It’s the morning after the Carolina Panthers win the National Football Conference Championship game two weeks ago and Dennis Lavelle is in Miami watching two of his six grandchildren when his cellphone rings. Mike Shula, Carolina’s offensive coordinator who played quarterback for Lavelle at Christopher Columbus High School 33 years ago, is on the other end of the line.
“It’s nine in the morning and he says, ‘Hey, you want to go to the Super Bowl? I got to know right now,’ ” Lavelle, the former Columbus head coach, said. “By 10:30 that morning I had my itinerary, flight, hotel. That’s what Mike Shula was doing the morning after maybe the biggest win of his coaching career.”
Mike Shula, 50, was making sure his family, including his dad, Don Shula, his three sisters, his brother, and some close friends, were headed to Sunday’s Bay Area Super Bowl because this NFL championship game is a big deal.
Yes, Super Bowl 50 marks the golden anniversary game for the NFL. But it also marks the return of the Shula name to a Super Bowl.
A Don Shula-led team participated in four of the first eight Super Bowls in the 1960s and ’70s, and Shula led the Dolphins back in January 1983 and again in January 1985. But it has been 31 years since that iconic football name has participated in the NFL’s grand game.
And now Mike, the youngest of Don and Dorothy Shula’s five kids, will be in the coaching booth and in quarterback Cam Newton’s ear, calling the offensive plays when his Panthers face the Denver Broncos.
“As I was saying last week, I was trying to not let so much time pass since a Shula was in the Super Bowl,” Mike Shula said during one of the handful of media availabilities that punctuate Super Bowl week’s hype.
Shula has been publicly at ease in the run-up to this Super Sunday. Maybe that’s because even if he’s coaching in his first Super Bowl, he grew up around Super Bowl teams. He lived in the same house with a Super Bowl coach. He attended all of Miami’s Super Bowl games.
This isn’t his first rodeo.
“It’s funny, the first one against Dallas when I was 6, I remember sitting in the upper deck and it was so cold,” Shula recalled. “It was in New Orleans. I can remember getting a hot dog, and it was ice cold. The next year, the year they won it, I can remember that I was in the stands, and the biggest thing from that year was that my mom had just bought me a red transistor radio. I thought that was awesome because I could listen to the game while I was watching it.
“The next year they were playing the Vikings and they had a lead at halftime, and I remember they had these flags for each team, and the one for Miami said, ‘Dolphins No. 1; Vikings eat your heart out.’
“I said, ‘Mom let me get it. I want to get it.’ She said, ‘No, it’s only halftime. We have a long way to go.’ I talked her into getting it, and sure enough, the opening kickoff of the second half, the Vikings return it for a touchdown.”
That kickoff return touchdown was nullified by a penalty and practically erased from the history of the Dolphins 24-7 whipping of Minnesota. But those early days helped propel young Mike toward a life in football as surely as they cemented his father in NFL lore.
“Getting to the Super Bowl and winning the Super Bowl is what you get into coaching for,” Don Shula said. “Mike’s been around the game all his life. He got a taste of what it was like early in his life and I’m glad he pursued coaching because now he’s at the pinnacle of what it’s all about as a coach. I can’t be more proud of him.”
It seems logical now that a Shula is coaching in the NFL and trying to win a Super Bowl. But that wasn’t necessarily Mike Shula’s intent all along.
“Well, I got my degree in labor relations,” Shula said with a straight face. “So I have that to fall back on.
“Like most kids, I knew that football was fun, and I wanted to play as long as I could. There was something different about football when I was growing up, and I played all three sports — football, basketball, baseball. But I knew I loved football and wanted to play in college, and I was lucky enough to play in college. I knew early in college that if I wasn’t going to be good enough to play a long time, I wanted to stay in football somehow and coaching was going to be the next best thing.”
How is coaching the next best thing? Well, perhaps because coaches live vicariously through their players. Perhaps because coaches on the sidelines can run the same gamut of emotions as players who are actually on the field.
“You go through the same emotions that you do as a player,” Shula said. “The physical part is obviously the difference. But your players do well, you feel great. It’s a feeling you’ll never . . . it’s hard to explain.
“When you see your guys put forth the hard work, the sense of accomplishment after a win is great. And after a loss, you feel like it’s all your fault and you let your player down. So those are the ups and downs you have as a coach, but there’s something unique about those that have been the reason football’s always been exciting to me.”
Shula wasn’t sure he wanted to get into the family business when he was a kid. But he was certain he wanted to play, so his parents enrolled him at Columbus High in Westchester. And once he was there, the kid with the famous last name blended in.
“I’ll never forget when I was at Columbus, he would always introduce himself to people by his first name,” said Mark Rodgers, who taught and coached at Columbus for three years before studying law and eventually becoming Shula’s legal representative and advisor to this day. “He wouldn’t use his last name. I think that was part of his humility.
