Tide Legends Believe In Shula

Some men with exceptional football bloodlines and a personal interest in the situation believe that Mike Shula will be an excellent Alabama football coach. A select group of former Crimson Tide legends, along with another legend from the National Football League, gathered in Tuscaloosa this weekend for the Crimson Tide Celebrity Golf Classic to raise funds for Bama athletics. And several of those legends shared their thoughts on Shula.

The event at NorthRiver Yacht Club, led by such notables as former Alabama football stars Joe Namath, Ozzie Newsome, Johnny Musso and Dwight Stephenson, generated about $150,000 that will be used for the Bama men's and women's golf programs.

There were no discouraging words about the expectations for the future of Crimson Tide football from the former Bama players, some of whom have known Shula since he was a small boy. One of the visiting legends was former Tide star wide receiver and later Bama Head Coach Ray Perkins. Perkins played professionally for Shula's father, Don, with the Baltimore Colts, then Perkins coached Mike Shula–whom he had known since Shula was a small child–when Mike was Bama's All-Southeastern Conference quarterback.

Perkins said he recognized coaching potential in Shula "when he was a player" at Alabama. "He had a grasp of the game and the mental temperment," Perkins said. Following Shula's brief NFL playing career he coached under Perkins at Tampa Bay, one of several coaching stops Shula made in the NFL before taking his first head coaching job at Alabama in May.

Perkins has also had experience with both the offensive and defensive coordinators under Shula. David Rader is quarterbacks coach and offensive coordinator and Joe Kines is linebackers coach and defensive coordinator. Both coached under Perkins at Alabama and in the NFL and Kines and Shula coached together at Tampa Bay under Perkins. Perkins called them "two really fine coaches with great dedication, great knowledge of the game, and men who know how to teach the game. And there are not two better men on the face of the Earth. Those are two guys who willbe very valuable to Mike."

Dwight Stephenson, considered one of the all-time great centers in both his college career at Alabama and his professional career with the Miami Dolphins under Don Shula, first met Mike Shula when Mike was a teenager hanging around the Dolphins practice field. Stephenson said, "Mike has done all the things he's had to do to prepare himself to be a head coach, and I think he's going to be a great one."

Stephenson, who is black, followed Sylvester Croom as Alabama's center and Croom was a graduate assistant coach working with centers when Stephenson played. Stephenson is close to Croom and was queried about Shula getting the job over Croom, who is also black. "I would have felt good about either one," Stephenson said.

Stephenson said, "Mike is like his father in that he realized he has to surround himself with good people. And, like his daddy, he has studied the game hard. I think he learned a lot from his father and will have his team well-prepared."

Stephenson noted that Don Shula reminded him a great deal of Stephenson's college head coach, Paul Bryant. And he said, "I think Coach Shula liked having Alabama players. He had a lot of them." In addition to Perkins at Baltimore, Shula coached five Tide players at the same time at Miami. In addition to Stephenson the list included defensive tackle Bob Baumhower, running back Tony Nathan, running back Joe Carter, and cornerback Don McNeal.

Don Shula agreed that he had a lot of Alabama players, and added, "I was always happy with the ones I had. Coach Bryant told me that Dwight Stephenson was the best center he ever coached and might have been the best offensive lineman he ever coached. We got him in the second round."

Shula added that he also coached against teams featuring former Alabama players such as Joe Namath and Ken Stabler, "I respected them as opponents," he said.

Cornelius Bennett was an All-America teammate of Mike Shula at Alabama. "I saw it coming," Bennett said. "I don't mean I knew he would be head coach at Alabama, but you knew he was going to be a head coach. And I think he'll do a tremendous job. He's smart and he's caring. And the players will know they can trust him and will go all out for him. He'll be a great success. He'll definitely beat Auburn. Look who his father is: one of the greatest NFL coaches ever. Mike has been a student of the game since he was a kid. When he was at Alabama he wasn't the greatest athlete on the team, but he made up for any shortcomings with his knowledge of the game."

Joe Namath is best known for his quarterbacking the New York Jets to victory in Super Bowl III (it wasn't called the Super Bowl then) following the 1968 season. The Jets upset the Baltimore Colts and Don Shula in that memorable game. And now Namath and Don Shula are neighbors in South Florida, where Joe has lived since 1966, and both have a huge interest in the success of Mike Shula as Alabama's head coach.

Namath also expects Mike Shula to do well. "First of all his family," Namath said. "His father doesn't run Mike's life, but I believe when Coach Shula has something to say that Mike will listen to him. Mike has prepared well. And he wouldn't have taken the job if he didn't think he could do it. We're (Alabama's former players) are with him, we believe in the staff he has put together, and we than the players for sticking it out through some tough times."

Namath said that all the turmoil at Alabama in recent times may now have been resolved "for the best. I think Mike is going to build us back to where we want to be, which is the national championship."

No one would expect the father to be an unbiased observer, but Don Shula makes some exeellent points in assessing the prospects of his son.

The elder Shula said, "Mike has prepared for this. He's spent 15 years as an assistant coach in the National Football League. He's been with a lot of different programs in some high-pressure games.

"I've told him to continue to work the way he did as an assistant coach and continue to do things in the manner of who you are. Mike's always had great credibility. He had a good career as a quarterback here. He was a leader. He has patience. He is a student of the game.

"Coaching was a natural field for him to continue in."

Don Shula concluded, "Mike knows Alabama football. He knows the history and the tradition. And he knows the expectations."

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