The story made Don Shula seem vulnerable. For 19 seasons, it is something that neither legend nor Landry has been able to do.

Don Reese, a former defensive end for the Dolphins, told Sports Illustrated the coach was tough, yes.

But Reese also told the magazine that, in the mid-1970s, half the Dolphins used cocaine recreationally, and that some players snorted cocaine in the back of the plane on flights home.

Now, Reese faces arrest on a charge of parole violation. If convicted, he could face up to 30 years in prison.

And Don Shula faces the questions.

Said the coach, "I drafted Don Reese here--he had a lot of potential and didn't use it."

Then Shula, a man prone to good will, not ill will, added, "When you talk about credibility, Don Reese is not the one to go to."

Shula's waistline, unlike his ego, has expanded over the years. Although he is not quite Churchillian in stature, in the National Football League he is Churchillian in status.

He is 52 years old. Career regular-season record: 194-74-6. Impeccable.

The four-time Super Bowl coach said, "The Don Reese story exaggerated the situation. I realize we've had problems. Reese and Randy Crowder (a former Dolphin who was arrested with Reese in 1977 for selling cocaine to undercover policemen) were problems. But the problems have been few and far between.

"I've spent so much time with all of my players over the years. My job is getting inside players' heads, finding out what makes them tick. To hear that guys were sniffing things behind my back, I find hard to believe. I just can't see it happening."

Shula talked openly, pointedly. With the relentlessness of his words, it appeared he was leading his own two-minute offense.

"The article made it seem like there was a 'cocaine cloud of uncertainty' covering the NFL. I don't see it. What I see are great athletes and great games. The story exaggerated.

"In the early '70s you heard about marijuana. Then, in '77, you started hearing about cocaine. Now, you hear about cocaine all the time. It pretty much goes along with society. Affluent members of society use cocaine. With the players being young and affluent today, they are susceptible."

With a sideline sternness in his face and with his mind set on the Jets (Sept. 12 opener), not on the jet set, he added, "I won't let this engulf me or consume me. I've got a job to do and I'm going to do it."

If Shula is under siege, he could gain safety, if not solace, standing behind the fortress of his players' words. The players believe in him.

Tight end Joe Rose, in his third camp, said, "If there is something wrong, Coach Shula can see through it. He knows his 45 players. And he wins--even in rebuilding years."

Quarterback David Woodley, also in his third camp, said, "Sometimes it is difficult to play for him because he's a perfectionist. But that also works in a player's favor--when a game comes around, you know what is expected."

Quarterback Don Strock, in his 10th camp with Shula, said simply, "His record speaks for itself."

Offensive guard Roy Foster, the first-round pick from Southern California, said, "Tough, hard, straight man. When you get around him, you talk business and leave." Foster smiled, adding, "He's not as personal as a college coach."

Offensive guard Bob Kuechenberg, like Shula, enters his 13th season in Miami. Shula came in from the Colts. Kuechenberg came in from the cold. Cut in 1969 by the Eagles, then the Falcons, he was picked up from the Chicago Owls of the Continental League in 1970.

Kuechenberg has seen the trenches and the trophies. He is the last remnant from the glory years. He was part of Csonka, Kiick & Warfield, part of Super Bowls VI, VII & VIII. It was some offense, some team.

Kuechenberg recalls Reese, who played for Miami from 1974-76: "Don Reese's IQ is two points above a rock. The story is inaccurate."

He remembers The Years of 1972 (17-0) and 1973 (15-2). He wears one of the Super Bowl rings today: "The World Football League did something in 1974 that no other team could do--stop the Dolphins. They took Larry Csonka, Jim Kiick and Paul Warfield away from us. Then the Steelers succeeded us. Imagine how they would have done if they had lost Franco Harris, Rocky Bleier and Lynn Swann."

He remembers Shula, from then and now: "Playing 10 years for Don Shula is like playing 15 years for anybody else. I think he has mellowed with age. He has evolved. His will to win has not diminished. He is extremely determined. How can you knock him?"

Shula agreed with the evaluation: "I hope I've mellowed, both at home and with the players. In the early years as a player and a young coach, I had a quick trigger. Occasionally, I still get carried away, like at the Eagle game last year."

That was the moment when Shula, his demeanor melting to plain mean, grabbed his throat, telling a referee and a Monday Night Football television audience that the referee had choked in making a call.

"It's something I regret doing," Shula said.

Although Shula's grip on the Dolphins remains total--"He could never coach for George Steinbrenner," said Strock--he is not without humor.

When rookie running back Larry Cowan (Jackson State) recently went down on one knee to rest after performing admirably during practice, Shula wanted him to stand. So the coach jerked his thumb skyward.

Cowan thought his coach was applauding his play by giving him the thumbs-up signal. So the nervous rookie smiled and returned volley to his coach by raising both thumbs skyward. Shula broke up.

"You can't be so uptight or strait-laced that you can't laugh," Shula said.

When the veterans forced the rookies to stand on a chair during dinner to entertain with solo songs, a cruel initiation indeed, Shula merely grinned.

Forty-five minutes later, the players/coaches meetings started. As humor transformed to homework, Don Shula said, "Everything I've done in the past, I will continue to do. I don't spend my time with self-evaluation. My responsibility is to prepare this squad. I'm going to do it."