It's been almost a quarter of a century now that this Shula phenomenon has been lighting up the National Football League.

The name Don Shula has been a veritable open sesame: 14 first-place finishes and 257 victories in 23 seasons. He became head coach of the Baltimore Colts in 1963 and carried his victory machine south in 1970 to become Miami's coach.

You can pinpoint Shula's success even more precisely: it's all in The Jaw. Abe Lincoln had his beard; Don Shula has his jaw. "If you have ever had the jaw shot out at you, you know," said Don Strock, a Miami quarterback for 12 years.

"In team meetings he'll say something quietly to a player and The Jaw will shoot out and you just know. You can be sitting in the back of the room and you just know that player is in trouble."

Bobby Beathard, the Washington Redskins' general manager, spent seven seasons as Shula's personnel director in Miami (1972-78) and said he learned that "one thing that has made Shula great is he has the ability to make losing unbearable for his players."

"And he can make winning the same way," Strock said. "Like when we don't win convincingly, he can be that way. He can be rough in meetings. He was rough after the Cleveland game (a 24-21 Miami victory) last week, to tell you the truth."

"Well, I'd say I'm much more mild, much more in control these days," Shula said in a news conference today. He paused, smiled and added with a mock tough, " . . . unless something happens where I get ticked off."

You can talk to Don Shula's players, past and present, and the respect/fear factor looms large. Same with his assistant coaches. They swear everything he does is precise, caculated and, for the most part, right.

You can't knock the results. Shula has been to a record six Super Bowls. You can say he's 2-4 in The Big One, but, dating to 1964, he is 6-1 in the games that deliver the winner to the league title game/Super Bowl. Shula, 56, will coach for the American Conference title against New England on Sunday at the Orange Bowl, where Shula's Dolphins teams have won 82 percent of their games.

Shula has a 257-98-6 NFL head coaching record, one of the highest winning percentages (.720) in league history. He coached a 17-0 season in 1972 and only four men have been a head coach longer. George Halas, the late Papa Bear, holds the record of 40 years.

Shula's coaching achievements reach the clouds: he won a playoff game in 1965 in Baltimore even though his two quarterbacks were injured and running back Tom Matte took over with the plays written on his wristband; he won a Super Bowl with 38-year-old quarterback Earl Morrall in the 1972 season and somehow reached the Super Bowl a decade later against the Redskins with a quarterback named David Woodley, whose nature was better than his arm.

He is a former Redskins cornerback (1957) whose offense has evolved from a blast-away run game with Larry Csonka, Jim Kiick and Mercury Morris in the early '70s to Dan Marino's passing touch in the '80s.

Shula seemed unflappable when, after Csonka, Kiick and receiver Paul Warfield left for the World Football League in 1974, he led Miami to a first-place 10-4 in 1975. Didn't skip a beat.

Then again, never before has the vulnerability of an NFL coach seemed greater then in 1982. That's when a former Miami defensive end named Don Reese told the world he had snorted cocaine on Dolphins team planes in the mid-'70s, unbeknown to Shula. People figured if it could happen to Shula, it could happen to any coach.

Now, Shula's 26-year-old son David appears on the verge of being named head coach of the Eagles, with only four years as Miami receivers coach on his resume. It's a big deal until you consider that Don Shula was only 33 when he became the Colts' head coach.

If David Shula does become the Eagles coach, it may be the ultimate compliment to his father. "I've never tried to escape being who I am or what my last name is," David Shula said today.

David Shula recalls one thing clearly: "As a kid you're not too analytical of good points and bad points, but I could see how when my father lost a game it affected him greatly."

Don Shula's players see this, too. Miami linebacker Charles Bowser said, "I am afraid of his being disappointed in my play. That's the main thing."

Warfield said he felt the same way back when Miami appeared in an unprecedented three straight Super Bowls (1971-72-73 seasons). Now a Cleveland Browns executive, Warfield said, "Whenever we lost, we felt a great sense of remorse because we let (Shula) down.

"He's got a simple formula, but getting players to follow it isn't easy. Other coaches can't do it. It's the old American hard work ethic. It is symbolized by a slogan that appears on our 1971 Super Bowl rings: the Winning Edge. He demands a lot from us, but he demands a lot from himself, too.

"The players were in awe of him (in 1970) and that helped him reshape the Miami organization overnight." Miami was 3-10-1 in 1969, the year before Shula arrived, and four years later appeared in its third consecutive Super Bowl.

Once upon a time, Shula and Dallas President Tex Schramm -- two Competition Committee members who are perhaps the league's two most powerful non-owners -- weren't so buddy-buddy.

Schramm said, "We were down in Miami in 1965 for one of those Playoff Bowl games and I asked Don if maybe we oughtn't get together and agree between ourselves what we were going to do with our teams as far as curfews. Our teams were either in adjoining hotels or the same hotel.

"Don said, 'You run your football team and I'll run mine.' We didn't talk for a couple of years after that, at least not civilly."

Final score: Baltimore 35, Dallas 3. Said Schramm: "Then, Don came up at a league meeting a few years later and said, 'This is ridiculous.' And we started talking on good terms again. We've been friends since."

Miami players say Shula will rant and rave at them. He'll curse, but somehow it seems necessary when he does it. Warfield and Strock say they never saw Shula throw anything in a locker room, except a tantrum.

Now that Miami is 13-4, sitting pretty, nobody seems to remember the team was 5-4 and trailing the Jets, 17-14, until Marino's 50-yard scoring pass to Mark Duper with 41 seconds left triggered an eight-game winning streak. It has been as fine a coaching job as Miami has seen since 1984.

"It's been one continual struggle," Don Shula said late today.