The Shula Legacy: Almost 20 Years into Retirement from Football the NFL's Winningest Coach Has Passed Another Milestone

By Musgrave, Jane | Success, January 2015 | Go to article overview

The Shula Legacy: Almost 20 Years into Retirement from Football the NFL's Winningest Coach Has Passed Another Milestone


Musgrave, Jane, Success


The National Football League season is winding down. The best teams are separating themselves. A champion will soon be crowned. Legends hang in the balance, daring to take their place with those of long ago.

Don Shula is a true football icon now above the fray, a conquering general who long since retired. Almost two decades ago, he left the league holding the all-time record for wins by a head coach. His emblematic silver hair now completely white, Shula grins while sitting in a wood-paneled office in his sprawling waterfront home on the exclusive Indian Creek Island north of Miami.

The former boss of the Baltimore Colts and longtime coach of the Miami Dolphins has lived an entirely new life since stepping away from the game, although it's not the one he expected. "I thought I'd be using my expertise in some way," he says, recalling the career prospects he envisioned when, on Jan. 5,1996--one day after his 66th birthday--he bid farewell to the sidelines forever. "I spent so many years as a player, an assistant coach and then a head coach. I felt that I would continue to be involved in the game. Just to a lesser extent."

Instead, Shula is well-known today not only as a gridiron god, but also as a successful restaurateur. In a culinary landscape where most restaurants, particularly those launched by celebrities, fold faster than a pair of Joe Namath's notorious pantyhose, the chain of eateries Shula lent his name to while still pacing the sidelines isn't just surviving, it's thriving. In the fall, having expanded from its roots as a high-end steak house to a restaurant stable that includes burger joints and fast-service airport stalls among other concepts, "Shula's" celebrated 25 years in business.

In his years as a coach, Shula was known as both a brilliant tactician and an unrelenting taskmaster who once subjected his players to four-a-day practices. But when it came to the restaurant business, the Hall of Fame leader left the heavy lifting to others. "I'm just a pretty face," says the man known for his distinctive square jaw of his role as pitchman for the chain that boasts 35 locations and counting as the brand expands through franchising.

Still, had it not been for the prestige of his name, the respect commanded by his presence, his key connections and the ability to lure top talent, success might have proved elusive. But in truth, establishing successful restaurants isn't that different from fielding winning football teams, according to Shula and his eldest son, Dave, a former NFL coach in his own right who now runs the day-to-day operations of Shula's Steak Houses, LLLP.

"The thing I enjoy most is the team concept and how it relates to things I believed in as a coach," Don Shula says, a Super Bowl VII ring glinting from his porterhouse-thick right hand. "You have to have good leadership, good players and a good organization. There are so many similarities between football and what we try to do in the restaurant business."

Dave Shula agrees. "In football you have to have a game plan, a sound fundamental game plan," he says. He points to his father's reputation for fielding teams that posted the fewest penalties season after season. "It's the same thing in the restaurant business. You make sure you're staying true to your fundamentals. But then you've got to continue over a period of years to innovate, to create around the edges, but still stay true to your core. For a football team, throughout the course of a 16-game regular season, you can't run the same game plan every week. You've got to change up things while still staying true to who you are."

Given their shared background, it's not surprising that father and son use football metaphors in describing their business philosophies. Also not surprising, given their close relationship, shared passions and history, they often finish each other's sentences.

"I coached under my father for seven years, and obviously I grew up with him," Dave Shula says. …

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