Why you should care

Because sometimes talent really is all in a family.

Having one of the most famous surnames in football history can certainly help your career. It’s been a neat assist in bringing Mike Shula, son of coaching legend Don Shula, to the top of the ranks — indeed, bringing him to Sunday’s Super Bowl, where this offensive coordinator of the Carolina Panthers will see his high-powered team take on the Denver Broncos.

But it hasn’t yet brought him all the way. Shula, designer of the league’s top offense this season, has helped turn quarterback Cam Newton — the first NFL player to throw 30 touchdown passes and run for 10 scores in a season — into this season’s likeliest MVP. “A secret weapon I’ve had since day one is Mike Shula, and I won’t let him hear me say that, but he’s been a father figure for so many of us on the field, in meeting rooms,” Newton says. Indeed, Shula’s Panthers scored an NFL-high 500 points while going 15–1 this season and added 80 points in two playoff games to win the National Football Conference title. The coach of four other NFL teams before this, and the former head coach at his alma mater, the University of Alabama, the 50-year-old Shula has done almost everything — except land a gig as an NFL head coach.

Yet.

Some fans of his argue he hasn’t gotten enough credit. “I don’t see why his name is not at the top of every list,” Panthers tight end Greg Olsen tells OZY. From Shula’s delivery to how he responds to — and interacts with — players, it’s the kind of coaching style that isn’t about being standoffish, which Olsen says everyone else seems to do. “He’s just a regular dude that knows about football and he respects players’ opinions,” says Olsen. Ask Shula and he’ll tell you the key to understanding his players has been listening. Instead of trying to shoehorn them into an existing offensive system, he seeks their input on what makes them excel. “You have to find what your personnel does best and maximize that,” Shula says. So far, his five seasons with the Panthers — two as quarterbacks coach and the last three as offensive coordinator — have coincided with Newton’s time in the NFL.

In high school, my mom was nervous because somebody said they put a bounty on me because I was a Shula.

 

To ease Newton’s transition to the NFL, Shula watched hours of his quarterback’s film from college games and talked to the players’ coaches at Auburn and Blinn junior college. That research led him to incorporate more no-huddle setups into the playbook and more quarterback runs, taking advantage of Newton’s speedy 6-foot-6, 260-pound frame. “He’s looked at not just what he knows, but at some of the new things that are coming from college football — the spread offense and so on,” says Carolina head coach Ron Rivera, who praises the open-mindedness that Shula has preached to all the offensive coaches.

The question of moving up to head coach isn’t on Shula’s mind. In fact, he doesn’t even have an agent: “I really don’t worry about that,” he says, adding, “I’ve always been taught to worry about the job you have.” And, to some, his current position illustrates the anatomy of a great coach: Panthers wide receiver Jerricho Cotchery, who has played for plenty of offensive coordinators during his 12 NFL seasons, says Shula “definitely will be a head coach,” because he has the experience of being around football his entire life, yet he has learned how to listen to his players instead of preaching to them. “He has learned the type of players that he has and he’s tailored his play-calling to that,” adds Panthers fullback Mike Tolbert.

There might be other reasons he’s staying put — for now. “He’s found a niche on the offensive side of the ball being a coordinator,” says Wayne McDonnell, an associate professor of sports management at New York University, “and not everyone is cut out to be a head coach.” Whether or not that proves true, Shula does seem to have been born for football — 19 months before the first Super Bowl to a father who became a Hall of Famer and the NFL’s career leader in wins with 328. The elder Shula coached in four of the first eight Super Bowls, and young Mike was 7 when dad’s Dolphins beat the Washington Redskins to win the first of two straight Super Bowls. Even when his father wasn’t coaching, Mike served as a ball boy, dipping onto the field along with Pittsburgh’s Terry Bradshaw and Dallas’ Roger Staubach at the 1976 and 1979 Super Bowls.

It seemed inevitable that young Shula would eventually play the game, even if that made him somewhat of a target: “In high school, my mom was nervous because somebody said they put a bounty on me because I was a Shula,” he says. He went on to college to get a degree in labor relations and to play quarterback at Alabama from 1983–86; during his college years, his dad made the sixth, and last, of his Super Bowl coaching appearances. At one point, it seemed Mike’s older brother, Dave, might be the next to coach at a Super Bowl, though he had a rough four-and-a-half seasons as head coach of the Cincinnati Bengals in the early to mid-’90s.

Shula got his first NFL coaching gig as an offensive assistant at 23, barely out of college, with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, after having spent a year as a reserve quarterback for the Bucs. Following stints with the Dolphins and Chicago Bears, he returned to Tampa Bay as offensive coordinator before eventually spending a few years as quarterbacks coach back with the Dolphins. Then he took on the high-profile head coaching job at Alabama, where he was fired after going 26–23, before returning to the NFL — first with the Jacksonville Jaguars, then Carolina in 2011, along with Newton, whom he has helped groom into a star.

No Shula has coached in the Super Bowl since way back in ’85, though now 86-year-old Don will be watching his son trying to continue the family legacy this weekend. And the numbers they’re all waiting on? Young Shula’s. Because if Sunday goes his way, it’ll be a big fat three in the Shula Super Bowl win column.

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