The Shula Legacy

UPDATED: September 24, 2015
PUBLISHED: January 1, 2015

The National Football League season is winding down. The best teams are separating themselves. A champion will soon be crowned. Legends hang in the balance, daring to take their place with those of long ago.

Don Shula is a true football icon now above the fray, a conquering general who long since retired. Almost two decades ago, he left the league holding the all-time record for wins by a head coach. His emblematic silver hair now completely white, Shula grins while sitting in a wood-paneled office in his sprawling waterfront home on the exclusive Indian Creek Island north of Miami.

The former boss of the Baltimore Colts and longtime coach of the Miami Dolphins has lived an entirely new life since stepping away from the game, although it’s not the one he expected. “I thought I’d be using my expertise in some way,” he says, recalling the career prospects he envisioned when, on Jan. 5, 1996—one day after his 66th birthday—he bid farewell to the sidelines forever. “I spent so many years as a player, an assistant coach and then a head coach. I felt that I would continue to be involved in the game. Just to a lesser extent.”

Instead, Shula is well-known today not only as a gridiron god, but also as a successful restaurateur. In a culinary landscape where most restaurants, particularly those launched by celebrities, fold faster than a pair of Joe Namath’s notorious pantyhose, the chain of eateries Shula lent his name to while still pacing the sidelines isn’t just surviving, it’s thriving. In the fall, having expanded from its roots as a high-end steak house to a restaurant stable that includes burger joints and fast-service airport stalls among other concepts, “Shula’s” celebrated 25 years in business.

In his years as a coach, Shula was known as both a brilliant tactician and an unrelenting taskmaster who once subjected his players to four-a-day practices. But when it came to the restaurant business, the Hall of Fame leader left the heavy lifting to others. “I’m just a pretty face,” says the man known for his distinctive square jaw of his role as pitchman for the chain that boasts 35 locations and counting as the brand expands through franchising.

Still, had it not been for the prestige of his name, the respect commanded by his presence, his key connections and the ability to lure top talent, success might have proved elusive. But in truth, establishing successful restaurants isn’t that different from fielding winning football teams, according to Shula and his eldest son, Dave, a former NFL coach in his own right who now runs the day-to-day operations of Shula’s Steak Houses, LLLP.

“The thing I enjoy most is the team concept and how it relates to things I believed in as a coach,” Don Shula says, a Super Bowl VII ring glinting from his porterhouse-thick right hand. “You have to have good leadership, good players and a good organization. There are so many similarities between football and what we try to do in the restaurant business.”

Dave Shula agrees. “In football you have to have a game plan, a sound fundamental game plan,” he says. He points to his father’s reputation for fielding teams that posted the fewest penalties season after season. “It’s the same thing in the restaurant business. You make sure you’re staying true to your fundamentals. But then you’ve got to continue over a period of years to innovate, to create around the edges, but still stay true to your core. For a football team, throughout the course of a 16-game regular season, you can’t run the same game plan every week. You’ve got to change up things while still staying true to who you are.”

Given their shared background, it’s not surprising that father and son use football metaphors in describing their business philosophies. Also not surprising, given their close relationship, shared passions and history, they often finish each other’s sentences.

“I coached under my father for seven years, and obviously I grew up with him,” Dave Shula says. “All the things that he taught me about football and life—it’s very similar to the franchising business, especially. What’s a franchise? You buy intellectual property, ideas, standards, recipes, operating procedures, a design package and such. We then have to train you so that you, in turn, can train somebody else. And that’s what coaching is all about. You bring in players. You bring in all these rookies and get them to play within the system and maximize their talents so they can be successful on game day.

“We get people. We train them into our system while acknowledging their differences. They’re obviously going to perform within their own personality styles and their experience. Coupled with what we teach them, they’ll hopefully have the tools to be successful.”

Any coach or manager will acknowledge that some players or employees don’t fit into every system. In 2013, as a bullying scandal tarnished the standard Don Shula set with the Dolphins, the longtime coach explained to the Miami Herald that “you win with good people on and off the field…. They took a chance on a guy with a bad reputation, and it backfired on them.”

Having come of age in the 1940s and 1950s, Shula was no stranger to the macho culture that later spiraled out of control in Miami. As a younger man, he experienced the customary ribbing from teammates and fellow coaches, for instance having to stand on his chair during a team dinner and sing the fight song of his alma mater, John Carroll University outside Cleveland. But Shula says leadership must step in to prevent an organizational structure from rotting from the inside. Moving forward, the coach said, he hoped the franchise could regain its credibility.

The NFL has changed a great deal—in many ways for the worse, as this fall has shown—since Shula first became an assistant with the Detroit Lions in 1960. But the two-time Super Bowl champion believes he would be just as effective today as he was generations ago.

“I have the courage of my convictions,” Shula says. “I had a way of doing things that I thought was right, and I would make sure nothing stood in my way. Hire the best people and give them a job to do. Every night we would end up in a coaching staff meeting, and each coach would talk about the four, five or six people he was responsible for. And that’s why this bullying thing wouldn’t have happened with me. That would have been talked out, and we would have made sure we eliminated it. You can’t let that happen.”

Shula counts preparation and accountability as the keys to his team’s success.

“We just took a lot of pride in being the team that had the least mental errors,” the former coach says. “If something happened in practice—if someone grabbed ahold of somebody else [a penalty]—I would have stopped practice. I would make an example of them. ‘If this happened in a critical play in the game, the play would be nullified, and we’d end up not winning the game because of that.’ You stress to them the importance of doing it the right way. But if you let it go in practice and then it happens in the game, it’s your fault that you didn’t make the correction in practice.”

Needless to say, the family tradition of leading young men on the football field carries on. Shula’s youngest son, Mike, is the offensive coordinator of the Carolina Panthers. Dave’s middle son is the defensive coordinator at John Carroll, where the team plays in Don Shula Stadium. Further, Dave’s oldest son is a receivers coach at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton, and his youngest son is an intern for the Dolphins.

And Don Shula rarely misses a Dolphins game. He can’t help himself.

“I miss the dedication, the hard work and most of all the decision-making. On game day, you can’t imagine the things that go on along that sideline, the critical situations.”

The game allowed him to meet people far removed from athletics. During his Super Bowl years of the early 1970s, President Richard Nixon called him regularly. With a home in Key Biscayne, often referred to as the Florida White House, Nixon became a Dolphins fan. In 2013 Shula and other members of the 1972 Dolphins were honored by President Barack Obama as the only NFL team of the modern era to finish the season undefeated.

During the White House ceremony, Obama admitted he had previously invited the 1985 Chicago team to the White House and dubbed those 18-1 hometown Bears the best team ever despite the blemish on their record.

“Who beat ’em?!” Shula shouted, stopping Obama midsentence. Obama knew the answer: Shula’s Dolphins.

It’s a rhetorical question that would fit a medium-rare filet as well as it does his greatest coaching achievement. “How can you be better than perfection? Explain that to me,” Shula says, spreading his arms wide and shaking his head.

These days the coach is taking it easy. He had a health scare several years back when a blood clot ruptured in his left leg, shooting to his heart and lungs.

But now, he says, all is well.

“I feel like the bottom of a stove,” he says, pausing for the punch line. “Smoking hot.”

Check out 4 leadership lessons taken from this NFL season.

Jane Musgrave has worked for various newspapers for 30 years, including The Palm Beach Post, her current employer.