Don Shula’s parenting as impressive as his coaching

Don Shula faced a dilemma after being voted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1997.

Shula wanted his sons, David and Michael, to introduce him on induction day in Canton, Ohio.

“They had never allowed two people to do it before,” Shula said during a recent phone interview. “When I first asked, they said, ‘No, you’re going to have to pick one.’

“I called the commissioner, and I asked if they could do it. They were both in coaching. I said, ‘I don’t want to have to pick one over the other.’ The commissioner said, ‘Well, maybe we can make an exception.’ And they did. ”

Thanks to Commissioner Paul Tagliabue, the induction is a memory Shula’s two sons rank among their most special.

“We were very appreciative to the NFL for allowing us (to speak) by making that exception,” Dave Shula said. “I remember my brother and I pledging our firstborns that we would not go over the time limit.”

Mike Shula, then an assistant coach with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, arrived in Canton the night before the induction ceremony.

“I can remember Dave and I practicing our speech in the basement of the Hall of Fame,” Mike said. “We’re sitting there and there’s all kind of NFL memorabilia everywhere. Meanwhile, because the way the NFL went out of its way, we had to make sure our speeches were right on time.

“It was neat. Dave got up there and then when I finished, we turned around, presented my dad and gave him a hug at the same time. Those moments are special and hard to put into words.”

Don Shula, the NFL’s all-time winningest coach, turned 83 in January. He’s spending this Father’s Day traveling out of the country with his wife, Mary Anne.

The former Miami Dolphins coach and South Florida icon won’t be far from the minds of his five children, though. In between Dave, 54, and Mike, 48, Don and Dorothy Shula had three girls. (Dorothy died of breast cancer in 1991.)

“Being able to have healthy children that love life and get along and have family gatherings, that’s what it’s all about,” Don Shula said.

Ask him about parenting, the coach keeps it simple.
“I just think there’s an evolution on the way life goes on,” he said,  “but it’s still basically the same things: relationships, love and respect.”

That approach had a lasting effect on the children.
“Things I learned from Dad were the importance of doing things the right way,” Mike said. “If you’re going to do something, do it the right way. He always talked about communicating. If there’s a problem, make sure you hit it head on and communicate — that’s the best way to get it solved.

“My mom, like most moms, would tell you what you wanted to hear. My dad was the one, even though he knew it was tough, he told you what you needed to hear.”
One didn’t have to be a blood relative to see Don Shula as a father figure.
“Most of the players probably didn’t have a fatherly image and feel of him and for him that I might have because we were close,” former Dolphins quarterback Bob Griese said. “I was calling the plays. He’d sit in on the offensive meetings, sit in on the quarterback meetings. We were really close working together.
“I lost my father when I was 10, so I looked to my coaches — Little League coaches, high school coaches, college coaches, offensive coaches — as kind of like a father figure anyway. But especially Coach Shula.”

Dave Shula first learned what it meant to be “the son of” while attending grammar school in Baltimore when Don coached the Colts.
“All the other kids wanted to be my best friend when the Colts won,” Dave said, “or I was their worst enemy when they lost.”
As boys who loved football themselves, Dave and Mike shared experiences with their dad at home and at training camp.
“The highlights of my summer was being able to spend two or three days out at training camp with him, and it was probably the highlight of my mom’s summer, getting me out of the house,” said Dave, now president of Shula’s Steak Houses LLLP.
Both future coaches helped their father when he worked at home.

“He had a projector and he used to let me run that,” Dave said. “I held  ‘the clicker,’ as it was called back in the day of the 16-mm film. It was a hand-held thing with a button that you pressed to put it into reverse. That was a big thrill. I’d walk in and say, ‘Can I run the clicker for you?’ ”
During Mike Shula’s a senior season at Miami’s Christopher Columbus High School in 1982, a players’ strike reduced the NFL season to nine games. That gave Don Shula some unexpected early-season downtime.

“I would bring tape home and my dad would watch our high school tape with me. Actually, I learned a lot about watching tape,” said Mike, entering his first season as Carolina Panthers offensive coordinator. “He would never admit this, but he gave us a couple of ideas that helped us in the playoffs.”
When they got older, both boys worked for their father. Dave was Dolphins receivers or quarterbacks coach from 1982-88; Mike was a coaches’ assistant in 1991-92.

“I can remember a preseason game, we didn’t play too well, my dad started getting on a certain player from watching the tape after the game,” Mike said. “Then he’s getting on another player. Next thing you know, he started getting on the coach. Pretty soon it was most everybody in the room. I started thinking, ‘This feels like a little family reunion. Especially when I forgot to take the garbage out.’ “
Separately, Dave and Mike enjoyed unique experiences with their dad through football.

As Cincinnati Bengals head coach in 1994, Dave became the first son to coach against his father in any major pro sport. Dave’s Bengals played Don’s Dolphins twice overall, both hotly contested Miami victories.

“I can imagine how, if it was one of my sons and I was still coaching, how that would have felt,” said Dave, father of three sons, all in coaching. “I had everybody, all my siblings, lined up on my side but it didn’t matter. He had a guy behind center (quarterback Dan Marino) who trumped all of my sympathetic help.”

He didn’t get much sympathy from the Dolphins coach.

“It was something that I’m very proud of, but when you coach against each other, somebody’s got to win,” Don Shula said. “I had to win for my fans, my owner and my players.”

Don Shula’s job prevented him from attending most of Mike’s games as Alabama’s starting quarterback 1984-86.  

“He saw one game in four years, and he coached me in the next game,” Mike said. “My senior year, we played on Christmas Day in the Sun Bowl. The Dolphins had missed the playoffs that year so the whole family came out and got to see the last game of my college career in El Paso, Texas.

“About three weeks later, he and Dave were coaching the South team in the Senior Bowl and I was lucky enough to be a member of that squad. I had my dad as our head coach and Dave as our offensive coordinator and we ended up winning the game. That was probably the most exciting weeks for me football-wise. The whole family came.”

Don Shula compiled a 328-156-6 record (.676) in 33 seasons as an NFL head coach. With a major assist from Dorothy, he also helped raise a family that remains closely connected.
Shula and Mary Anne have 16 grandchildren. Thanks to Dave and wife Leslie, Don has two great-grandkids.
“In my office, we have game balls on the white panel and lettering on them, and everybody that walks in there thinks they’re scores of games,” Don Shula said. “But in reality, what they are, they’re the names of my grandkids and their birthdays.”
The role of grandfather has been different than that of father.
“He is a huge teddy bear right now,” said Mike, father of three girls. “We’ll visit, and I’ll see him with the girls. I’ll see them do something and I’m thinking, ‘If I did that, he’d be all over me.’

“The thing about my dad was that when he got upset at you, it was for a good reason. It wasn’t just because he was in a bad mood. It was for a good reason. And within the 30 seconds to a minute, he had forgotten about it. He had moved on. You hadn’t moved on, but he had.”

The Shula children likely have faced pressures and expectations being Don’s offspring, but they also have been very fortunate.

“I couldn’t have had a better example of great parenting than what I had from my mom and dad,” Dave said. “They were both totally engaged and gave us all the support and opportunities we needed, both emotionally and they were able to provide for things financially.

“They were just there. They were invested in what we were doing. They cared, and they held us accountable.”

Charlie McCarthy can be reached atmac1763@bellsouth.netor on Twitter @mccarthy_chas.