MIAMI -- Don Shula was a great coach a long time ago, first with the Baltimore Colts in the 1960s, then with the Miami Dolphins since 1970. Funny thing is, in 1990 he's becoming a great coach all over again.

There is a sense when you enter Shula's office that he really couldn't be working there anymore, for he started so long ago. On a wall hangs a Time magazine cover from 1972. He's on it. There is a laminated newspaper article from Super Bowl VII, when the 17-0 Dolphins beat the Washington Redskins and were proclaimed "Best Team Ever" in the headline.

There are enough reminders of the glory days of the Dolphins in this cinderblock-wall office at St. Thomas University north of the city that you almost expect Larry Csonka, Jim Kiick and Paul Warfield to come barging through the door. Except that those men are well into their 40s and haven't played football in more than a decade.

But Shula hasn't gone anywhere. He's been in this office, coaching the Dolphins, every day since they left.

"If I thought I'd rather be doing something else, I wouldn't be hanging around," he said as he prepared his team to play the Washington Redskins Sunday at 1 p.m. at RFK Stadium. "I enjoy the meetings and the practices and above all, game day. My anxieties are the same today as they were as a player and earlier in my career as a coach. The minute I don't have anxieties, then I know that I better find something else to do."

Shula turned 60 on Jan. 4. On Jan. 19, he signed a three-year contract to remain with the Dolphins. Some might have retired at this age. Shula simply reloaded.

After four seasons of missing the playoffs, after constant conjecture that the game had passed him by, Shula has given fans, whether they like the Dolphins or not, reason to smile. The only coach to go to six Super Bowls and the second winningest coach of all time, Shula finally has rebuilt his team. Sitting at 9-2, Shula is almost certain to return to the playoffs for the first time since 1985.

"As we've gone through these first 11 games, to see the defensive turnaround and to see the better balance on offense -- which were the two goals we had going into training camp -- is very satisfying," he said. "We felt that these things had to turn around, as well as we knew we had to become more physical. So we went into the draft with the idea of trying to get some big people -- and we did."

With this, Shula laughed. Even football coaches marvel at the size of the men in the game today. And he chose some very big people, namely first-round choice Richmond Webb and second-round pick Keith Sims. Both are offensive linemen. Both are 300 pounds. Both are starting on the left side of the Miami line and are helping the much-improved running game.

Earlier drafts didn't help, Shula acknowledged. Dan Marino was the top choice in 1983 and that decision always will be remembered as one of Shula's best. But after Marino came these first-round picks: linebacker Jackie Shipp, running back Lorenzo Hampton and defensive end John Bosa. All three are gone.

Shula would rather look at the positive.

"The last two years, the drafts have been good," Shula said. "Sammie Smith and Louis Oliver two years ago and this past year, the big people we've picked up. We've hit on some, Marino being a big hit. And we've missed on some."

When Shula admits mistakes have been made, the initial reaction is to raise an eyebrow. How can someone so imposing -- his jaw by itself seems destined for the Hall of Fame -- say he's been wrong?

Perhaps because he is a realist. Marino noticed this after last season, when Shula sat him down in the chair beside his desk and gave him a scenario if he were to be traded. Shula told Marino any team that got him would have to give up so much that it probably would end up no further along than the Dolphins were then.

"He presented the options to me," Marino said. "He wanted me to look at it that way."

Shula has always been this way. Women in the locker room has been the trendy issue of the 1990 season in many places, but not Miami. The Dolphins were one of the first NFL teams to allow women in their locker room back in 1980. A couple years later, Shula walked into the locker room after a game to find a woman reporter. He tapped her on the arm and simply asked her if everything was fine. When she said it was, he nodded and left the room.

A longtime member of the NFL's prestigious competition committee, Shula has been helping make league decisions for years. He commands an intense respect from his peers.

Miami Herald sports editor Edwin Pope tells a story about a Dolphin staff member sitting and talking with Indianapolis Colts Coach Ron Meyer before a recent game in the Hoosier Dome.

Shula suddenly motioned for his staffer to join him at midfield. Both the Dolphin employee and Meyer leaped to their feet. The staff member ran toward Shula, leaving Meyer standing alone, embarrassed.

"I'm not much intimidated, am I?" Meyer said, laughing at himself. "Shula's not even looking at me, and as soon as he waves his hand, I jump up and almost sprint out there to see what I can do for him."

If he's a legend, is he also a survivor? No, Shula said. He disliked being tied to other venerable coaches when his team and theirs were sliding in the latter part of the '80s.

"When all the talk was going around linking {Tom} Landry, {Chuck} Noll and me, I just didn't feel that that was the correct thing to do," he said. "Every situation is different. Chuck brought his football team back last year and nearly made it to the Super Bowl. Landry was just in a tough situation in Dallas with new ownership. We've had some great years and we were going through a down time the same time that Dallas and Pittsburgh and the Raiders were going through that."

He lives for the next practice and the next game, as most coaches do, but he exhibits a softer, nostalgic side, especially when the conversation turns to his 1972 team, which went 17-0 with an 18-game winning streak over two years.

He was very aware the San Francisco 49ers were trying for their 19th consecutive victory Sunday when they lost to the Los Angeles Rams.

"It was a happy day for Miami Dolphin fans," he said with a smile. "I'm kind of kidding, but it is meaningful that they did get knocked off because we take a lot of pride in that perfect season and our 18 straight.

"I didn't want them to break that record."