Shula cool character in heated battle

The Cincinnati Enquirer

In his hour of darkness, Dave Shula wears a smirk. The heat is on, and it grows ever higher, but the head coach of the Cincinnati Bengals remains set on 72 degrees.

Shula could walk through a blast furnace and not break a sweat. He could face a firing squad and never flinch. He may lose his job Sunday afternoon, but not his poise.

This much is not his dad's doing. Don Shula was as stonefaced as the next statue, but he never faced the ceaseless frustration that has been visited on his son. Dave Shula had to learn about losing on his own.

''When I was about 10 or 11, I was playing ping pong at the house of the equipment manager of the Colts, Fred Schubach,'' Shula recalled Friday afternoon. ''I was playing against his son, who was my age, and he beat me at ping pong.

''I got all mad, and I threw the paddle, and I broke the paddle, and his dad was standing there. He said, 'Hey, would you have done that if you had won?' I said, 'No, of course not.' He said, 'Well, don't act that way when you lose.' ''

Record is 18-48

Dave Shula has done a lot of losing in his day - he stands at 18-48 entering Sunday's game with the New Orleans Saints - but he is almost undefeated against the pressures of his job.

Sam Wyche was creative and charismatic and, on any given Sunday, he was Sybil. Shula is his reciprocal fraction - methodical instead of manic; calm instead of combustible; massively secure despite his insecure position.

You imagine his torment, but all you see is his toughness. This is not a trait often associated with Dave Shula, but it takes a certain strength to stick to the high road when your name is regularly dragged through the dirt.

Shula has been baited and doesn't bat an eye. He has been ripped and never responds in kind. If you cannot admire his coaching, you ought to appreciate his class.

''A coach is a lightning rod for a team,'' he said Friday. ''I'm the one guy you can point at. . . . That is the role that you take. You are the lightning rod for good things and negative things. In a way, it's good for the players. If people want to blame somebody, they blame me, and that should take some pressure off the players to go out and play.''

Shula is fortunate Mike Brown is stubborn. No other National Football League owner would have given a coach so many chances to make good in the face of so many losses and such persistent criticism.

Still a contender?

Yet even Brown has his breaking point, as well as an April 30 deadline to sell luxury boxes and premium seating to secure his new stadium. He can no longer afford to dismiss public opinion in favor of his private convictions. Eventually, he may feel compelled to sacrifice Shula to appease prospective seat licensees.

''I realize the position we're in,'' Shula said. ''This is the fifth year . . . let's get off to a good start, and we haven't . . . last year of the contract . . . all those things.

''(But) I focus my energies to try to find solutions. I've got to stand up there in the front of the room and present a positive image and say, 'This is how we're going to beat the Saints.' ''

He said his expectations have not been changed by an 0-2 start; the talent level of his team is high enough to reach the playoffs.

''We knew going into the season we wouldn't be 16-0,'' he said. ''We knew we'd have some tough times throughout the season. We knew we'd have to deal with some injuries. But it's happened at the beginning.

''I still believe we can be a contender this season within our division. We've just been sobered up a bunch, and we were probably trying to do a little too much offensively with the young people we have out there.''

Maybe everything clicks this week. Maybe it all collapses. Maybe Dave Shula is out of work Monday. But his chin was still up Friday afternoon, and he still planned to go out in public. He had plans to take his wife to see Sunset Boulevard at the Aronoff Center. He had no plans to kick his dog.

''My wife would kick me if I kick the dog,'' Dave Shula said. ''So would my kids.''

Tim Sullivan is an Enquirer columnist.

Published Sept. 14, 1996.