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Hard work has Don Shula on verge of another coaching milestone

THE BALTIMORE SUN

PHILADELPHIA -- If the Miami Dolphins beat Detroit on Sunday, it will be Don Shula's 300th victory as an NFL head coach.

Three hundred wins.

Think about that for a moment. Let it sink in. Three hundred wins, including playoffs and Super Bowls.

To put this in perspective, Shula has more career wins than 16 current NFL franchises. The Dallas Cowboys, for all their success, have won 20 fewer games than Shula (279). The Minnesota Vikings, a team with four conference titles, aren't even close (248).

Three hundred wins is a staggering achievement in pro football. Vince Lombardi and Paul Brown were truly great coaches, yet their COMBINED NFL victory total was 275. Shula passed them on the road to Canton a while back.

"What Don is doing now will never be done again," said Bill Parcells, who won 85 games in eight seasons with the New York Giants before retiring to the TV booth. "You aren't going to see a coach get to 300 wins again. It's impossible. It's remarkable."

At 61, Shula is a living legend. He has an expressway named after him in Miami, he has a bust on order at the Pro Football Hall of Fame, he has one of the most recognizable profiles in all of America, yet he remains rooted in the here and now of coaching.

When Shula looks at his calendar, he sees the next game, not the next milestone. When he looks ahead to this Sunday, Shula sees the No. 20 (worn by Lions tailback Barry Sanders) not the No. 300.

Don't ask about his place in history; Shula is too busy thinking up ways to stop the run-and-shoot.

That is perhaps Shula's greatest strength as a coach. His eyes are always straight ahead, his concentration is total. He understands that in the NFL each win is like a precious stone, it must be chisled out the hard way. It doesn't just pop into your hand because you are Don Shula.

He never has lost sight of that. He takes nothing for granted. He has a plaque in his office that reads: "I'm just a guy who rolls up his sleeves and goes to work." So it is this week as he approaches yet another plateau in his 29-year coaching career.

"I'm not sure I understand why (win) No. 300 is more important than 299," Shula said Tuesday. "I know it's a measuring stick, a way of keeping score, but I don't lie awake at night and think about these things.

"I think about winning the next game, taking the next step toward making the playoffs. I'm sure someday I'll reflect on the records I've set and I'll enjoy it, but this is not the time.

"We've got a whole season in front of us and a lot of work to do," said Shula, who needs just 27 more wins to pass the immortal George Halas the only 300-game winner so far and become the winningest NFL coach of all-time.

The Dolphins are 1-1 after last Sunday's 17-6 win over Indianapolis. They are coming off a frustrating preseason that saw nine players (including seven starters) hold out in contract disputes and six others go down with injuries.

It was a difficult time for Shula, who thought the team was on its way back after winning 12 games last season and qualifying for the playoffs for the first time since 1985.

Shula is just now pulling things together with Mark Higgs, filling in for the injured Sammie Smith (strained knee) at halfback. Higgs has rushed for 257 yards in the first two games, 6 more yards than he had gained in his first three years in the league.

The Dolphins have quite a few holes to fill, but Shula is busy patching. He still has Dan Marino at quarterback and the Marks brothers, Mark Clayton and Mark Duper, at wide receiver. He has end Jeff Cross and linebacker John Offerdahl on defense. Shula will figure out the rest. He usually does.

This is a coach who went to the Super Bowl with five different quarterbacks: Marino, Johnny Unitas, Earl Morrall, Bob Griese and David Woodley. This is a coach who went 17-0 one season with a defense known, quite properly, as the "No-Names."

When the Dolphins slipped in the four years from 1986 to '89 and went 30-33, it was said that Shula had grown old. Just like that, the game had passed him by.

That wasn't true, of course. The system simply caught up with him. Years of drafting low thinned the Miami talent base and a string of weak No. 1's linebacker Jackie Shipp, halfback Lorenzo Hampton and defensive end John Bosa left Shula with Marino and little else.

But the arrival of Sammie Smith balanced the offense and last year's rookie finds, tackle Richmond Webb and guard Keith Sims, muscled up the line. That quickly, Shula had Miami back in the playoffs and upsetting Kansas City in the AFC wild-card game, 17-16.

"It was laughable, the idea that Don had lost it," said New York Giants general manager George Young, who broke into the NFL as an assistant coach under Shula in Baltimore 23 years ago.

"In politics, when you get older, you become an elder statesman. In the NFL, it seems, you become an elder dummy. It's not true. Don didn't lose anything, he just got caught on the down side of the cycle. That happens.

"The thing Don had to fight, besides the opposition, was his own legend," Young said. "When you win as much as Don, it creates a different level of expectation. If you're coach Joe Blow, 8-8 isn't a bad season. But if you're Don Shula, 8-8 is like, 'What happened?'"

Shula didn't mind the criticism as much as he hated the losing. He says he never considered walking away from the game and Young believes him.

"Don is an arena person," Young said. "He loves that setting. Win or lose, he wants to be there."

Shula enjoyed last season's turnaround. He relished being back in the playoff hunt. The fact that he silenced his detractors, well, Shula didn't mind that either.

His world was back in order, all except for one thing.

Dorothy, his devoted wife of 32 years, was stricken with cancer. She was ill through most of last season and passed away in February at age 57. Anyone who ever saw Dorothy after a Miami home game, leaving the stadium clinging to her husband's arm, knew what a terrible loss that was.

This is the first NFL season that Don has faced without her. His youngest son, Mike (now a Dolphins assistant), has moved back JTC into the house so that Don won't have to knock around alone. They watch TV together and talk football. Still, it hurts.

"It really hits me after games," Don Shula said Tuesday. "I always knew Dorothy would be there when I walked out of the locker room. She'd always have an answer for whatever happened that day.

"She'd find a way to make me laugh. Now she's not there and it's hard.

"She was a wonderful person. She was a great influence on me because she made me think about things other than football. I saw how kind she was to other people and it made me realize that maybe I could be more thoughtful myself.

"For years, I took good people for granted," Shula said. "I didn't take the time to say 'thank you.' I was too busy worrying about the problem people and how I could keep them in line. Dorothy made me realize that giving the (good) people a pat on the back was just as important."

They say Don Shula has mellowed in this, his fourth NFL decade. The coach who once forbade his players to wear beards or mustaches now allows them to wear earrings. The coach who once ran the league's strictest ship now allows his veteran players to live at home during training camp.

Shula isn't sure that mellowing is the right word. He prefers to say, "I've learned there are other ways to get things done."

Translation: He has loosened up, but he has not lost control. He never, ever will lose control.

"The earrings, the clothes, the (end zone) spikes, those are just ,, fads," said Shula, who became an NFL head coach in 1963 when Eagles coach Rich Kotite was a mere college freshman and current Cleveland coach Bill Belichick was a sixth-grader.

"I can live with the changes because they are only superficial. The most important things in the game have remained the same; that's discipline and hard work. As a coach, you have to know when to demand it and how much.

"Discipline and hard work equals success," Shula said. "It's an old formula, but it still works for me. I'm sticking with it."

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