Larry Little, the former all-pro guard on the great Miami teams of the early 1970s, stopped by the Dolphins practice facility this morning for a visit. Someone asked him how much Don Shula has changed from the days when he was the coach of back-to-back Super Bowl champions in 1972-73.
"I can't say how his personality has changed because I haven't been around him that much the last few years," he said. "But I know one thing, he has always been able to use people to get the most out of their abilities. He always has the right people in the right place."
On Sunday, the Dolphins were everywhere in the Orange Bowl, harassing San Diego quarterback Dan Fouts, disrupting the patterns of his receivers and moving the ball at will on offense in a 37-13 rout of the San Diego Chargers that moved Miami into the AFC championship game here Sunday at 1 p.m. against the New York Jets.
It was a performance reminiscent of those championship seasons, but today, Don Shula, 53, did not want to compare his current team with anything in the past.
"I won't evaluate this team on this date," he said. "When it's over with you can think back about the accomplishments and compare. But now is not the time. Plus, it's an asterisk season."
How would he compare himself to the Don Shula of 10 years ago, someone asked.
"I keep hearing that I've mellowed," said Shula, laughing. "I'd like to think I've learned some things over the years. This is the 20th year I've been a head coach--seven in Baltimore and 13 here--and I've also raised a family.
"I have five children. You raise the family, go through that at home, and then you come out here and you coach young players who become veteran players, and you try to keep abreast of what's going on. And what happens at home and what happens out here sort of ties in together, and you adjust. But I've never been inflexible. I've always tried to adapt and get the most out of the people I have rather than stick a system down their throats. That's never changed."
The people around Don Shula say he also has the same intensity as always, that he never has experienced the sort of burnout Dick Vermeil talked about when he quit the Philadelphia Eagles last week.
And most of all, he still loves to win.
"Yes," he said, "yesterday was a very enjoyable thing. I've got a lot of energy. I can't wait to get up in the morning. I think that's when I enjoy working the most."
This year's team has also given him great satisfaction, despite the frustration of the short season. An offense that struggled in the first weeks after the strike now is rolling behind a confident, comfortable quarterback, David Woodley. And his defense, which had great difficulty last season, has developed into the NFL's top-rated unit.
And on Sunday, it all came together in a game in which the Dolphins opened a 24-0 lead, saw them hold the Chargers to 241 total yards (they had been averaging 450), saw them limit Kellen Winslow, Charlie Joiner and Wes Chandler to a total of four catches and saw old jut jaw himself actually smile on the sidelines.
"We've turned this team completely over (from the championship era)," he said today. "That's what I look at every year. Are we getting better, are we heading in the right direction? Sure, you'd like to go in the playoffs every year and win, but that doesn't happen when you turn it over. You're never happy losing, but you have to be intelligent and tell yourself that Pittsburgh was better than you were back when they were winning.
"I enjoy doing what I'm doing. Every time my contract comes around, that's when I sit back, see where I am and how I feel, and then make a decision on whether I want to keep doing it. I don't want it to be an emotional kind of thing. I think that's what might have happened with Dick (Vermeil). We had the strike, he had problems after it coming back. You hate to see a coach make a decision based on the things he has no control over.
"I still enjoy the preparation and the decision-making. And yesterday was a very rewarding day for me. I hope it leads to bigger and better things."
Kicker Uwe Von Schamann suffered a deep bruise in his back fielding a fumbled kickoff against the Chargers but said today he will be able to kick Sunday against the Jets. He will not kick in practice until Thursday, but said "nothing will keep me out of this game."