Don Shula had just about finished his daily postpractice press conference one day last week when a young reporter from a suburban Miami newspaper asked the Dolphin coach if he was suffering from a cold.
"Yeah," Shula said, snorting for effect, "but you're not gonna put that in the paper, are you?"
"No, coach, I wouldn't do that," the reporter said quickly, scratching out the word "cold" from his notes.
"Good," said Shula, a scowl etched on the jut-jawed, dimple-in-the-chin face. And with that small victory in hand, Shula asked, "Is that it?" And without bothering to get an answer walked quickly toward his team's locker room and office complex on the campus of Biscayne College 20 minutes from downtown Miami.
A few minutes later, in the presence of a visitor from Washington, the gruff stuff was over. The Dolphin coach was oozing charm and charisma as he leaned back in his chair, proped up his feet on the desk and tried to explain exactly what it is that had made him the most successful active coach in the National Football League.
In 16 1/2 seasons, Shula, 48, has 172 victories to his credit. Only George Halas and Curly Lambeau are ahead of him on the NFL's all-time list, Halas with 320 victories in 40 years and Lambeau with 231 in 33.
Shula's percentage of victories now stands at .736. Vice Lombardi, the man he is most often compared with, had a .728 mark. Bud Grant entered the season at .708, George Allen at .705. Only John Madden, the Raider coach, with a .744 mark achieved in nine seasons, has done better.
The team he brings to RFK Stadium to play the Redskins Sunday has an 8-5 record after an embarassing loss to the New York Jets last Sunday.
Shula is the man most people would nominate as the NFL's supercoach. His teams in Baltimore (1963-1969) and Miami (since 1970) have appeared in Tour Super Bowls, with back-to-back championships in 1972 and 1973. The 1972 team won all 17 games it played, including a 14-7 Super Bowl victory over the Redskins. Shula keeps a framed copy of the front page of the Los Angeles Herald Examiner on his office wall to remind him of that game. "Best Team Ever" screams the headline.
Are you the best coach ever? he was asked the other day.
"I really don't spend much time thinking about my place in history." He said. "That's for other people to do. Now, during the season, your whole thrust is winning this year, winning on Sunday and the week after that and after that.
"You can't really spend time thinking about the future, about situations other people will have to answer for you, anyhow. So I just try and do the best job I can every day of my life, and hopefully, some day the numbers will be meaningful."
But there is more to Shula than numbers. His players will tell you that. "He does a better job than anyone in football at filling a variety of roles," said free safety Tim Foley, an eight-year veteran. "Some head coaches are great administrators, some have great football minds and some are great at public relations. Shula does everything well."
"I think he's the best for one very important reason. When we won those (two) super bowls, we won with less material than anyone else ever did. We didn't have the great talent a lot of championship teams had. But he got more out of us than anybody ever could
"No. I don't think he's changed much. His hair is a little grayer, but he still has as much intensity as he ever did. I find that I've changed more than he has. as I grow older, I understand more and more what he's trying to do. I'm not as intimidated as much as I used to be, and my respect grows for him the longer I'm around Him."
Offensive lineman Bob Kuchenberg told the Miami Herald recently that, "Shula's a very emotional person and I was surprised when I came here he wasn't more rah-rah. But that doesn't mean he's not aggressive. It's a professional weekly approach. Xs and Os. What we've got to do. The special teams have to win. The offense has to win. The defense has to win. And there's strength in that, too. If you're really high one week, what about the next? He keeps everything on a good, steady working plane."
Shula, meanwhile, insists that he has no magic formula for success, that his teams win mostly because "I don't try and jam a system down a player's throat or a team's throat. I guess you would say I'm adaptable."
There's little doubt of that. Shula has won with teams plagued with inferior talent, crippled by injuries and decimated by the defection of key superstars to the now defunct World Football League.
With Johnny Unitas and the Colts, Shula developed one of the game's most devastating passing attacks, even though he admits it went against his conservative nature. With Larry Csonka, Jim Kiick and Mercury Morris, his championship Dolphin teams relied on ball control and the precision medium-range passes of quarterback Bob Griese.
The current trend to four-line-backer defenses is a direct result of Shula's 53 defense, a formation developed out of necessity in the early 1970s when several defenseive lineman were hurt and Shula decided to use reserve linebacker Bob Matherson and line him up either as a down lineman or as fourth linebacker.
"I also believe in the draft," Shula said. "George ALlen fought the battle the other way, and he proved there was more than one way to win in this league. But when you use his system, the natural negative thing is that you don't have fresh blood. I love to bring in six, seven, eight young people every year. It keeps your special teams enthusiastic and aggressive and eventually you hope they'll compete for starting jobs. And if there's a trade I think will help us, like the Delvin Williams deal, I make it."
Although he has feuded with team owner Joe Robbie, Schula still has complete control of the Dolphin football operation. "Our relationship hasn't gotten any better," he said in a recent magazine interview, "but it hasn't gotten any worse. He runs the business, I run the team and I've never had a problem trying to get someone I wanted."
Still, his contract, with a salary estimated at $200,000 a year, runs out after the 1980 season, and already speculation has started about where Shula will go next. Notre Dame has been mentioned. So have the Redskins. There he would be reunited with Bobby Beathard, his player personnel director in Miami who is now Washington's general manager.
"Yeah, I've heard all those stories," Schula said. "Somebody had me rumored at Notre Dame just last week. I only know that I have the two years left after this season. At that time, I'll take a long look at where I am and where I want my life to go."
And how would he like to be remembered?
"I'd like to be remembered as a coach that had some class, as a guy who got things done within the rules with a team that played though, hard-hitting football and always clean football. I don-t bitch about officiating. If we lose, we lose as a team, not because an official beat us.
"I had good fortune early in my coaching and playing career. I was influenced By Paul Brown, Weeb Eubank, Blanton Collier and George Wilson. I competed against people like Lombardi. But I've never tried to pattern myself after any of them.
"You have to be your own man. You have to operate in the framework of your own personality. I hope I've done that. Any other judgments, I'll leave to the historians."