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Will the Son Come Up? : Dave Shula Deals With Last Name and Last Place

November 24, 1993|BILL PLASCHKE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

CINCINNATI — It is early morning in a warehouse district, trucks rumbling along an expressway overhead, chemicals spewing from a factory next door.

In a small office in the corner of an aluminum building that resembles a machine shop, a phone rings.

Dave Shula looks at it. It is not yet 8 a.m. Who could this be?

He has been talking about burdens. Despite his impeccable grooming and unmarked face, the young man has a doctorate in burdens.

Burdens so heavy, he jogs around the barrel factories and sewer plants surrounding the Cincinnati Bengals' blue-collar practice facility in an attempt to ease his mind.

Burdens so lingering that sometimes he wakes up at 4:30 a.m. and stares at the ceiling.

Dave Shula, 34-year-old leader of the Bengals, is talking about being the NFL's youngest coach, of the league's worst team, while lugging around one of the league's most famous last names.

And that damn phone is still ringing. Who could this be?

He hopes it isn't somebody who wants to ask him about his father, Don, the man who recently became the winningest coach in NFL history.

He hopes it isn't somebody who wants to know if Dave can ever live up to that greatness. If Dave can ever create his own identity. If Dave can ever just be Dave.

How can that happen if he has to keep answering those questions?

He looks at the phone again. He picks it up.

"Hey, how are you doing!" he says into the receiver, suddenly cheerful. "Can I call you back?"

By the look on Shula's face, the person on the other end of the phone just made one thing perfectly clear. We talk now.

Shula pauses.

"Can you excuse me for a second?" he asks a visitor, ushering him to the door. "I need to take this."

Ten minutes later, his office door opens.

"Was that your . . . " asks the visitor.

"Yes," he says. "That was him."

*

He can order his players not to wear caps during meetings, and they don't.

He can map out a schedule three months in advance, and two months later it is still being followed to the minute.

A scrap of paper falls in his office, and he catches it before it hits the ground.

Yet the one thing Dave Shula would most love to control, he can't.

It's his timing. It stinks.

"It is so unfortunate," said his wife, Leslie. "The year his father breaks the record for the most wins by a coach, Dave has not won a game."

The story of Dave Shula is that simple.

While Don Shula of the Miami Dolphins is breaking the NFL record for victories every time his team wins, his oldest son is threatening to break one at the opposite end of the spectrum with an 0-10 mark and no end in sight.

And it's gnawing at both of them.

Don, who talks with Dave by telephone at least one morning a week, has followed the Bengals nearly as closely as his own team.

Recently in New Jersey, before the Dolphins lost to the New York Jets during the elder Shula's chase for the record previously held by George Halas, an NFL official witnessed this cross-country intimacy:

The Pittsburgh Steelers had just scored a touchdown in Cincinnati, pulling to within 16-7. The official saw it on TV, rode an elevator down from the press box, and walked into Shula's office.

"You may have heard, but the Bengals are leading the Steelers, 16-7," the official said.

"No," Shula responded. "The Steelers just scored again. It's 16-14."

The official later said, "Can you believe that? Here he is, before one of his biggest games, and he's following every play of the Bengals' game!"

Said Don of his son: "My heart goes out for him. He's in a tough situation."

Two days after the Steelers had won, 24-16, the younger Shula sounded like someone in need of that support.

"People are going to say I can't coach. They are going to say I'm too young. They are going to say I'm just here because I'm Shula's son," he said wearily. "I would go bananas if I listened to all of that."

So he maintains the smile and graciousness that are trademarks of the Shula family, all the while wondering just when this will end.

Already this season, Dave has lost as many games as his father lost in his first two seasons combined. In two seasons with the Bengals, he is 5-21, which means he already has lost one game more than his father did during his first six seasons.

When the younger Shula began his coaching career last year, he trailed his father by 306 victories. Today, he trails him by 321.

If the Bengals go 0-16, a very real possibility, they will be the first team to lose that many in one season.

Only the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who went 0-14 in 1976, have gone winless during an entire season.

"I said on the air before the season that they would not win a game," said Cris Collinsworth, a former Bengal receiver who is an NBC broadcaster and local radio host. "I'm not sure Vince Lombardi could win more than three or four games with this team."

Most fans agree. But some are starting to wonder.

Already this year, Shula's suburban home has been vandalized. Although there is no proof that it had anything to do with his losing record, one can guess.

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