MIAMI ---- It has all come around to him now. You could see it on Don Shula's face yesterday, feel it in his ease. Someone from out of town told him he seemed happier than usual Sunday. "You mean I smiled once? Twice?" Shula said, grinning, needling his stone-faced image. He waved at the roomful of local reporters.
"These guys, they know I'm just a happy-go-lucky guy. Friendly. Free-wheeling. Free spirit."
On the day after Sunday, yes, Shula felt mighty fine. He wore his usual mesh shirt and green shorts, a pair of brown shoes so soft they might've been slippers. His Dolphins are in it again, in the AFC championship game for the first time in seven years. He is one of four head coaches working this week, just past his 63rd birthday and very close to the top.
"I take a lot of satisfaction in our team being where it is," he said. "There are only four left, four pretty good football teams, and I take a lot of pride in being one of them. But I don't want it to end here. I want to be one of those two. . . " And here Shula held out two fingers, smiled and slowly folded one back. "And then. . . number one."
That he can be this close again is stunning. This has been as unreadable a Dolphins team as any ever was, a young, fiery collection that began by banging out six straight victories. . . followed by eight weeks of uncertainty and losing. . . then two victories that could just as easily been disasters. . . and then Sunday. All year, the coach was just like you, like anyone trying to predict what the Dolphins would do next.
"I pretty much was on the same emotional roller coaster, hoping we'd get better each week, that things would fall into place," Shula said. He shook his head. "The way they did fall into place was extraordinary."
No other word for it. Sunday, the Dolphins dismantled the San Diego Chargers, 31-0, in a victory so complete, so sterling, that suddenly they look like champions. Of course, there is no telling which Miami team will show up against the Bills this week, but for one small moment Monday, it didn't matter.
No, only this did: All of Shula's contemporaries, the NFL's coaching giants, are finished. Washington's Joe Gibbs is nowhere to be seen. Dan Reeves, Mike Ditka? both looking for work. Bill Parcells? Drifting on the airwaves. But here is Shula, 20 years after his perfect season, in his 30th year of coaching, again at the front of the pack. In these days of trigger-happy owners, he is even more alone.
He doesn't like it. "What's happened in the past two weeks has been tough for me to handle," Shula said. "I've gotten to know both of them pretty well -- Dan Reeves and Ditka. I've got a lot of respect for them as coaches and men. . . You just hate to see it happen."
Buffalo Coach Marv Levy is older than Shula but doesn't have the credentials, doesn't have the 318 victories, isn't just one away from becoming the first man to coach Super Bowl teams in the '60s, '70s, '80s and '90s.
More important at this stage, though, is the fact there seems to be no negative age gap between coach and players on this team. The Dolphins defense is young and emotional, but Shula has had no problem retaining respect. Part of it is his total control. But part of it, I think, is his enthusiasm. Monday, Shula on three hours sleep didn't seem tired at all.
"It was just such a joy watching Troy Vincent perform," he said. "That was outstanding, the plays that he made. Here's a young guy and you know he's got all that talent, but you want to see it happen. And it happened in a big ball game. That makes you feel good as a coach.
"When you lose that, you ought to look at something else to do. It's tough enough now without having that desire."
Bet he still has it. His seventh Super Bowl is just a victory away.
"I want to get inside that door," Shula said. "I don't want to be on that doorstep. I'd like very much to be in another Super Bowl."
He said then that it wasn't a personal thing, that he wants to be there for the team. But there is no getting around the fact that two more victories here would seal Shula's reputation as the best coach ever. You could hear that need echo as he said it again: "I'd like to bring this team to a Super Bowl."
Already, early yesterday as he tried to sleep, Shula's blood began to flow for next week. The Chargers game was fading already; he was thinking about the Bills. Rank Sunday's game on an all-time list? Shula shrugged.
"Maybe someday I will, but I'm not going to spend that time now," he said. "It was a good win. That was our first step. Now we're into our next step."
He was asked to compare himself to the Shula of 1972, a cleaner, less confusing season than this one.
"I'd like to think I'm wiser, better," Shula said. "I'd like to think there are things still to be learned. You're always looking somehow to learn, keep ahead. I just enjoy doing what I'm doing. What would I rather do? I can't come up with something better."
And you could sense the energy coming off him as he spoke, could see that this playoff time with a team that wants to win and can -- is what it's all about for Shula. Not so much the chase after George Halas. Not so much the history. "Yeah," he said softly. "It's having this opportunity."
It's smelling that big prize and starting the hunt, the last consolation for those alone at the top.