“Mike was willing to stand on his own. That was something his mom and dad instilled in him. He was going to rise or fall on his own merit. The last name is obviously iconic among coaches and in the NFL and certainly around South Florida. But Mike Shula never used that as a shortcut.”
Lavelle took over at Columbus in 1982, and that was an interesting assignment because on one hand he had a left-handed starting quarterback named Shula and on the other he had a defensive star in Alonzo Highsmith, who was perhaps Florida’s best high school athlete at the time.
Shula was white and from a rich family. Highsmith was black and from a working-class family. So how did the two big men on campus, so different in so many ways, get along?
“Me and Mike Shula arrived there at the same time,” said Highsmith, who went on to a career as a running back at the University of Miami, then six years in the NFL and is now a senior personnel executive for the Green Bay Packers. “He didn’t have a whole lot of friends. I didn’t know anybody. So he befriended me. We’d talk. We’d have lunch together every day.
“He started bringing me home with him and because I knew him, I had the chance to go with him to visit Dolphins training camp.”
During one visit, Highsmith was helping arrange uniforms while wearing headphones.
“Don Shula came over and said to me, ‘We concentrate on football around here, not rock music,’ ” Highsmith said. “Meeting and talking football with the Dolphins players, having Don Shula tell me to watch this or that. That’s all because of me knowing Mike Shula. I’ve never told Mike this, but meeting him helped shape my life and helped determine who I am and where I am today.”
Shula’s course to the Carolina Panthers had stops in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, Tampa Bay, Jacksonville and Chicago, as well as with the Dolphins. After he graduated from Columbus, Alabama head coach Ray Perkins offered him a scholarship and Shula accepted.
It was a transformational decision because Perkins, who played for Don Shula, would years later play a role in helping Mike land his head coaching job at Alabama.
So what did Perkins get in return? A quarterback who helped deliver two Iron Bowl victories over Auburn in three tries and a 24-11-1 record in his three seasons as a starter.
“I don’t know that Mike Shula made a bad decision playing quarterback for us at Alabama,” Perkins told al.com last week. “I can’t remember a time when I thought he made a bad decision.”
In that regard, Shula was simply continuing to play as he had in high school.
“He was a great player for me,” Lavelle said. “Team first. Smart. Loyal. Competitive. Popular. You get out of bed in the morning to coach guys like him. And there was no entitlement about him. Oh, hell no, none.”
Shula might not have felt entitled but soon enough he recognized his last name put more sets of eyes on him than most of the other kids.
“Probably the first time I ever felt it, which I kind of laughed, was when my mom — I think we were playing, I don’t know if it was junior or senior year in high school — was nervous about me playing because they said somebody had put a bounty up for Shula,” Mike Shula said.
“And so we kind of chuckled about it then. Probably ever since then, it’s just kind of been something that you just know your last name. Obviously you’re going to get singled out at times. But more importantly than anything else, I feel just so lucky not because I’ve got my dad’s last name and who he was, but just because he’s my father and the way he and my mom raised us and then having Dave and my sisters to help me along the way growing up.”
Despite the plaudits and famous name, Shula’s door to the NFL as a player opened and shut within one season at Tampa Bay in 1987. In 1988 his coaching career began with the same Buccaneers as an offensive assistant, but not before his father gave him some career advice.
“His advice was No. 1 that there are going to be some ups and downs,” Mike Shula said. “That if you coach, you’re going to be in a leadership position. You’ve got to make sure you understand that because people are going be looking at you and how you react afterward, both good and bad.
“He told me whatever you do, don’t settle for anything other than the best from yourself, and any kind of confrontation or problem that you have, you’ve got to hit them head on. Right away.”
One of the occupational hazards of being a coach is that practically all of them are fired from one job or another. Mike Shula’s been fired twice — once by Tony Dungy in 1999 when Shula was the Bucs offensive coordinator and once in 2006 when Shula was the head coach at Alabama.
The Tampa Bay firing was hoisted upon Dungy by ownership and the coach wrote in his book that firing Shula was “the greatest mistake” of his coaching career.
The Alabama firing?
“That Alabama situation at the end was as bad as anything I’ve encountered in this business the way it went down,” Rodgers said. “It was traumatic and disappointing.”
The Crimson Tide hired Shula as head coach after he served three seasons as the Dolphins quarterback coach in 2000-02. Perkins advocated on Shula's behalf with the Alabama administration and the young coach delivered a 10-win season in 2005 sandwiched by two 6-6 seasons in 2004 and 2006.
Having taken over a program hammered by NCAA sanctions and reeling from Mike Price’s short and scandalous head coaching stint, Shula neither won big nor lost big.
