The phone rang in a small office in a small town along the Connecticut River, a town bisected by the Appalachian Trail. It was 35 degrees in Hanover, New Hampshire, on Monday, a snowball’s throw from the Vermont border. The voice at the other end of the line was familiar.
“It’s kind of like planets getting back in alignment,” Dave Shula said. “That’s the way it feels to me.”
Don Shula’s eldest son will be 59 next month. It is an age when most men are plotting their retirement. It is the age when this man is getting back to what he loves.
The Dartmouth College football staff has a brand new wide receivers coach. As spring practice is set to begin at the Ivy League school, it will be Dave Shula’s first time coaching in more than 20 years, since the Cincinnati Bengals unceremoniously fired him in the middle of the 1996 NFL season.
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His football résumé is upside down. After 10 seasons as an NFL assistant coach — including seven with his father’s Dolphins from 1982 to 1988 — and then another 4 ½ years as Bengals head coach, Shula is a first-time college coach.
The heir to his father’s record-setting coaching genes but also to the weight of his shadow, Dave never quit on football or the NFL back in ’96. The NFL quit on him.
“My mind-set was always to continue,” he says.
There were a couple of feelers. Nothing materialized. Then the feelers stopped. Don Shula, now 88, is to this day the winningest coach in NFL history with 347 victories. Counting on those genes, the Bengals made Dave the youngest head coach in the NFL at 32, but he ended with a career record of 19-52, the fastest coach ever to 50 losses, his career winning percentage of .268 the worst ever for a coach who lasted that many games.
That included losses to the Dolphins in 1994 and ’95, the first father versus son head coaching meetings in league history.
“For me to think I was at that same level he was at, I mean as a head coach in the NFL,” says Dave, “that gives me chills now to think about.”
Including his time as an NFL player (briefly) and assistant coach, Dave’s teams were 0-6 all time against Don’s Dolphins — “Which he still likes to remind me of,” says the son, laughing.
Dave emerged from his Bengals firing unscarred. His return to coaching after all this time is not about any search for redemption. He had been caught in a dysfunctional era in Cincinnati, verified by the fact that three other coaches also all failed to make the playoffs the following eight seasons.
“With 20 years perspective looking back, you realize that maybe it wasn’t all me,” he says. “Certainly I had a role in it, but you can’t blame everything on me, either.”
Dave has been a success out of football, out of the spotlight. He spent the past 21 years running the family business of 26 Shula restaurants in 12 states as company president. He has a hand in Mobile Virtual Player, a company that makes remote-controlled tackling dummies. And with wife Leslie he has raised three sons, now grown.
Oldest son Dan has coached football 11 years, most recently with FAU before the entire staff was let go when Lane Kiffin came in. Middle son Chris is in the NFL as assistant linebackers coach with the Los Angeles Rams. Youngest son Matt is earning a commercial pilot’s license.
(Dan, named after Don Shula’s father, was born the day another Dan, Marino, made his first NFL start. Dave was then a young Dolphins receivers coach. “She had the baby at 9:30 in the morning and everybody was fine,” Dave recalled, laughing again. “So I said, ‘Well, I’ll just head to the locker room.’ ” And he did. He coached the game).
Almost forgot. Dave’s younger brother, Mike, of course, is a very successful NFL assistant, currently offensive coordinator with the New York Giants after five seasons in Carolina.
Don to Mike to Dave’s son Chris, three generations of Shulas in the NFL in a living lineage.
Dave’s own return to coaching? It was about familiarity and timing, not proving anything to anybody.
Dave and Leslie met at Dartmouth and are graduates. Current head coach Buddy Teevens and Shula were Big Green teammates and have been close friends ever since.
It had become a running joke. Teevens would periodically hear of an opening in coaching and gauge Shula’s interest. No was always the answer. “But this time I said maybe.”
And so it’s “Coach Shula” again for Dave after 21 years away.
“All three of our sons said, ‘Yeah, Dad, you’re a little bit crazy,’” he says. “But I always felt one step away. This time it felt right.”