MIAMI GARDENS Don Shula accumulated numerous game-balls while amassing 347 NFL victories.
The one the retired Miami Dolphins coach received Tuesday stands apart from the rest. Shula said he will cherish the ball presented by the Dolphins Business Alliance for success in building his Shula’s Steak House chain of restaurants as much as those signifying his conquests on the field.
“I had all the football honors that a guy could have, but this is something new here. I’m going to put that one right up next to my other game-balls,” he said during a public event at Sun Life Stadium.
The award came one day after the newest arm of the chain opened its fourth Shula Burger, in Kendall. The fast-food concept also has a Fort Lauderdale location on the 17th Street Causeway.
Dolphins media relations director Harvey Greene recalls the surprise of stepping off the 18th green at the golf course in Miami Lakes in 1989 and encountering a steer tied up outside the country club. That was the day Shula put his name on a struggling restaurant there at the urging of members of former Sen. Bob Graham’s family.
“I resisted for quite a while,” Shula said. “We tried it, and the sales jumped immediately about four times what it was. I said ‘This is not a bad deal.’”
There are now 36 restaurants in the chain in six different concepts from formal to casual. They are scattered throughout the nation, including several airports.
“Shula Burger is the new idea that my wife [Mary Anne] came up with,” Shula said. “She’s got a great business mind. When she thinks of something, I say ‘Yes dear,’ and move on.”
Shula, 82, is a big fan of the product but admits he’s not much of a force in the kitchen: “I had trouble warming up a pot of water on the stove.”
He was in his element talking football with a gathering of business leaders and Dolphins fans, who gave him a standing ovation. The former coach is now one of them, a Sunday afternoon fan.
Shula said he believes the Dolphins are headed in the right direction with first-year coach Joe Philbin and rookie quarterback Ryan Tannehill. He expressed dismay that New England fans comprised a sizeable portion of last week’s home crowd. But he recalled that the situation was similar at Dolphins home games when he arrived in 1970.
“After we started to win they became Dolphins fans,” he said. “Hopefully our fans are coming back to us.”
There will be more ovations and reminiscing in two weeks when the Dolphins celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Perfect Season. Many of the players from the 1972 team will participate in a weekend celebration culminating with ceremonies at the Dolphins-Jaguars game on Dec. 16.
“Forty years, it’s unbelievable to think that. What we did hadn’t been done in the 50 years before that and hasn’t been done in the 40 years since then,” Shula said.
“We get a rap for, I guess, taking too much pride when that last undefeated team gets beat every year. But we don’t have any big celebrations like people have accused us of doing. One year that last undefeated team got beat, and Dick Anderson and [Nick] Buoniconti [who] live next to each other down in Coral Gables … went in the driveway and popped a bottle of champagne and toasted each other. They were too cheap to invite the rest of us to the party.”
The award Shula received previously went to three of his former players, Bob Brudzinski, Kim Bokamper and John Offerdahl. They have also succeeded in the challenging restaurant business.
“A lot of athletes get into it and like the glitz and glamour but don’t realize how tough it is every day,” said Shula’s son Dave, the former Cincinnati Bengals coach who is president of the steak house chain.
“If you don’t surround yourself with some real trustworthy, knowledgeable people -- I don’t know which word to put first, maybe trustworthy -- you can get taken down the road, and not on the path you want to be on. The failure rate for non-branded restaurants is 95 percent within a year.”
Shula’s has grown impressively from four restaurants when Dave Shula joined the business in 1997, and continues to expand through difficult economic times. Shows his father has reason to be proud of that latest game-ball.
“We’re real proud of the fact that we’ve had that kind of staying power,” Dave Shula said.
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