Barry Jackson: From office scoldings to an alligator in the shower, six Dolphins reflect on Don Shula

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Everybody has a story.

Those who played for Hall of Fame coach and Dolphins legend Don Shula remember being summoned to his office during his 26 years patrolling the Miami Dolphins’ sidelines.

Those memories came flooding back for his former players in the hours after Shula’s death on Monday.

And while the admonishments in his office were difficult to stomach, several of his former players spoke of how Shula also could leave them feeling appreciated, and how he created an environment where working hard and preparing diligently and doing the right thing would earn respect from an iconic figure whose mere presence could intimidate.

“I got called into his office numerous occasions, when I said something in the press he didn’t like,” said former Pro Bowl offensive lineman Keith Sims, one of six former Dolphins who shared memories of Shula in conversations with The Miami Herald on Monday.

“He could break you down, but he had a unique ability to build you up and light that fire. So you felt, ‘I don’t want to disappoint that man.’”

For Manny Fernandez, a stalwart defensive lineman on the Dolphins’ dominant teams of the early 1970s, one Shula office meeting will stay with him forever:

“There was one day (in 1973 or 1974) I had missed curfew and finally got in about 5 in the morning … There was a kid knocking on my door and he said Shula wants me in his office at 6:30 in the morning.

“Shula started into me like you wouldn’t believe, (yelling), ‘I don’t know who you think you are!’ And on and on. He finally had to stop to catch his breath.

I said, ‘Are you going to talk me to death or are you going to fine me?’ He started laughing. I said, ‘I should know better. I’m going to fine you.’ Then he sent a kid to walk me back to my room and told him to knock on my door every 15 minutes until it’s time for practice.”

Fernandez told the kid to do what Shula told him, and then promptly went downstairs to Jake Scott’s and Dick Anderson’s room to resume sleeping before practice.

Former Dolphins running back Troy Stradford, who played his first four seasons for Shula, was ordered to report to Shula’s office only once, and he knew it was coming.

“We had played the Bears, and Mike Singletary was calling out every single play we’re about to run,” Stradford said. “After the game, me being young, I said to a reporter, ‘Wow, our offense is predictable because Singletary was calling out every play.’

“I remember waking up the next morning, reading the article and said, ‘Uh oh, I’m in trouble.’ I knew coach Shula read every newspaper before we even woke up. I said I have to leave early and get to camp in case coach wants to talk to me.”


As expected, assistant coach Carl Taseff told him Shula wanted to see him and Shula was holding up the article when Stradford walked in, “using some choice words, like ‘What is this (expletive)!? What are you talking about!? Why do I have to get up and read this in the newspaper?’ I’m acting like I have no idea,” Stradford said.

“He threw the newspaper at my lap and made me read the article right there. I said, coach, ‘They took me out of context!’”

For Sims, the enduring Shula memory will be his exchange with the coach after agreeing to a contract after missing a week of rookie camp practices because he wanted a three-year deal and the team was insisting on four.

“Richmond (Webb) had signed his contract and I was holding out,” Sims said. “I had come to St. Thomas one day before signing, snuck in and saw Richmond on the training room with icebags all over his body.

“Next day, I come into sign with my agent (Alan Herman), and coach Shula rips me a new one, (saying), ‘I heard you were here! Why didn’t you stay? We’re trying to win a Super Bowl!’

“I felt undressed. But at the end, he said, ‘I’m really happy you are part of this team.’”

That, Sims said, captured the essence of Shula, how he could chastise but uplift his players within the span of a few seconds.

But his greatest asset as a coach, several former players said, was his diligent preparation and ability to maximize their talents.

“His teams couldn’t have been any more prepared,” Stradford said. “We prepared for everything, from how you walked off the bus to how you walk in the stadium. That is what always stuck with me. He may have been tough on those not looking for excellence. For someone who wanted to be very good or great at what they did, he was the perfect coach for that.”


Dick Anderson, an All-Pro safety on that 1972 team, said Shula’s best quality was demanding perfection.