“Alabama reached out to someone who could bring calm to the turmoil,” Rodgers said. “Mike Shula was that guy. Mike knew what he was inheriting. . . . At the end of the day, Mike has never publicly nor privately blamed Alabama for him being fired. He was disappointed. I think he saw it as a failure. But he definitely inherited very difficult circumstances.”
The Alabama firing vexed Don Shula, who to this day dislikes former Dolphins coach Nick Saban for saying he would not take the Alabama coaching job while he was still coaching the Dolphins while apparently allowing his agent to flirt with Alabama officials about his future availability.
Saban indeed succeeded Mike Shula as the Alabama head coach in January 2007.
“He lied,” Shula told the Miami Herald in 2007 of Saban’s departure from the Dolphins to Alabama. “There’s no other way to put it.”
The Shula family is fiercely loyal to one another and guard each other’s back and reputation with a passion. Not that Mike Shula needs people to guard his reputation because stories about who he is do that on his behalf.
“I called him several years ago when I was coaching, and my son was running the offense at Southfork High School and had decided he could use a JUGS [football passing] machine,” Lavelle said. “Mike was the quarterback coach at Jacksonville at the time (2007-10) and so I figured, maybe Jacksonville has a used JUGS machine they’re not using.
“So I called him, but he didn’t know of one. We just talked and caught up for about 40 minutes. Five days later a brand new JUGS machine shows up at our doorstep. No note, no call. Nothing. He didn’t tell me he was going to do it. Those things are expensive.”
Shula’s offense this year led the NFL in scoring, was second in passing and 11th (out of 32 teams) in total yards. Quarterback Cam Newton, meanwhile, was named the Most Valuable Player of the Year on Saturday.
“I think a secret weapon that I’ve had since Day One for me has been Mike Shula,” Newton said. “I won’t let him hear me say that. He’s been a father figure for so many of us on the field, in meeting rooms.
“For him to be a part of my career, him being my quarterback coach my rookie year, and him moving and staying on the same coaching staff as being the offensive coordinator, him knowing me throughout this whole process has been very important for my growth.”
That’s great but Shula won’t take the credit. He deflects credit to the players, head coach Ron Rivera, and other assistants.
The trademark moments of this Panthers season — players handing footballs to young children after the team scores touchdowns — was apparently Shula’s idea back in 2011.
When Newton scored against Washington in a home game on Oct. 23, 2011, he still had the ball he scored with in his hand as he began to celebrate. The Charlotte Observer reported Shula’s voice, as usual, was being piped directly into Newton’s helmet headset.
“[Shula] says when you celebrate, it’s not a celebration unless you give back,” Newton told the newspaper. “He says, ‘You do all that riff raff, whatever you do, but at the end you give that football to a little kid. You find a little kid.’
“So after I did whatever I did, I heard [Shula] in my headset saying, ‘Give it to a little kid! Give it to a little kid!’ I looked and there was this kid just gleaming from ear to ear, so I gave it to him.”
A Panthers tradition was born. But ask Shula about giving Newton the idea and this is his answer: “Ah, I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
Then he smiles coyly.
It would make sense for Shula to get another head coaching opportunity, particularly if the Panthers, who have the NFL’s best record at 17-1 this season, win the Super Bowl.
That is definitely what Papa Shula wants.
“I always believed you hire the people who have won and earned the opportunity to be head coaches,” Don Shula said. “You win, like they’ve won, teams should be interested in getting good people and hiring the best coaches. The best coaches are on the best teams.”
But the younger Shula has shown no urgency to leave Carolina. After the 2015 regular season, with seven NFL teams looking for new head coaches, Shula preempted any talk of him following his father and brother David to an NFL head coaching job by saying he would not interview with anyone until after the Panthers were eliminated from the playoffs.
The Panthers kept winning, and the seven teams, including the Dolphins, who had coaching vacancies hired other coaches.
“Number one, I want to win a Super Bowl,” Shula said, explaining his reason for not opening himself to or pushing for interviews. “So I’m going to do everything I can to concentrate on that. Just like we would ask our players to prepare for the playoffs or the championship game or the first round of the playoffs, I have always felt that you have to focus in completely.
“Some of the best advice I got early in my career is focus in on the job at hand. Don’t worry about the next thing. Don’t worry about the next job. Everything will take care of itself. Plus, the fact is we’re so happy in Charlotte. My wife and I and our girls, we love the Carolina organization. . . . There’s something to be said about coming to work every day and enjoying what you do and who you do it with. And here we are with an opportunity to go win a Super Bowl and this is a lifelong dream for anyone who’s ever been in the business.”
That doesn’t mean some day Mike Shula won’t land an NFL head coaching job. Highsmith, his high school friend and teammate, is running a parallel course to some day landing an NFL general manager job.
“If I become a GM one day,” Highsmith said, “he’d be one of the first people I'd call to be my head coach.”