elder Shula's chase for the record previously held by George Halas, an NFL official witnessed this cross-country intimacy:

The Pittsburgh Steelers had just scored a touchdown in Cincinnati, pulling to within 16-7. The official saw it on TV, rode an elevator down from the press box, and walked into Shula's office.

"You may have heard, but the Bengals are leading the Steelers, 16-7," the official said.

"No," Shula responded. "The Steelers just scored again. It's 16-14."

The official later said, "Can you believe that? Here he is, before one of his biggest games, and he's following every play of the Bengals' game!"

Said Don of his son: "My heart goes out for him. He's in a tough situation."

Two days after the Steelers had won, 24-16, the younger Shula sounded like someone in need of that support.

"People are going to say I can't coach. They are going to say I'm too young. They are going to say I'm just here because I'm Shula's son," he said wearily. "I would go bananas if I listened to all of that."

So he maintains the smile and graciousness that are trademarks of the Shula family, all the while wondering just when this will end.

Already this season, Dave has lost as many games as his father lost in his first two seasons combined. In two seasons with the Bengals, he is 5-21, which means he already has lost one game more than his father did during his first six seasons.

When the younger Shula began his coaching career last year, he trailed his father by 306 victories. Today, he trails him by 321.

If the Bengals go 0-16, a very real possibility, they will be the first team to lose that many in one season.

Only the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who went 0-14 in 1976, have gone winless during an entire season.

"I said on the air before the season that they would not win a game," said Cris Collinsworth, a former Bengal receiver who is an NBC broadcaster and local radio host. "I'm not sure Vince Lombardi could win more than three or four games with this team."

Most fans agree. But some are starting to wonder.

Already this year, Shula's suburban home has been vandalized. Although there is no proof that it had anything to do with his losing record, one can guess.

Then there was the fan who was yelling such horrible things at Shula as he ran off the field that tackle Ken Moyer took several steps toward the stands and gestured menacingly to the man.

The criticism has recently seeped into the locker room.

Harold Green, the Bengals' all-pro running back, missed an audible and was benched for most of a recent game against the Houston Oilers. Afterward, he said that Shula might be the worst coach in Bengal history.

Shula has also bravely taken shots at himself, after making two questionable calls in a 19-10 loss to the Seattle Seahawks.

He admitted making two bad decisions, including allowing his team to talk him out of punting on fourth down deep in Bengal territory. The offense did not make the first down, and the Seahawks kicked a field goal four plays later to clinch the victory.

But the question raised by Green--can he coach?--can be answered with another question:

How can anybody tell?

Shula has been given a group of players so young and mistake-prone that one influential person in the organization even admitted, "This team is not gifted in the talent department."

That person was General Manager Mike Brown. For financial reasons, he has torn down this team faster than he can build it back up.

Some of Shula's obstacles:

--Thirty of the Bengals' 53 players have fewer than two years' experience.

--The starting offensive line includes two men acquired off the waiver wire, Tom Rayam and Chuck Bradley, and nobody who was higher than a ninth-round draft pick. The Bengal offense ranks last in the 28-team league.

--Their best quarterback has been Jay Schroeder. Need we say more, Raider fans?

--Green has gained 275 yards all season, only 38 more than Emmitt Smith gained on one recent Sunday.

--The defense ranks last in the league against the run, even though the front seven includes three former first-round draft picks--Alfred Williams, John Copeland and James Francis.

What is a Shula to do? More indicative of his personality is what he doesn't do.

He doesn't yell at his players. He doesn't turn over locker room lunch tables. He handled the dispute with Green privately.

He never lets them see him sweat.

"I don't think that man is ever going to crack," running back Derrick Fenner said.

He also doesn't deliver dramatic pregame or halftime speeches. According to former players who struggled with his credibility last year, this is good.

"My first years with the organization, I was motivated by men with great careers like Forrest Gregg and Sam Wyche," said Anthony Munoz, a former tackle who retired this season. "Then all of a sudden, standing up there is a guy who is younger than I am.

"Listening to him talk last year was like listening to one of your teammates. It was . . . difficult."

Shula has heard this before. After all, he was the one male in the Shula family who was not going to be a coach.

