CORAL GABLES, Fla. (AP) — Randy Shannon learned plenty about coaching from Dave Wannstedt, which means the two will be at a delicately ironic crossroads this week.
One of them is about to send the other below .500.
A friendship that dates back more than two decades will get put on hold for about three hours Thursday night, when Shannon and No. 19 Miami (1-1) visit Wannstedt and former conference rival Pittsburgh (1-1). Miami has won the last six meetings between the schools by a combined score of 205-76.
“Randy’s done a great job of getting talent in there, staying on the kids, graduation is important to him, all the things that someone from the outside might take for granted,” Wannstedt said. “He’s doing all those right things.”
Says Shannon, when asked about Wannstedt: “He’s a good football coach. He’s in it for the kids. He’s done a great job at Pitt.”
That’s more than typical coachspeak from the two men.
Wannstedt was one of the first to see Shannon’s potential.
He was Miami’s defensive coordinator under Jimmy Johnson when Shannon played for the Hurricanes. Wannstedt liked Shannon right away, yet remembers telling Johnson he didn’t know where to play him, thinking he was too small to play linebacker and too slow to play safety. Shannon added some bulk, and Wannstedt turned him loose as a linebacker.
“Once I was around him and seeing how football-aware he was, how smart he was, there was no question he was going to help us,” Wannstedt said.
With Wannstedt calling the defenses, Miami went 34-2. Shannon was a starter on the 1987 national championship team. And once he graduated, he and Wannstedt saw their relationship continue evolving.
“He went to Dallas and I was a player there,” Shannon said. “Just by me being in Dallas, I learned a lot of football.”
Shannon returned to Miami as a graduate assistant under Dennis Erickson, then coached the defensive line, then eventually Miami’s linebackers. Johnson lured him to the Miami Dolphins as an assistant after the 1997 season, and when Wannstedt became head coach there, he promoted Shannon again.
“I made him a linebacker coach,” Wannstedt said. “It was never even a thought process. Number one, you want to surround yourself with assistants that you know are going to be loyal, that understand your philosophy and are going to send the right message out to the players. And then you want them to be smart enough to come up with ideas and add to the package. With Randy, it was an easy one.”
Football is king in South Florida, especially Dolphins football, though it would seem Miami’s loyalties will be tested now by the arrival of LeBron James and Chris Bosh to join Dwyane Wade as NBA title-contenders with the Heat. Nonetheless, passions always have run deep with the Dolphins’ fan base, and Wannstedt — who went 42-31 as coach in Miami — was often a lightning rod for criticism.
Shannon didn’t think it was always fair.
“Miami’s a tough place,” Shannon said. “Miami fans always want the best, no matter if it’s the Heat, Marlins, hockey, Hurricanes, it doesn’t make a difference. You just deal with it and try to do the best you can and accept it.”
Wannstedt hasn’t always had an easy time at Pitt, either.
He lost 19 of his first 34 games at his alma mater, and was on one of the hottest seats around when second-ranked West Virginia hosted the Panthers on Dec. 1, 2007.
Pitt pulled off a massive upset, 13-9. And down in Miami, at least one person was thrilled.
“Since then, his program has skyrocketed,” Shannon said. “I think that anybody that has an opportunity to coach football, no matter pro or college, you always have respect for what they do because you’re depending on other people to make your job successful.”
Wannstedt and Shannon have another link: They basically have the same story.
Both find themselves now coaching in the city they’ve always called home, at their alma mater, at the place where they could possibly be happy for the remainder of their careers.
So late Thursday night, after that final horn, both men will be conflicted. For the winning coach, both men will be happy. For the losing coach, both men will be anguished.
“It’s not a job for us,” Wannstedt said. “I can speak first-hand, and I’m sure he feels the same way. I don’t look at this as a job. I’m doing this because I care so much about Pitt and these kids and you want to see them have success and see the program have success. There’s nobody that’s more qualified to know the ins and outs of the Pitt football program than I am. And Randy is the same way.”