Sunday, February 04, 2001

Shula a steakhouse success story


Fired Bengals coach connects with employees better than players

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        On the phone, the hostess says it's another perfect season at Don Shula's Steak House. Just before the workday begins, Dave Shula, company president, gathers his team of players and coaches in the center of a meeting room. At Shula's, the sports metaphors flow like Cabernet and A-1 sauce. “Sports is business, and business is sports,” says David Younts, the chairman of the chain.

        So, Shula's employees are “players,” its managers are “coaches.” The company's how-to manual is the “playbook.” Menus are written on footballs placed on tees in the middle of the table. Every three months, Dave Shula awards footballs signed by him or his father to top-performing employees.

        “Game balls,” they're called. Of course.

        So it's no surprise Dave is huddling his team in a meeting room and having them hold hands.

        “On three,” he says.

        From the team emerges a unified roar. “ONE-TWO-THREE, SHULA'S!” they say.

        Isn't this ironic? Isn't this the 48-ounce porterhouse of irony? Dave Shula — for the longest time the face of local football futility, banished from the NFL after 19 wins in four-plus painful seasons — re-energized and emergent, potent and productive, re-invented as a ... coach?

        Mike Brown mercy-fired Shula seven games into the '96 season. Part of the problem was the Bengals didn't have many good players. The other part was that the players they had, good and bad, didn't play for their coach. Running back Harold Green once called Shula “the worst coach in Bengal history.”

        Shula held a 20-minute farewell the day he was fired, then went Garbo. In the NFL, used coaches are as recyclable as milk jugs. Once you're in, you're in. Unless you were Dave Shula, who disappeared into his life. He looked at a few other NFL jobs, but nobody was looking back.

        He left without saying goodbye. “I had some real issues about why it didn't work in Cincinnati and how much of it was me,” he says. Shula spoke in Orlando, Fla., the morning of the Super Bowl. It was the first interview he'd given to the Cincinnati media in the four years since he left town. “Time just needed to go by,” he explains. “I needed to get further and further removed.”

        The ironies could fill a seven-course meal. Start with the notion of Shula as a coach whose employees not only regard him highly, but who listen to what he says. Dave Shula, once called “the Boy Scout” by one of his assistant Bengals coaches, is effectively spreading the Gospel of Team to eager parishioners wearing aprons. He has inspired a loyalty and a respect in business that he could never manage in football.

        And Shula's Steak House is growing faster than a grain-fed cow. There will be 23 restaurants by the end of this year. The company did $50 million in business in 2000.

        There is that irony. Also this: The long, tall jaw of his father looms over Dave as prominently as ever. The pressure associated with being a Shula and an NFL head coach was replaced by being a Shula trying to keep the meat from burning.

        Don Shula gave Dave this mission, when Dave accepted the job in April 1997: “I built a great name for myself in the football business. That reputation is at stake with every meal we serve. It's your job to ensure my reputation is enhanced.”

        How's that for remaining tethered to Daddy's psychological coattails? Dave may be in a different boat, but he's sailing the same river.

        The double whammy of failing in Father's NFL footsteps, then being asked on the rebound to uphold Dad's second-generation legacy, might fell a lesser man. But Dave Shula is a tough guy. Always has been. “An overachiever,” says his friend, Lane Donnelly. “Everything he did, he did better than you'd have expected.”

        Well, almost everything.

        “I mean, a guy his size (5-foot-11, 182 pounds) running back punts in the NFL?” as Shula did with the Baltimore Colts. “I'd never underestimate him.”

        It is not a changed Dave Shula. It's the same pleasant, fastidious Dave, pencils all sharpened, desk-like-a-museum Dave. He's just preaching to a different choir. President Shula is Coach Shula. It's amazing what can happen when people believe in you.

        There is that, and this: He has gotten past allowing football to define him. That may be his greatest achievement, given his heritage. Children of famous people have it hard. Sons of famous fathers have it harder. They spend lots of time being who they're expected to be and not enough time discovering who they are. If they're extremely lucky, the two pursuits are the same. If they're not so lucky, they wander, like Dave Shula.

        How Dave Shula went from football to restaurants, from front-page flop to subdued success, is a tale of resurrection, redemption and closure. Also, suits, ties, meetings and “Hi, my name is Dave, and I'll be your server tonight.”

        Don Shula didn't want to do this in 1989, when it was first proposed. His first wife, Dorothy, talked him into it. She said the restaurant would be the proper tribute to the Dolphins' perfect '72 season. Don's legacy would be memorialized forever in beautifully marbled, certified Angus beef. The Great Man could see that, yes he could.

        Shula's started with one restaurant, in the family's hometown of Miami Lakes. By 1995, David Younts was running the whole restaurant show. He hired Dave Shula in March 1997.

        When Younts asked Shula why he should hire him, Dave responded by pounding his fist on the table and saying, “My name is on the restaurant, and I want things done right.”

        Dave has done his best. You figured he might. There was a reason they called him the Boy Scout. When Younts hired him, he sent Shula to restaurant boot camp. For six weeks, Dave cleaned tables, cooked and worked as a server.

        Could you see Don cleaning tables?

        Dave toured the processing plant in Atlanta where Shula's gets its Angus beef. He went to the farm where the cows were raised.

        As Donnelly said: “Who wouldn't want to hire Dave Shula? He'd be honest, and he'd work like hell.”

