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The coaching life -- and four who made it to the playoffs

There are 28 men in the highly selective coaching fraternity of the National Football League. By yesterday's championship playoff games all but four of them were spectators. The careers of these four tell a lot about what coaching at the top is like. The opponents in Miami -- Raymond Berry of the New England Patriots and Don Shula of the Miami Dolphins -- go back more than a quarter of a century together. They battled each other on the field in the 1950s, and Berry later played for Shula on the Baltimore Colts.

The opponents in Chicago -- Mike Ditka of the Chicago Bears and John Robinson of the Los Angeles Rams -- have other stories to tell.

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The four together were valedictorians of pro football's Class of '85. On Sunday they still had their teams vying for berths in Super Bowl XX, the NFL's Jan. 26 title game. They'd be the first to tell you that being an NFL head coach is not for everybody, not even for those who have held the position. Many are fired and still others get out because 16-hour working days lose their appeal. Even Berry, a former NFL assistant, once vowed not to take a pro head coaching job, yet was named this season's American Football Conference Coach of the Year in his first full season with the Patriots. He apparently found the challenges of pro coaching irresistible. The same could be said for the three other coaches at the pinnacle of this demanding profession. Each projects a different public image and personality, a divergence that shows up in his football background as well.

Shula is the exacting commander in chief, Ditka the refined tough guy, Berry the quiet perfectionist, and Robinson the easygoing, next-door-neighbor type.

Robinson never played pro football, Shula was basically a journeyman defensive back, Ditka a star tight end, and Berry a Hall of Fame receiver.

Robinson is the only one with experience as a college head coach (at Southern California, where he led the Trojans to the national championship in 1978). Berry and Shula were once college assistants, a fact few realize, and Ditka has never ventured below the pro level.

Shula is easily the dean of this quartet, a head coach through 22 NFL campaigns and the youngest ever to achieve that status as a 33-year-old in 1963.

Reflecting on his long, successful tenure in the league, Shula has put his job in perspective this way: ``The important thing is not what Don Shula knows or what any of my assistant coaches know. The important thing is that we can transmit [our ideas] to people we're responsible for. They're going to be tested on Sunday afternoon, and the fact that we win on Sunday afternoon indicates that we're getting through to them.''

While that may sound simple, it can actually be quite tricky because of the number of individuals who must get the message. There's not another coaching position in sports that involves responsibility for communicating with so many people. Then too, the importance of being a master communicator is heightened due to the lopsided ratio of practice to game time. Coaching is a preparation-intensive occupation in which thoroughness is a virtue.

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No one is more meticulous than Berry at considering all the details. The approach is a carryover from his playing days with the Colts, when he laundered his own uniform pants to get just the right fit.

Berry was the favorite target of quarterback Johnny Unitas. That was during the latter 1950s and early '60s, when Berry wound up his distinguished pass-catching career with Baltimore playing for Shula, who had acute awareness of Raymond's capabilities. Shula, after all, had been a defensive back with Cleveland the day Berry set a Colts record in 1957 with 224 receiving yards.

This season, Berry has wrested some coaching accolades away from Shula, but for career achievement, Miami's square-jawed strategist owns a record unsurpassed by his present company. He has led more teams to the Super Bowl than any other coach (the Miami club he took there a year ago was his sixth), and he is the only coach to make it three years in a row (1972-73-74). He is one of a handful of coaches with 200-plus career wins and the architect of NFL's lone perfect team, the 1972 Dolphin squad that went 17-0.

Ditka acquired a lot of savvy playing for the Chicago Bears under George Halas, a founding father of the league. In 1963 he starred on the franchise's last championship team and a year later set an NFL receiving record for tight ends, with 75 catches. Tom Landry of the Dallas Cowboys, a superior judge of talent, had the good sense to acquire the hard-nosed Ditka toward the end of his playing career and then to make him an assistant coach after his retirement as a player in 1973. After a nine-year coaching apprenticeship with Dallas, Mike returned to Chicago in 1981 and led the club to a divisional title last season and to a 15-1 mark this year.

Every good coach must develop a style of his own, then possess the confidence and conviction to stick with it. Robinson is a good example. Despite skepticism, he has built a superlative running attack around Eric Dickerson, taking L.A. to the playoffs in each of his first three seasons.

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