The window in Don Shula's office looks out on a swimming pool and, on any given morning, you can catch the Miami Dolphins' coach gazing through the glass at the whirls of vapor lifting off the surface. There is a weight room adjacent to the pool area and, near there, a concrete walk that runs out to the two practice fields.
The fields are turtlebacked and lush, with brilliant lime stripes streaming across the great bellies of grass. This morning, the fields are under assault from a sprinkler that sends jets of water in 30-yard spurts.
"The grass out there is outstanding," Shula says, stirring his mug of coffee with a Pixie straw.
"Come over here and take a look."
Shula has just returned from mass. He attends mass every day at the small chapel on the campus of St. Thomas University, home of the Dolphins' training facility.
During camp, the assistant coaches joined him at the daily service, but now that the season has begun, he's usually there alone. Just Donald Francis Shula and Father Chambers, the priest.
"I'm not superstitious," Shula said. "I don't think that, if I miss, something bad'll happen that day. I just want to be thankful and to petition. And it gives me peace."
Shula's daily ritual finds him stepping through the chapel doors at 6:50 a.m. Twenty minutes later, he's on his way to his office. By 7:15, he's staring out his window and drinking his first cup of coffee, admiring the verdant view. "I really do love the grass," he said. "And there's always air out there, a breeze. I'm not even sure where it comes from. But it sure accounts for our survival in all this heat."
Shula is content in this world, for he has molded and shaped his team into his own image of perfection and into one of the most successful franchises in NFL history. His accomplishments are many, but his most memorable include being the only coach to reach the Super Bowl three straight years and the youngest coach to win 100 games. His career winning percentage of .709 is the best among the NFL's all-time winners and, at 54, he says he's young enough and determined enough to survive 10 or more years in the league.
"Sometimes, old players come around -- people like Earl Morrall and Bob Griese and (Larry) Csonka, all of them on the '72 team when we went 17-0 -- and it brings back memories. That was the greatest time of my life, '72 was. Whenever I think about it, I am reminded that there's something great way back behind me. But dwelling on the past doesn't help me prepare for the Redskins (whom his Dolphins open the season against today at RFK)."
Shula has a home just up the road, in Miami Lakes, and he has a wife ("Dorothy really is a super gal . . . ") and five children. His elder son, David, is 25 and a member of his coaching staff. The other son, Michael, is a sophomore quarterback at Alabama and may start this year. When Shula's daughter, Donna, was recently married, it made all the papers. The year before, David and his wife had a baby, their first, and one local publication read, "David and Leslie presented Coach with a grandson." Homage.
"I know I'm getting older and things are a little different than they once were, at least in my relationships with the players," he said, sitting now in his brown vinyl chair and easing back into reflection. "It's more of a father-son type thing with many of the players. I've kiddingly said that I've mellowed. I hope I've learned a few things that have made me more adaptive and receptive to change, and hopefully more than I was in the early years. I was hardheaded back then and quick to fly off the handle."
One of the changes in the game that continues to baffle Shula is the blood of the NFL's new generation of leaders, which has turned from rich to iron-poor in the course of his career. He has great admiration for Joe Gibbs of Washington ("You can't help but appreciate the way the man handles himself; he's hard and tough, and nothing comes cheap. . . "), Chuck Noll of Pittsburgh and Tom Flores of the Los Angeles Raiders. But many others fail to impress him. Many others burn out when Shula has just begun to turn on the burners.
"The word 'burnout,' " he said, "I don't know what it means. It wasn't around until (former Philadelphia Eagles Coach Dick) Vermeil came up with it a few years back, and now everybody's trying to protect against it. I'll never turn to the dictionary and look it up. It's not in my vocabulary. Don't want it to be."
Bud Grant, once a rival of Shula's, retired as coach of the Minnesota Vikings after last season and expressed a need for the tranquility of life outside football. "Bud and I were always very different," Shula said. "He liked to hunt and fish, for example, while I enjoyed playing tennis and golf. I was never really sure until recently how he felt about coaching. I knew he kept away from it as much as he could, to go hunting and fishing. But I'm just not that way. I spend as much time as I can coaching. In June, I take the family on vacation. We leave Florida, because if we don't, I'm here, coaching."
But there are unpleasantries in his job, and they haunt him. "The toughest thing for me to do is to take a guy into my office, look him in the eyes and tell him he doesn't fit into our plans. Or that we're demoting him when he's long been a contributor to our team's success. The other decisions I have to make are pretty cut and dried. They're easy. But letting a kid go always gives me hell."
Shula's understanding of how it feels to be young and suddenly detached from a long-held dream comes from experience. The dream dies hard, and so does the player's identity, which is often as fragile as the hopes on which it was built.
In his last season as an NFL player and his only year with the Washington Redskins, sportswriters called him "a journeyman," because his career had taken him many places. The year was 1957. He had played six years for Cleveland and Baltimore before that. "I don't spend a lot of time bragging about the last year there in Washington," he said. "I played right corner, then they stuck me on the kickoff team and I knew something was up. I figured it was the end.
"Maybe I could have come back for one more year and competed, but I remember going down to the Redskins' office in the offseason. There was a chalkboard with a list of names on it. I saw that they'd drafted someone and had already put his name ahead of mine. I decided to retire right then."
He was an assistant coach at Virginia and Kentucky before returning to the NFL in 1960, when he joined the Detroit Lions as defensive coordinator. Three years later, Shula replaced Weeb Ewbank as coach of the Baltimore Colts, returning to a "team loaded with guys I'd played with a few years before." He was only 33. "(Johnny) Unitas was only a rookie when I was there in '56. All of a sudden, I'm coaching this great quarterback and Lenny Moore and Raymond Berry and guys who were all much better players than I had ever dreamed of being."
He coached the Colts for seven years, then took over the Dolphins in 1970. "My third year down here was incredible for a lot of reasons. The main one that immediately comes to mind -- other than our perfect record -- was that I had been in two Super Bowls before then and lost both of them. We were heavily favored against the Jets when I was in Baltimore and lost. And that game led to a split between (former Colts owner) Carroll Rosenbloom and me.
"People kept whispering in his ears that I couldn't win the big one and he got harder and harder to live with. That led to my split and move to Miami. I remember how it felt being 16-0 and looking back at the two Super Bowl losses. Can you imagine going that far again and finishing 16-1? I'd have been painted as the guy who couldn't win the big one. And Rosenbloom was constantly fueling the fire, talking my chances down. Thank God we did win. It would have been terrible for me."
Now, Shula says opening the season against Washington at RFK Stadium is "something you've got to live with, even though it's not the easiest way to get started . . . I once played in a pro-am golf tournament with a young protege of Chi Chi Rodriguez. This guy was supposed to be great, a young Chi Chi. He had a downhill putt of about six feet and, as he was addressing the ball, he said, 'I'd much rather be hitting uphill than down.' I said, 'You've got no chance of making that putt.' He said, 'How's that?' And I told him, 'Your attitude's all wrong.'
"He was wishing for the wrong thing. And he missed the putt. We play Washington. I've got to be ready for that. Nobody else. Understand?"