Joe Santoro: Shula never forgot his love of football | NevadaAppeal.com
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Joe Santoro: Shula never forgot his love of football

By Joie Santoro For the Nevada Appeal
FILE - In this Nov. 14, 1993, file photo, Miami Dolphins coach Don Shula is carried on his team's shoulders after his 325th victory, against the Philadelphia Eagles in Philadelphia. Shula, who won the most games of any NFL coach and led the Miami Dolphins to the only perfect season in league history, died Monday, May 4, 2020, at his South Florida home, the team said. He was 90.
AP Photo/ George Widman

Don Shula loved his family. He loved his faith. And he loved football. The Hall of Fame NFL coach, who passed away this week at the age of 90, went to church each day, was a devoted and loyal father, husband and friend and, maybe above all else, a football coach. His amazing life had no room for anything else. Of all the people I’ve met and worked with as a sports reporter over the past 40 years, there is nobody I admire and respect more than Don Shula. Shula was the father figure in my professional life.

Dan Marino, the quarterback during my years on the Dolphins beat (1983-87), said it best this week. “He made me a better player and a person,” Marino said. Shula made me a better reporter, whether I liked it or not. I found myself wanting to earn his respect by tossing a question his way worthy of his consideration. And if it wasn’t worthy, he’d tell me. He wouldn’t say anything as silly as “that’s a good question.“ He would simply answer it. That told you it was a good question. Shula, you see, didn’t waste his time with silly questions. Covering Shula was like studying for a final exam. You had to prepare. He was tough, demanding, unwavering and unforgiving. He made everyone who covered him a better reporter, just like he made everyone that he allowed to wear his organization’s uniform a better player.

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Shula, more than anything else, simply loved football. It was inspiring and also reassuring to watch a man totally immersed in something he loves. And if he determined that you (as a player, reporter or even opposing coach) also respected the sport, he respected you. I’ve come into contact with a lot of coaches who became coaches because of the money and fame, attention, glory and adulation. They might have loved football at one time in their lives but that love was forgotten. Shula never forgot that love.

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A pair of coaches I covered at Nevada had ties to Shula in a Kevin Bacon six degrees of separation sort of way. Brian Polian, like Shula, was a John Carroll University (in Ohio) graduate and former player. Chris Ault was an assistant coach for UNLV under head coach Ron Meyer from 1973-75. It was Meyer who coached the New England Patriots in 1982 during the infamous snowplow game against Shula’s Dolphins. Meyer ordered a snowplow driver to clear a patch of turf so that kicker John Smith could kick a field goal to beat Shula’s Dolphins 3-0. Shula, at least during the years I was around him, never hid his opinion of Meyer. Each time Meyer’s name was brought up in the years I was around Shula, he would either roll his eyes, chuckle or make an unflattering comment under his breath. That is because, as far as Shula was concerned, Meyer disrespected the game.

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The one similarity between Ault and Shula, other than their never-ending love of the sport, was how they both adapted with the game. I covered the Dolphins when Shula opened up his offensive playbook to suit the talents of Marino. Shula always had an offense as conservative as his personality before Marino arrived in 1983. He simply handed the ball off to Larry Csonka, Mercury Morris, Jim Kiick and others and only passed when necessary. It was a bit stunning even when Shula drafted Marino. But Shula changed the sport of football with Marino’s right arm starting in 1984. Ault made a similar transformation. He came to Nevada and built the program around a running game that featured the likes of Frank Hawkins, Charvez Foger, Lucious Floyd, Anthony Corley and others in the late 1970s through the 1980s. But by the mid-1990s Ault was throwing the ball all over the field with Mike Maxwell and by 2005 he had invented the pistol offense with Colin Kaepernick. Ault and Shula never stood still as coaches. It’s why they lasted three decades in the profession.

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College and universities have obviously sold their soul to football. That’s why, even as the country is still afraid to go to the grocery store without a mask and gloves and students aren’t even allowed on campus, there are plans to actually play college football games this season. Colleges and universities desperately need football this fall because athletic budgets are based on the revenue football generates. Football and men’s basketball are the only college sports that turn a considerable profit. A couple others basically pay for themselves. More than half only exist because football and men’s basketball pay their bills. Without football, budgets will be slashed and every other sport except men’s basketball will be in serious jeopardy.

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If this quarantine situation happened in the 1930s and 1940s, and maybe even through the 1950s and 1960s, there would be no way we would have college football games without fans in the stands. But it is 2020 and fans in the stands are just a luxury, not a necessity. That’s because college sports don’t necessarily need you around. They just need your money. And one of the ways you can support college sports is by watching the games on TV. ESPN and the other countless cable and satellite television operations run college sports. That’s no secret. But this season, if we have games without fans, television would control everything. Forget the SEC, Big Ten and Pac-12. We would have the ESPN Conference, the CBS Sports Conference and the FS1 and FS2 Conference. Athletic directors would be replaced by program directors. The Heisman would be replaced by the YouTube Player of the Year. The 11 First Team All Americans on offense would immediately get starring roles in a season of The Football Bachelor.

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It just seems silly to risk the health of college athletes to simply play games that nobody will be able to watch. Students are not allowed on campus right now and nobody knows when that will change. The NCAA has told us for decades that athletes are also students. Why is that changing now? If you are a parent of a college football player would you want your son playing and practicing this fall when other students are still safe at home? What happens if even one college football player is infected and, even worse, becomes seriously ill or dies? The sport of college football and the NCAA, in general, will never recover from something like that. Why risk it?