Famous father attends practice

Situated as they are beside the Alabama Football Complex and just down the road from Bryant-Denny Stadium, the Drew-Thomas Practice Fields have seen their share of football royalty. But the arrival of the NFL's all-time winningest coach, Don Shula, was still something special.

Don Shula of course, was there to check in on his second son, Mike. Who just happens to be Alabama's new head coach. "Tuscaloosa's not the easiest place to get to," the elder Shula said with a laugh. "But I'm going to try and get by here now as often as I can."

"Today reminded me of our practices in Miami," Don Shula continued. "It was hot and humid. The weather was very similar."

When you mention the name "Shula" to Tide fans, they think of Mike Shula. During a remarkable run during the mid-80s, Mike Shula established himself as one of the all-time best clutch quarterbacks in Alabama history. But to the rest of the football world, son Mike still stands in the shadow of his storied father.

Retired now since 1995, Don Shula finished his head coaching career with an NFL-record 347 career wins (including playoffs). That mark stands alone, ahead even of such coaching legends as George Halas and Tom Landry. Don Shula took over his first pro team at the remarkably young age of 33. Given the realities of modern football, that number will probably stand for quite some time--assuming the NFL doesn't keep expanding its regular season ad infinitum, of course.

Don Shula shares a laugh with long-time Tide official Eddie Conyers. "All these (NCAA) rules limiting practices would have cramped my style," Shula said.

During his career Don Shula compiled a winning percentage of .665. He took six teams to Super Bowl and won twice with Miami (VII, VIII). Shula was a four-time NFL Coach of Year, twice with Baltimore (1964,68) and twice with Miami (1970-71). He coached the 1972 Dolphins to 17-0 record, still the only undefeated team in NFL history.

After watching Mike Shula direct an Alabama practice, the veteran coach commented on his son's work. "I was impressed with his organization," Don Shula said. "I liked the job his assistants did. They were on top of every situation. Mike has assembled an excellent staff."

Head coaching jobs (especially in the NFL) can be all-consuming. And during the football season there really is no such thing as time off. So Don Shula actually saw very little of his two sons' (Mike's and Dave's) playing careers. But there was a positive. When a certain Miami teenager was looking for a college team, father Don called Ray Perkins (who had worked with him earlier with the Colts). Then taking over the Alabama job, Perkins gave Mike Shula one of his last available scholarships. And the rest is part of Bama history.

"This is a great opportunity for Mike," Don Shula said of the Alabama job. "He wasn't looking to leave the NFL. This was the only college job he coveted. Alabama was a place he loved. He welcomed the chance."

Before accepting the Alabama job, Mike Shula was working as quarterbacks coach for the Miami Dolphin. He called several friends and mentors in the coaching profession, including his dad. "He's been very supportive of me," Mike Shula said of his father. "He saw that Alabama was one of the very best (college jobs).

"He's obviously very knowledgeable when it comes to football. I wouldn't be very smart if I didn't gather as much information as I could from all sources."

Mike Shula is only 38 years old. But Don made a point of pointing out to several reporters when Mike was hired that he was only 33 when he took over the Baltimore Colts. Father advised son that he was ready for the job. In visiting Tuscaloosa Sunday, he's glad he did.

"I've been impressed with everything I've seen," Don Shula said. "And the building plan they currently have underway will make it even nicer."

Since retirement Shula has maintained a busy schedule, speaking and appearing at various functions around the country. He plans to attend several Alabama games this season, including (hopefully) the Tuscaloosa opener versus Oklahoma. But his older son (Dave) has two sons playing football, one in high school and one at Dartmouth. So grandfather's schedule will be busy.

"I've been going to a lot of high school games and track meets," Don Shula explained. "I'll be watching high school games on Fridays, Alabama on Saturdays and the Dolphins on Sundays. I think Miami is set for a big year.

"I'm going to try to be here for the opener. We'll see how many (Alabama) games I can work in."

Interestingly, Don Shula was only able to watch Mike play one game at Alabama in person. Back in 1986 his Dolphins were uncharacteristically bumped from the playoffs, allowing him to fly to the Sun Bowl. That day Mike Shula led the Tide to a decisive 28-6 victory over the Washington Huskies.

Son and father confer at practice. "I'm an Alabama fan now," Don Shula said.

Following his senior season, Mike participated in the Senior Bowl. Don Shula was his head coach, and brother Dave was his offensive coordinator. Fittingly, the left-handed quarterback led his team to a come-from-behind victory, throwing a touchdown pass in the fourth quarter. "That remains one of my all-time best memories of football," Dave Shula said in a recent radio interview.

Mike Shula and his staff are fighting the clock this season. Hired after spring practice, they're having to evaluate their players and install a new offensive system in a scant three weeks.

Don Shula can empathize.

He explained, "When I got the job in Miami, I had all my practice plans ready to go. Then the players went on strike, and we were left with no one to coach. When they finally came to camp, we had a lot of work to do in catching up. Of course nobody was telling us how long we could practice or how many times per day.

"Mike has an added difficulty with the (NCAA) regulations (restricting practice). He can only do so much. That would have really cramped my style."

Despite the difficulties caused by the strike, Don Shula got it done that year with the Dolphins. He took a squad that won only three games the previous year to a 10-4 record and a spot in the playoffs.

Asked if he had given his son much advice the past several weeks, Don Shula revealed he was having the same problems as some members of the press. "He's been pretty hard to talk to lately," Shula said with a laugh. "I've had a lot of trouble getting him on the phone. He's been busy.

"They've got a lot of work to do in a short period of time."

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