        Plus, he needed something to do. The last fall with the Bengals, Shula looked like a man facing a firing squad. He installed caller ID on the phone in his Symmes Township home. He emerged mainly to play tennis with Steve Contardi, the pro at Harper's Point Racquet Club. “The family went into hiding,” Donnelly recalls. “It was too painful for them to go out.”

        Brown gave Shula an office at Spinney Field. “You'll need somewhere to go,” Brown said, recalling his own father's disorientation after Art Modell fired him as coach of the Cleveland Browns.

        Shula went in on Tuesdays, the day the media wasn't around. He watched film, talked to coaches he knew, kept his hand in. Meanwhile, his sons didn't want to go to school, because the teasing had become so vicious.

        “Where are you moving to?” their classmates would wonder. “Now the Bengals will be better.”

        All of it killed Dave Shula. “It was torture to be there that fall,” he says. “There was nowhere I could go. Then Bruce (Coslet, Shula's successor) took them on that 7-2 roll to finish the season. One side of me was happy for the people that were there. The other side said, "Shoot, they finish 7-2 and the only thing that changed was me.'

        “That was very tough on my sense of self worth. I put everything I had into coaching that team.”

        His new team likes him a whole lot better. Football-style motivation works better on people who've never played football. Where a veteran linebacker such as Gary Reasons might respond to yet another round of rah-rah by flipping his coach's baseball cap sideways on national TV, a server at Shula's Steak House might want to run through the kitchen wall, or at least make sure the bearnaise is served warm.

        “Dave connects with everyone,” says Jerry Condito. He runs Shula's On The Beach, in Fort Lauderdale. It's a sentiment repeated by everyone interviewed: waitresses, hostesses, other managers. Dave connects.

        Dave cares. Dave listens. “Never have I seen him raise his voice or make you feel uncomfortable,” Condito says. Janet Briggs, the morning supervisor at the Shula's in Cleveland, says, “He cares about the people that work for him.”

        They say Dave remembers everyone, cooks to busboys. Dave visits each of the 16 restaurants once every three months. He gives motivational talks that sound like pregame football speeches. Discipline, focus, organization, accepting your role. Make sure you give 110 percent on that onion soup, people.

        “The corniest thing you can say to football players is, there's no "I' in team,” Shula says. “But say that to a group of restaurant workers, it's like, "Wow.' It's all new to them. All the themes are fresh. They really embrace it.”

        It took him awhile to become this new, corporate man. You don't change identities like shirts, especially when your name is Shula. Football isn't easy to wash off.

        Younts believes Shula has moved on. Four years later, the cool rain of success has soothed the burn of the NFL. “He's gotten over the bitterness, come out of his shell. He has a lot more confidence in himself.”

        Shula looks the same: the Fountain of Youth face, the close shave, the tan, the body of a college sophomore. He ran a marathon in January, finishing in three hours, 18 minutes, good enough to qualify for the Boston Marathon he says he'll run in 2002.

        The world is wider when you are not coaching pro football. You have time for more of it. This is a pleasure Dave Shula has discovered. He has become a lot like the rest of us with school-aged kids.

        He runs the family taxi service to his sons' games. (He has three boys, ages 12 to 17.) His oldest son, Dan, who once thought he'd play football at Moeller, is now a junior backup quarterback at St. Thomas Aquinas High in Fort Lauderdale. He'll probably start next year.

        Dave works on the chain gang at home football games. He referees summer-league basketball games. He coaches soccer, he gives speeches to parents about their roles in their kids' athletic lives.

        Don Shula did not have the time to be close to his kids. Dave has made the time. “If I lived in a vacuum, I'd probably still be a football coach,” Dave says. “I love football.”

        Football didn't always return the gesture. Dave might have had Don's aptitude for the game. But he never had his presence. Players took advantage of the same, easy style he now uses to such effect in the restaurant business. It all depends on your audience.

        The best football coaches come with a touch of madness. They are crazed or inspired. In his finer moments, Sam Wyche was both. There was nothing mad about Dave Shula. Reporters commented on the neatness of his Spinney Field desk, every paper clip in its place, every pencil sharpened.

        You could see him in a dark meeting room, running film back and forth through a projector, dissecting an opponent's nickel defense or figuring where the nose guard lined up on third-and-long. “I was a good position coach,” he says.

        If he had not been working for the Bengals, Shula might have done better. Who knows? Not him. Shula isn't spending as much time wondering about that as he used to, but he still has his moments. Shula allows himself a side order of vindication. He doesn't rant about it. It's a dish best served cool.

        “The fact the Bengals have not gotten out of that slump or funk or whatever it is ... people who had the opinion it was all my fault probably have a different opinion. I have a different opinion,” he says.

        When Shula was on the podium at Spinney Field offering a gracious goodbye, he looked relieved and burdened at the same time. What a relief to be free from failure. What a burden to take into memory.

        “I haven't failed in too many things,” he says, “and I viewed that as a failure.”

        Now he's huddling with people who hang on his every word. He has reached a truce with himself over what happened with the Bengals. In so doing, he has discovered who he really is. At age 41, Shula has grown into his own skin. For maybe the first time, it fits him.

        “I've had some good lessons,” he says. “I can deliver some good messages.” In the business world, they're listening.

       



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