Hall of Fame coach Don Shula is rooting for the Carolina Panthers to join his 1972 Miami Dolphins as the only undefeated Super Bowl champions.
Well, indirectly anyway.
Shula is really pulling for his son Mike, Carolina’s offensive coordinator. For Don, family trumps even the Dolphins’ sacred season.
“Yes, there’s no question about it — I want that to happen,” Shula told The Associated Press. “I am proud of my record and my teams and the things they have accomplished, but this is a new era, a new team, a new quarterback (with) new coaches. … I’m always rooting for my son. I wouldn’t want it to be any other way. I want him to be the best that he can be.”
For years, members of the ’72 Dolphins have reveled in their distinction as the NFL’s lone Super Bowl champion to finish a season unbeaten. They’ve even made a show of celebrating on occasion when the league’s last remaining undefeated team goes down in a given year.
And while the Panthers are rolling along at 13-0, they still have a lot of work to do.
To pull off the feat, coach Ron Rivera‘s team must win its final three regular-season games against the Giants, Falcons and Buccaneers — and then all three postseason games, which would give the franchise its first Super Bowl title.
Don Shula knows that won’t be easy.
But he likes the way the Panthers are constructed and seems enamored with the versatility of quarterback Cam Newton, whom he calls “unbelievable,” and a hard-hitting defense led by linebacker Luke Kuechly that leads the league in takeaways.
“It’s fun to watch them,” Shula said.
The 85-year-old knows firsthand what’s happening with the Panthers.
He not only watches them regularly on television from his home in Miami, but also talks strategy with his son on the phone — often times when Mike is headed home from the stadium after games.
For the most part, however, the elder Shula gives his son space to do his job, serving as an omnipresent sounding board.
Of course, there are times he can’t help but throw in his opinion.
When Mike called for a bizarre-looking “flea-flicker tight end screen” to Greg Olsen last season against Minnesota, the elder Shula teased on the phone, “How long did it take you to think of that one?”
The conversation between father and son often starts with football, but ultimately turns to Don asking about another one of his favorite subjects: his grandchildren.
Mostly, the younger Shula said his father is just there for him, always with words of encouragement and support, and an occasional piece of advice.
“Where he has been really good has been when we have had some tough times in the past,” Mike Shula said. “He has talked about how important the leadership is and how, hey, you are in that leadership position and everyone is going to be looking at you to see how you respond. Just like the players do, we have to pick ourselves up and move on.”
Shula was 7 years old when he watched the Dolphins beat the Washington Redskins in the Super Bowl to finish the 1972 season 17-0.
He said the thing he remembers most about it — even more so than kicker Garo Yepremian‘s infamous botched pass attempt — was his mother buying him a red transistor radio before the game.
“It was really cool to be able to listen to the game on the radio while I was watching it,” Mike Shula said with a laugh.
He also remembers all the success those Dolphins had.
Miami went on to win another Super Bowl the following season in its third straight appearance in the big game.
Mike Shula said it was never hard growing up in his father’s long shadow, but it was a little difficult learning how to accept losing as he grew up.
“When I was that age I thought, ‘This is great. Dad wins every week and this is easy, this is fun stuff. All of your friends like you,'” Mike Shula said, smiling. “But then as I got older you started to recognize that you’re not always going to win — and winning is a lot tougher than you think.”
He and the Panthers have experienced plenty of ups and downs since he joined Rivera’s staff in 2011 as the team’s quarterbacks coach and was entrusted with developing Newton, the No. 1 overall pick in the NFL draft that year, into a star player.
The younger Shula has succeeded.
Now in his fifth season, Newton is a leading MVP contender who has thrown 28 touchdown passes and run for seven more.
If Shula, Newton and Co. do make it to Santa Clara, California, for the Super Bowl this season, Don Shula said he will be there.
“Oh you better believe I will,” he said. “I will be there rooting on the Panthers.”
Republished with permission of the Associated Press.