The last time I saw Don Shula was at the Super Bowl here in Jacksonville. Dan Marino was eligible for the Pro Football Hall of Fame and as a shoo-in; Shula was in town to lend support.
I was standing in a group of four reporters talking to the winningest head coach in the history of the league when the guy standing next to me started to ask Shula a question in a foreign language. I didn’t recognize it immediately but knew it was something Eastern European. When Shula nodded his head and started to answer, in the foreign language, he stopped and smiled at the reporter next to me, the beat guy from Miami and said, “You didn’t know I speak Hungarian did you? You don’t know everything about me,” he continued with a laugh.
I’ve been around Shula a lot in his career and he’s always been very direct, fairly measured and straight forward dealing with the media. Tolerant is probably the best word. But this exchange showed me a little something different, a bit of relaxation and enjoyment.
I saw the same Don Shula this week here in town as he opened his 25th steakhouse that bears his name. “How are you,” the coach said as he offered a handshake in a side banquet room. “Hi Coach, Sam Kouvaris,” I said, re-introducing myself. “Of course Sam,” Shula responded strengthening his grip on my hand.
Shula meets thousands of people so I didn’t expect him to know me by name, so it’s always nice when somebody gives you that smile of recognition, even if they have no idea what your name is.
As is the case in these situations, Shula’s PR help was nearby and my producer/photographer, Kevin Talley was right there as well. But in an instant I looked around and noticed that it was just the coach and me. The PR guy left and Kevin headed to the car to get something. That’s when I could tell Shula was a changed person since his coaching days. He asked me how I’d been, if I’d been busy what I thought the Jaguars might be up to. His conversation was easy and relaxed, and seemed genuine.
I got a chance to tell Shula the “Hungarian” story, and he laughed. Told him about growing up in Baltimore and how my Dad was a big fan. Asked him about a couple of things early in his career as a player and as a coach and had a chance to tell him that I was a big fan as a kid.
“Where you from in Baltimore,” the coach asked as a BS check I’m sure. “Woodlawn,” I answered. “You know that Super Bowl loss cost me the job in Baltimore,” Shula volunteered referring to Super Bowl III and the famous loss to the Jets and Joe Namath. “But then I ended up in Miami and that seemed to work out OK,” he said with a quick laugh.
We did the actual interview and Shula continued to be quick with the laughs and the jokes, the hand gestures and the one-liners. “Porterhouse,” he responded, “Medium well,” when asked what he usually ordered at his own restaurant.
He has a stock answer for the standard quarterback question he’s always asked: Unitas, Griese or Marino. “I was fortunate to coach John Unitas and he’s the best I ever saw at running a game and getting the best out of everybody around him.
Griese was a great field general. Liked to set things up. I once sent in a play-action pass on the goal line. Quarterbacks loved that because it means a touchdown pass. Griese changed it and gave it to Csonka for the TD. I asked him about it as he came off and he said, ‘It was open.’
Marino was the opposite. Dan hated to run the ball. Defensive coaches around the league would have thanked me if I made him run the ball all the time. He had that great arm and that quick release and could fit the ball into so many small spaces”.
Shula was especially forthcoming about just about everything. “You know I had Csonka, Mercury Morris and Jim Kiick and I used those guys in the right situations that they could be successful in. It was the first of the substitutions but it worked.“ He’s proud of what he’s accomplished, and rightfully so.
“Coaching is about putting people in the right situation where they can be successful. Whether it was Griese or Marino, I always tried to give them the best chance to win.” With a record 347 wins, it worked. Instead of trying to impose his “system” on his players or his teams.
At 77 years old he looks great and is still sharp. “I do a lot of cruising with my wife Mary Anne,” he explained when I asked him about his current lifestyle. “How’s Nutrisystem,” I asked since he’s become a pitchman for the weight loss company. “It works,” but I’ve been on a couple of cruises since then and maybe put a few pounds back on but it works.”
I was really happy for Shula. He still wants to be relevant but wants to enjoy life and the body of work he’s left behind. I thanked him for his time and has been my practice, I also thanked him for the positive impact he had on my life as a kid growing up in Baltimore.
“You know that Jets loss cost me that job in Baltimore,” Shula said again.
“Well coach, it seemed to work out,” I said with a laugh.
And it still is.