Don Shula showed up at his son David's house in Cincinnati late Saturday afternoon. On the dining room table was a cake with the inscription: WELCOME TO THE SHULA SHOOT-OUT. Next to the buffet spread, two helmets were facing each other—one from the Miami Dolphins and one from the Cincinnati Bengals.
The party was already in full swing, 40 or 50 friends and relatives inside, grandchildren and a bunch of neighborhood kids tearing around the woods behind the house. "Little blurs," Don's daughter Donna said. "Dad wanted to see David's kids. All three had soccer games. Dad had to wrestle Matthew, the six-year-old, to get a kiss out of him."
And thus began a historic event, Don Shula's Dolphins versus David Shula's Bengals, the first time in the history of pro sports that a father and son would face each other as coaches. The buildup had been going on for almost a year. "The first time anyone mentioned it to me was two weeks before the 1993 season ended," said David on Saturday morning.
The week before Sunday's game there was a major media blitz. Father versus son was everyone's midweek angle. "Yeah, and most of the quotes were from interviews in June and July," David said.
Still, how could you get away from it? The Dolphins, 3-1 and driving for a championship for the winningest coach in NFL history, against the 0-4 Bengals, undermanned and just about desperate. An upset? Take that, Dad, and if it costs you a playoff shot, well, that's football. But what if Papa's Dolphins administered a crushing defeat? What if David's job were on a more slender thread than we imagined, and a big loss got him fired?
"I really can't see that," Don said. "[General manager] Mike Brown gave him a two-year extension on his contract last year. The fact that Mike did that shows he'll give David a chance to work his way out of this thing."
All the same, it was nagging, an annoyance, a "distraction," as the elder Shula might call it. Do you put that last seven points on the board when the game is in hand—or you think it's in hand? Or do you pull in your horns, run the clock....
"Oh, c'mon now, you know better than that," David said on Saturday. "If that happens, some guy will write. "Oh, Don let up.' Besides, he won't even be calling the plays. His offensive coach will. Maybe my dad will call short-yardage and goal line, but they'll just run their offense, and once the whistle blows, it'll just be football."
Cincinnati was coming off a miserable performance in a 20-13 loss to Houston. The Oilers blitzed. Bengal quarterback David Klingler was sacked seven times, and the offense folded. That made 14 sacks in two weeks. On the following Wednesday, Shula showed his players a different side, a tougher, nastier one. Shape up, dammit. Translation: Dad's coming. Look sharp.
Dad's team was booked into a Marriott 15 miles north of town, in an attempt to escape some of the pregame frenzy. The Marriott had never hosted an NFL team, let alone the Shula Dolphins. A month earlier, Steve Shellist, a hotel employee, called David Shula. "How do I treat your father?" he wanted to know.
"Like a king," David said.
"No, seriously. Anything special I can get for him?"
"Yeah," David said. "When you're preparing those snacks and things for his room, make sure there's plenty of Heineken and butter-pecan ice cream. That's what he loves."
Lucky for Shellist that he checked into David's instructions with the Dolphins. Don doesn't drink Heineken, and he hates butter-pecan ice cream. Naughty boy, David. You'll get yours.
A few players on both sides said the diplomatic thing, that Shula versus Shula would give the game extra meaning. But most of the players really felt much like safety Louis Oliver, a former Dolphin and current Bengal. "What does it mean to me?" said Oliver. "Not a hell of a lot once the game starts. Sure, you'd like to help David beat his pop, but there's too much other stuff to worry about out there."
"We love Dad, but I think just about all of us are rooting for David," Donna said.
A crowd of about 60 cameramen surrounded the pregame meeting between father and son on Sunday night, recording for posterity a pair of hugs and a couple of minutes of chitchat. Then the ball was kicked off, and in less than two minutes the Bengals had issued the Dolphins a wake-up call. Two screen passes from Klingler and a 51-yard touchdown bomb to rookie wideout Darnay Scott gave the Bengals a 7-0 lead. Unfortunately for Cincinnati, that was the last time it scored. For the rest of the game the Bengal offense struggled and turned the ball over five times in a 23-7 loss.
"They played us tough, they had a good read on us," said Dolphin tight end Keith Jackson. "Louis Oliver knew what was coming. He'd yell, 'Dolphin! Dolphin!' and they'd switch to the right coverage."
"I've played on teams that were struggling the way they are now," said Miami right tackle Ron Heller. "I've seen games like this end nasty—you know, fights and stuff like that. This was a classy team that played clean, sound football."
Which speaks highly of David Shula but still leaves him 0-5 and wondering when the losing will ever end. Father and son met briefly after the game, again surrounded by a mob. Then they appeared on the TNT post-game show. "You can't hand a team like the Dolphins five turnovers," David said later.
"Your defense never gave up," someone told him.
"Yeah, but we've got to get it off the field," he said. "We've got to get some more punch in that offense."
And some more players. The Bengals are shorthanded. Both of their projected offensive tackles are injured, and on Sunday Klingler looked unsettled. Defensively, Cincinnati has only one bona fide pass rusher, right end Alfred Williams, a converted linebacker. Defensive tackle Dan Wilkinson and defensive end John Cope-land, back-to-back No. 1 draft picks, haven't gotten the job done.
So Don Shula headed back to Miami on Sunday night with another win under his belt and the undisputed lead in the AFC East. Shula versus Shula was scrapbook material. "They came out looking like a real good team," Don said of his son's players. "They lit it up. Then the turnovers, the takeaways."
"Any feelings about David?" someone asked.
"I looked over at their sideline during the national anthem," Don said, his face softening, "and I felt proud seeing David across the way. Then the game started, and it was just football."
Signs of the time: Fans made much ado about a father meeting his son in Cincinnati.