By Hal Habib Palm Beach Post
If it’s true that Dave Shula’s words get the point across — and they do — it’s also true that the rueful laughter that punctuates many of those points say just as much about what it’s like to try to hammer someone you happen to love.
“It’d be a great case for a psychologist to try to figure out,” Shula, son of former Dolphins coach Don Shula, finally says.
Next Sunday’s Super Bowl features teams coached by brothers, you probably heard. As Alicia Keys performs the national anthem, John Harbaugh will stand on the Baltimore Ravens’ sideline knowing that brother Jim is across the field with his San Francisco 49ers.
It’s the first brotherly matchup in a Super Bowl, but it’s not the first high-profile family coaching feud in any major American sport. For that, you have to go back to Oct. 2, 1994, when Dave Shula, then head coach of the Cincinnati Bengals, faced Don and the Dolphins, transforming an otherwise mundane matchup into a prime-time, nationally televised media circus.
Harbowl, meet Shula Bowl.
Dad won, 23-7. At least that’s what the record books say. Now, more than 18 years later, Dave Shula, 53, flips on ESPN and the memories flow as he sees the Harbaugh brothers being dissected just as he and his father were. As easy as it is for outsiders to view this as a no-lose situation for the Harbaughs, Dave Shula points out it’s also a no-win situation.
“I feel sorry for their parents, because how are they going to feel good?” Shula says. “I mean, no matter who wins, there’s always going to be that, ‘Well, somebody lost.’
“And then think about their family reunions, when they all get together. In a way it’s a little bit sad because normally if you’re the winner and you have a big year and a family gathering, it’s a huge celebration and everybody can talk about it without worrying about how the loser feels.
“And there’s the loser, right there.”
No need to wait for this summer for the awkward moments. Much like the Shulas, the Harbaugh brothers would like nothing better than for the spotlight to shift to their players. Conceding that’s a hopeless cause, the Harbaughs have agreed to conduct an unprecedented joint news conference at the Super Bowl in New Orleans to get family questions out of the way. And if this week seems like an out-of-control hayride to the Harbaughs, they might take comfort knowing what it will always mean to the entire family.
“I cherish the moment,” Dave Shula says of matching wits with his father. “I think it’s special. It’s a great message when you step back, big-picture-wise. Anything that’s a positive family story, back then and certainly today, certainly is a message that needs to go out and needs to be shared and can be inspiring to people, emphasizing the importance of family and the ties that bind. And how, despite the fact there’s going to be a winner and a loser, that you’re still going to be family and still going to love each other.”
Neither Shula was afforded the luxury of reflection at the time. Dave was in the third of five years as Bengals coach, 0-4 for the season and 8-28 in his career. That placed him 322 wins behind Pop, riding the hot arm of Dan Marino for a 3-1 start en route to a 10-6 finish and the playoffs.
Clearly, if either man was under the gun, it was Dave. The rest of the Shulas knew it.
“Everyone’s in David’s corner,” Don Shula said early that week. “I’ve already been warned.”
Dave hosted a reunion for about 50 relatives and friends the day before the game at his home 20 miles outside of downtown Cincinnati. A surprise guest: Don. In one way, it was like any other massive gathering of Shulas, with a football game on TV in the background and kids and grandkids running around. But …
“You couldn’t really talk about things like you normally would, like, ‘I can’t wait. We’re going to kick these guys’ butts,’” Dave says.
Things only got more awkward. The two coaches met on the field about two hours before kickoff, as often happens. Their chat lasted only a couple of minutes.
“Well, do you think we’re done with this intimate moment in front of a 150 people?” Dave asked his father in full view of reporters and cameramen.
The game itself? Forgettable. The Bengals scored on a 51-yard pass on the third play of the game before things spiraled to the point that Cincy committed five second-half turnovers. The score could have been more lopsided had the father not kept the ball on the ground in the second half. Draw whatever you like from that.
It’s not as if Don was immune to emotions. After the game, he admitted to stealing at least a glance across the field during the national anthem.
“When the game started,” Don added, “there weren’t any other thoughts about who was on the other side of the field.”
Don has been no less professional in the years since. Entering the Shula Bowl, Don had faced Dave or son Mike’s teams — while they were playing or serving as an assistant coach — five times. He was 5-0.
“I joke now,” Dave says, “because people ask me, ‘Well, how did you do against your dad when you were competing against him?’ I went 0-for-6. No, he’s never rubbed it in or anything. He’s been respectful of that.”
Reminded that having a losing record against the winningest coach in NFL history merely puts Dave in the company of nearly every other NFL coach in the Shula era, Dave laughs. Again.
“I know,” he says, facetiously adding, “And believe me, I’ve managed to carry on with that heavy burden I’ve been dealing with.”
Today, Dave oversees his father’s successful steak houses from an office in Fort Lauderdale, including plans to open a burger restaurant in Delray Beach in late March. Dad, meanwhile, recently celebrated his 83rd birthday.
Reminders of their day as rivals remain. Because Don lost first wife Dorothy to breast cancer, the father and son signed Shula Bowl footballs that were auctioned off for $500 to benefit research. Of course, a few balls remain in the family clutches.
For a moment, Dave allows himself to wonder what it would have been like had that 1994 game been a Super Bowl — “Oh my God. It would have been nice.” But then he remembers some things are bigger than even the Super Bowl.
“At the end of the day, you’re still family,” he says. “And will be hopefully spending many, many years together, watching each other’s kids grow and families grow and doing all those things which are much more important than a football game.”