He was going to be a lawyer. As a high school football star, he turned down a scholarship offer from Florida State, choosing Dartmouth instead.

After spending one season as a wide receiver and special teams player with the Baltimore Colts, he went to law school.

Then came that fateful day he took a sabbatical to help his father study game films. Soon, he was the Dolphins' quarterback coach. Seven years later, he was the Dolphins' assistant head coach.

While the football world admired his intellect, there was grumbling among Dolphin veterans that he did not get along with the quarterbacks, particularly Don Strock, who was released during Dave's tenure.

When Jimmy Johnson asked Dave to be his first offensive coordinator at Dallas in 1989, Dave knew it was time to venture out on his own. But he was given only one year to turn around a young and terrible offense.

When he couldn't do it, he was demoted. By the time he left to coach the receivers in Cincinnati, he wondered about a very different sort of age discrimination.

"When times were tough there, people were looking for any kind of crutch and, at times, people thought I was too young," Shula said. "I had a good relationship with the staff, but I'm sure my age came up."

When he replaced Wyche as head coach in only his second year with the Bengals, Shula's age at the time, 32, was the only thing that came up.

Well, that and his name.

"I didn't think either one was relevant, although of all people, I can understand what it is like to come from a football family," said Mike Brown, son of the late coach Paul Brown. "In that sense, I think we understand each other."

And Dave soon understood what this latest change would mean.

"We started out 2-0, and the next night I was interviewed at halftime of a Dolphins' game on 'Monday Night Football,' " he recalled. "I thought, 'There are a lot of head coaches who are 2-0, and there are other rookie coaches doing well, but they're not on here.' I know what's going on. I know how it works."

So he knew there would be trouble during the Monday night game last year that featured footage of linebacker Gary Reasons tugging on Shula's cap during a sideline discussion.

The announcers said that was grounds for firing, but Shula did nothing to Reasons, later exclaiming that it was just an inadvertent gesture.

The next week, the league was wondering whether this young coach had his players' respect.

"I would know if I didn't have their respect," Shula said. "You could sense it from their attitude, from the way they carry themselves. Believe me, I have their respect."

Joe Walter, a veteran tackle, said the team couldn't help but respect a coach who has not yet showed them his pain.

"I have no idea how he is handling this inside, but he's probably like I am, just hating life," Walter said. "Yet every day he comes in here telling us we can win. That impresses us."

The only time he allowed a glimpse into his emotions was several weeks ago during a postgame interview after another tough loss.

"I swear, I thought he was going to cry," Collinsworth said. "He cleared his throat a couple of times, he talked real softly. . . . Just watching him you thought, 'Man, can't somebody please get this poor guy a win.' "

On those kinds of days, Shula can think back to that 16-year-old high school quarterback who absorbed as much punishment from fans as from opponents.

"I remember running home one day and telling my mom, 'I wish my name was Joe Schmoe,' " Shula said. "But like she always did, she calmed me down and told me that I better learn to deal with it now."

Friends say Shula greatly resembles his mother, to whom he dedicated his first victory after she died of cancer in 1991.

Dorothy Shula was known for her ability to make everybody comfortable in her presence--two of her best friends were her housekeeper and hairdresser--and Dave has that same softness.

During interviews, he makes a habit of moving from behind his desk to sit in a chair opposite the reporter. When dealing with local reporters, he refers to them by their first names.

Dave showed another facet of his soft side recently when he missed his father's record-tying victory over the Kansas City Chiefs, even though the Bengals were idle.

He told people that he wanted to spend precious time with his family. He added that his father, of all people, should understand that because he was gone so much when Dave was growing up.

"That raised a lot of eyebrows, but it wasn't what it seemed," said his wife, Leslie. "It was Halloween, and Dave wanted to walk around the neighborhood with the kids."

Their youngest son Matthew, 4, insisted on dressing up like a Cincinnati Bengal that night.

His parents worried that he would be the only one in the neighborhood wearing that outfit, that maybe other kids would say something mean.

But Dave Shula allowed him to wear it anyway. His theory is that, sometimes in just standing up to a challenge, one becomes a winner.

They say it was one of their best Halloweens ever.

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