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The No. 1 Credential Now for David Shula: 'He's the Son of . . .'

December 20, 1985|TONY KORNHEISER | The Washington Post

WASHINGTON — Look at it from Norman Braman's point of view: You're a rich guy; you made a zillion selling cars in South Florida. And you know what they say about rich guys--at the end of the game, the one with the most expensive toys wins. So last year you went out and bought yourself a big one, the Philadelphia Eagles. They came equipped with a coach, which was fine then. But now you're looking at 6-9, and you figure, what do you need with this guy anymore? So you can him, and here you are looking for somebody new. You're a Miami guy. You think coaching begins and ends with people named Shula. Don's a dead issue; he's locked in long term. So you're thinking, what the hell, how about the kid? If he's not great, he's a kid, he's got plenty of time to recover. If he is great, you hired him, you're a legend!

There are plenty of good, sound reasons not to make David Shula head coach of the Eagles, all of which start with his age--26. It's not that a 26-year-old couldn't possibly know enough to do the job; the body of knowledge required to be a football coach is considerable, but it will not, after all, alter the way we think of quantum physics. In any event, coaching is as much about leadership as it is about Xs and Os, and it is reasonable to question whether someone that age has the maturity, composure and perspective necessary to persuade players--many of whom would be older and more experienced than their coach--that he is worth listening to.

Right now, David Shula's most compelling credential is that he is The Son Of. He has never been a head coach anywhere. In fact, his only coaching job has been assisting his father for the last three seasons in the relatively obscure capacity of receivers coach. The teacher is justly honored. But we're discussing hiring the student.

In a lot of ways it's unfair to hire David Shula. Unfair to rush him to the front so early; a smooth-faced boy, his flanks unprotected, can get shot in the back as easily as in the front. Unfair to chain him down to celebrity and great expectations in a city with the well-earned reputation for vulturizing even its beloved. Unfair to so many coaches who have fuller, better resumes but who were not similarly to the manner born. Unfair to the spoken promise of organizational benevolence--that a ladder exists and you too can climb it, slowly, diligently.

On the other hand, it's thrilling.

In light of the wooing of young Shula, some people will charge, accurately, that it is a farce that the NFL still has not had a black head coach. But these are separate issues. The black issue is about justice. The Shula issue is about revolution.

The act of even considering a 26-year-old for a head coach position in the NFL is revolutionary. Norman Braman may have the wrong reasons for desperately seeking Shula, but in his willingness to skip a generation, to bypass all that is holy in the scriptures of pro football, Braman may have opened up the window of opportunity on a true meritocracy. To consider a 26-year-old for this job, even for the wrong reasons, is to concede the existence of prodigies.

Prodigies are recognized in other disciplines and are not confined to that familiar figure of the child genius at the piano. Twentieth century American literature has produced brilliant writers such as Truman Capote, Norman Mailer, Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald, all of whom were celebrated in their 20s. George Gershwin, Orson Welles, Bob Dylan--wouldn't the word "prodigy" apply to them, too?

Professional sports, particularly the establishment, post-merger NFL, seems reluctant to make room for young people anywhere other than on the field. Where a rookie can start and often become a star, a man with pro coaching aspirations is routinely sent on a slow track by the conservative, derivative management in the NFL. Don Shula was 33 when he became coach at Baltimore, and Tom Landry was 35 when he began coaching Dallas. But such relatively callow fellows are rare, and you'd have to go back to 1921 and George Halas, who owned the team, to find a head coach in his 20s. More typical is the route taken by Bill Walsh, who did not become a head coach in the NFL until he was 47--and then only after spending 17 years as an assistant of one kind or another and two more as Stanford's head coach. In his first six seasons in the NFL, Walsh has won two Super Bowls.

Could Walsh have been a prodigy had they only let him?

Maybe.

Is there a prodigy out there, someone in his 20s who can be a head coach in the NFL? Without doubt.

Is David Shula a prodigy?

Nobody knows. And should he be hired as Philadelphia's head coach, we might still not know because Shula could be fragged by a whole platoon of potentially antagonistic, disgruntled holdovers: players, coaches, front office people; any or all. To give Shula a fighting chance, Braman might need to sweep the whole house clean and start fresh, a phoenix rising from its own ashes.

The conventional wisdom says not to hire this kid for a lot of reasons, but if for none other than this: because the ubiquitous, unseen "they" will eat him alive.

You'll want to know if I'd hire David Shula.

I'm disinclined to. The Fear of Faust, I suppose, also the fear that young Shula would be isolated and overwhelmed by the volcanic flash attendant to his hiring. But I would certainly interview him. And if he wowed me with his ideas, his grasp of the potential hazards and the breadth of his personality, I would hire him in spite of his name and not because of it.

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