“You couldn’t make a mistake, you have to play as a team,” Anderson recalled Shula preaching. “He pushed you to be better than you thought you were. He wasn’t hard to play for; you just had to put up with the fact he screamed at some people and some people he didn’t.

“He was personable and respected the players who performed for him. You could always have a conversation and express your opinion. He would agree, shake his head or tell you to go back to your locker.”

And Anderson wants to make this clear: The 1972 undefeated season wouldn’t have happened without Shula.

“He’s the reason we were 17-0, the reason we played as a team,” Anderson said. “Shula pushed everyone to make them better. We were fortunate to have him as a coach.”

Fernandez said Shula “had the ability to get you to buy into his way of thinking and that’s so important in sports. I found him always to be fair. He was tough on everybody. He was usually right, not always, but usually right.”

Former Dolphins standout receiver O.J. McDuffie, who played his first three seasons for Shula, recalls how the coach “yelled at me a couple times for not knowing the plays as a rookie and it scared the hell out of me. But that’s when I became the pro I needed to be.

“He was definitely intimidating, very demanding. He held every player accountable, but also treated us like men. If you weren’t doing your job, he would let you know about it. But he also was complimentary, would pat you on the back. He was a fair man, very respected by all his players.”


Former All Pro receiver Mark Duper said Shula didn’t simply make you a better player, but a better person.

“That was one great man,” Duper said. “He made a difference in peoples’ lives. Coach Shula put us in situations where we had to be a man about things and take responsibility. He taught us about being respectful. He was a motivator.”

Duper admires how Shula changed his offensive approach to fit his team’s personnel, shifting toward a pass-heavy offense to accommodate the talents of Dan Marino and his Pro Bowl receivers, Duper and Mark Clayton.

Duper said it was “very, very shocking” to hear of his death because “the last time I saw coach Shula — me, Mercury Morris and Clayton were at this event in December — and he couldn’t move around a lot but his mind was still sharp. He remembered a lot of things; the conversation was so pleasant. He was a comedian in his old age. The world is going to miss him.”

Sims said when players proved themselves to Shula, the coach/player dynamic changed a bit.

“He drove you to be your best, and once you got to that level, he would trust you would be at that level and he would back off,” Sims said. “It was cool at that point.”

Before being named to the Pro Bowl for the first time in 1993 — the first of three consecutive appearances — Sims told Shula: “I want to be a Pro Bowler.”

Shula’s response? “I will hold you to that standard.”


Sims said his relationship with the coach kept getting better “because he had respect that you set your standard and that you equaled that standard, and that he could count on you. I was so blessed to have him as my first coach as a professional athlete. Such a great leader, a great man.”

There was also a whimsical side to Shula, which was often on display during retirement for the final 24 years of his life, but also occasionally during his coaching career.

Fernandez remembers scheming with teammates Bill Stanfill and Larry Csonka to dump a live alligator in Shula’s shower in his office at the team facility during the 1973 or ‘74 season.

“Stanfill caught the alligator, Larry kept his secretary busy, and I snuck in and put it in his shower,” Fernandez said. “We taped the gator’s mouth shut so it wouldn’t leave him in danger. He ran down the hall naked with a towel screaming for (equipment manager) Danny to get the alligator out of his shower.”

Fernandez, Stanfill, Csonka and the equipment manager were at the Dolphins facility that night, “laughing our (butt) off” about it and saw Shula standing at the door. Awkward!

But Shula didn’t discipline them because “he couldn’t prove it,” Fernandez said.

Fernandez reminded Shula of that gator caper the last time they were together, at Shula’s 90th birthday party in December, and Shula smiled. Fernandez gave Shula “a little stuffed alligator” as a gift.

“Tough day,” Fernandez said Monday, two hours after hearing of Shula’s passing.

“He worked his butt off to do what he did,” Fernandez said, reflecting on Shula’s extraordinary career. “He gained everybody’s respect. I feel so fortunate to have had him in my life. I don’t know what kind of a career I would have had without him.”

Fernandez paused.

“He was,” Fernandez said, “the perfect coach.”


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