The two coaching sons of Don Shula share a special appreciation for what John and Jim Harbaugh will be going through early Sunday in New Orleans. Dave was formerly head coach of the Cincinnati Bengals. Mike has never been an NFL head coach, but could be well on his way; he is currently offensive coordinator of the Carolina Panthers.
So it isn’t too much of a stretch to ask Dave and Mike to relate to what the Harbaugh brothers will be experiencing. They both have shared that burning desire to win. They both are extremely close, just like the Harbaughs. And they both know the important thing on Sunday is to block out everything else except winning the game.
Yes, even blocking out the childhood dreams of brothers facing each other on the greatest football stage of all.
I spoke to Don Shula this week and his sons Dave and Mike. I asked them to dream a little bit. Put themselves in the Harbaugh Situation. What would they feel? How would they act?
Mike: “The competitive side of me is that I want to kick my big brother’s butt, knowing he wants to squash me just as badly in a brotherly way. What an unbelievable dream that would be, to coach and compete against your brother in front of the whole world. Understanding how he does things the right way and everything he has been taught.”
Dave: “It would be such a proud moment, an unbelievable experience. I’d feel horrible for my dad because he can’t really root for anybody. It would be an emotionally gut-wrenching experience for all of us. A psychologist’s dream.”
And then, from Papa Shula came this: “Well, I guess you’d want both teams to play well and the game end in a tie. It’s a tough deal. You’d want to feel like they coached a good game. But what I learned a long time ago is that there is only one winner. But proud? Yes, I’d be very proud.”
Dave Shula is six years older than Mike. So the most intense competition didn’t really begin until they were older. When Dave was going through the NFL coaching ranks, eventually becoming head coach in Cincinnati, Mike was also an assistant in the NFL. They faced each other four times, but only once when Dave was head coach of the Bengals. And Dave won that game 16-10 over the Bears (Mike was the tight ends coach).
Dave is 3-1 against Mike. Neither brother has to be reminded of that record.
But the stage wasn’t the Super Bowl like it will be for the Harbaughs. This is a totally different deal, a much more personal thing. The spotlight can’t be brighter; the stakes can’t be higher.
“I think I would do my best to focus all my intention on the players, not the fact that it’s me against my brother,” Dave said. “When I coached against my dad, I was so absorbed in the game, I really didn’t focus on him being there across the field. You don’t have time to think about that. I guess, though, I did take a peek during the national anthem.”
All three Shulas agreed that the hurt they would feel for the loser would easily surpass the joy they felt for the victor. See, it is during the tough times when brothers can really count on one another. And how much tougher can it be than dealing with a Super Bowl loss at the hands of your own brother?
Mike: “It can’t be any tougher knowing that your brother is hurting. Coaching the game is probably the easier part. Dealing with the emotions afterward would take time.”
Dave: “Think about the family reunions in the years to come. The winner couldn’t really celebrate because his brother was the loser. You have to be muted. It’s tough.”
Papa Shula: “You would try to show the losing son all the reasons he has to be proud and how proud you are that he conducted himself so well. But there’s only one winner and that’s one of the things that makes this game so special.”
But what about the X’s and O’s? No doubt, Mike and David Shula know each other’s tendencies, know what plays they like to call, know everything that makes them tick. And the brother that utilizes that knowledge could have a distinct advantage in the big game.
Dave: “Mike is an offensive-minded guy. In a clutch situation, maybe a fourth-and-one, I just know he would have the guts to go for it.”
Mike: “Dave is aggressive. There are things I know that I could definitely use to my advantage.”
OK, time for the dreaming to stop. Mike and Dave know they will never be facing each other in the Super Bowl since Dave is out of coaching and is running the Shula Steak House business. But that doesn’t mean they can’t relate to John and Jim Harbaugh. At a different time, under different circumstances, it could very well have been them.
“It has to be the ultimate high for those two guys,” Dave said. “I’m sure their father’s emotions are off the charts. I just know, though, that it’s their mom who will really be going through an emotional time.”
Added Mike: “The bottom line is that both of them are doing what they love to do….even though only one will be happy on Sunday night.”