CATEGORY: Footballl




AP Sports Writer

DAVIE, Fla. (AP) Don Shula left the NFL spotlight reluctantly Friday, his famous glare reduced to misty eyes by an emotional resignation.

Shula’s unparalleled 33-year coaching career ended with a soul-searching, gut-wrenching” decision that was his own, he said.

This is the day that you thought was never going to happen,” the Miami Dolphins coach said at a news conference. Now it’s here, now it has happened.”

Dolphins owner H. Wayne Huizenga said Cowboys coach Jimmy Johnson is at the top of the list” of possible successors, although he he has not spoken to him or any other candidate about the job.

According to a source close to the Dolphins’ organization, other candidates include Florida Gators coach Steve Spurrier, Kansas City’s Marty Schottenheimer and Pittsburgh’s Bill Cowher.

Shula, who had one year left on his contract, said he decided to resign because of family considerations and the difficulty of finding new assistant coaches willing to work for just one season. Shula said he declined Huizenga’s offer of a contract extension.

I’m at peace with myself and am looking forward to spending time with my lovely wife, Mary Anne,” Shula said during his 45-minute news conference at the Dolphins’ training camp north of Miami.

When reporters questioned his cheerful tone, he conceded: I’m putting on a helluva front.”

But when you make a decision, you do everything in your power to make that decision work,” the coach said.

Shula had earlier promised to coach the last year of his contract. But he said he decided to step down for the good of the Dolphins after the team’s disappointing 9-7 season and lopsided loss to the Buffalo Bills in the first round of the playoffs.

Shula, who turned 66 Thursday, will stay with the team as part owner and vice chairman of the board of directors, but it was not immediately clear what role he would play for Huizenga.

I’ll be available for how much or how little he would like me to contribute,” Shula said.

He emphasized repeatedly that Huizenga had supported him and not forced him out. He said Huizenga even offered to extend his contract if it would help in bringing in new assistant coaches in an expected staff shakeup.

Asked about his successor, Shula said he wanted the Dolphins to have the best guy available … to do the job.” He said he would make recommendations to Huizenga.

The owner followed Shula to the microphones and was asked repeatedly about whether Johnson was a candidate.

I’ve never spoken to Jimmy Johnson about this,” Huizenga said. Obviously he has to be one of the names on the list. When the time is right, he’ll call us or we’ll call him.”

As he left the news conference, Huizenga told reporters that Johnson’s name obviously he’s at the top of the list.”

Shula and Johnson are not on good terms, but that would not eliminate the former Cowboys coach as a candidate for the job.

The other day when I walked into Don’s office and we started talking, the first thing he said was, I don’t want to do anything that will restrict your ability to bring in the best possible person,”’ Huizenga said.

Johnson, who left the Cowboys in 1994 after winning back-to-back Super Bowl titles, has declined to comment on Shula’s resignation, or his chances of replacing him.

This is a very sensitive issue,” Johnson told The Dallas Morning News. I have no comment. I have had no contact.”

But Johnson, now a broadcaster for Fox Television, said he was closer to returning to coaching this year than I was a year ago.”

I’m giving it stronger consideration,” he said. I’ve had some discussions with other teams, and I’m strongly considering it. But I haven’t made up my mind yet whether I’m coming back.”

Huizenga hailed Shula’s accomplishments and promised that he would continue to play an important role in the Dolphins. Don has become the standard of excellence by which all others are measured,” Huizenga said.

I’m glad he will be a part of the Dolphins. Today was a tough day for him and Mary Anne, but they put the team ahead of their own interests in classic Shula style,” Huizenga said.

Mrs. Shula sat listening, smiled often and later said she’s happy about her husband’s decision.

We’ll get to see the children and grandchildren much more now,” she said.

During the news conference, Shula made several references to the fan rebellion that certainly was a factor in his decision to step down.

I’m certainly deserving of some of the criticism, as long as it’s not mean, dirty criticism, which some of it was,” he said.

I think about the people out here today and this outpouring of support that has now come forward,” Shula said. I know there have been disgruntled fans. The expectations were so high, and the disappointment was that much greater.

But there have been a lot of great successes,” Shula said.

He recounted the difficult days leading up to his decision to give up coaching in the NFL after 33 years as a head coach.

Needless to say, this week has been the most difficult soul-searching, gut-wrenching, all of those things,” the coach said.

The Dolphins, a team with a high payroll and low morale, saved its worst game for last, a 37-22 collapse in the first round of the playoffs Saturday at Buffalo.

After that loss, Shula said he began calling close friends around the league, such as George Young and Bobby Beathard, in a search for possible new assistants. That’s when he began to feel that 26 years as head of the Dolphins was enough.

As I talked to these people, it became clear to me it would be difficult for anyone to come into a situation where it was a one-year situation and not knowing what the future held,” Shula said.

The coach told Huizenga on Wednesday about the problems recruiting assistants for one year and he said the owner told him: If that’s a problem, why don’t we extend your contract.”

The last thing I wanted to do was make a further commitment,” Shula said. I just celebrated 66th year of my life, if you call that celebrating.”

But Shula admitted that leaving the sidelines will be excruciating.

I’d be lying to you if I didn’t say it’s going to be gut-wrenching the first time a football is kicked off,” Shula said. This will be the first time in 43 years that I haven’t been on the sideline in the National Football League.”

Shula became the youngest head coach in league history when the Baltimore Colts hired him in 1963 at age 33. Thirty years later, he broke George Halas’ NFL record of 324 victories.

But detractors dismissed his career record of 347-173-6, instead noting that he last won a Super Bowl 22 years ago. No coach has gone so long in one town without a championship.

The coach recalled the Dolphins’ championship years in 1972 and 1973 as highlights and especially recalled his association with record-setting quarterback Dan Marino and three other great quarterbacks: Johnny Unitas, Earl Morrall and Bob Griese.

What great players I’ve had the opportunity to coach,” he said.

An endless stream of accolades poured in from throughout the league. But none were more heartfelt than the comments of Marino, the record-breaking quarterback who helped Shula keep a struggling franchise competitive for the last decade.

Everybody should appreciate what this man has done for all of us in South Florida,” said Marino, who embraced Shula after the news conference. I’ve been very proud to have an opportunity to work with him for 13 years.”

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