This year's Super Bowl features two of pro football's top coaches
Often there is a tendency among the media to overreact when the National Football League slips into Super Bowl week, analyzing everything from the significance of the players' pre-game meals to the way they part their hair. Will Miami blitz San Francisco quarterback Joe Montana or simply try to take his best receivers away from him with extra pass coverage when the two conference champions meet Sunday in Palo Alto, Calif.? Will the 49ers again move a guard into their backfield occasionally, the way they did against Chicago, so they can make a 270-pound blocker the spearhead of their running attack?
The two gentlemen who could answer these questions, coaches Don Shula of the Miami Dolphins and Bill Walsh of the San Francisco 49ers, would rather admit to almost anything than divulge any part of their game plans. Closed practices are commonplace during Super Bowl week; cadence counts changed to make it more difficult for the opposition to anticipate the snap of the ball.
Neither coach, of course, is likely to do too much tinkering for the final game of a campaign in which San Francisco stands 17-1 so far (counting regular season and playoff games) and Miami is 16-2. A little window dressing may be added, but with only two weeks to prepare for the biggest game of all, teams this strong seldom tamper much with the basic things that got them there in the first place.
Of greater interest to football aficionados, therefore, will be the adjustments Shula and Walsh make as the game progresses -- for over the years both have shown themselves to be among the quickest coaches around in terms of pinpointing mistakes and making adjustments on the spot.
Walsh, although he has been coach of the 49ers since 1979 and put together the 1982 Super Bowl champions, is a latecomer to the upper echelons of the NFL.
While the pro football fraternity was well aware that Bill's keen mind was treasured by all three coaches who once employed him as an assistant, they also considered him too much of a specialist to run the entire show. He got pigeonholed, the way an actor can sometimes get typecast in a TV sitcom. When a head coaching opportunity did come up, it was always the flashier but not necessarily better NFL assistant who got the interviews.
During his 11 years as an assistant, Walsh was thought of primarily as a teacher. It wasn't until he went outside the pros to coach Stanford to winning records in 1977 and 1978, including back-to-back bowl appearances, that the NFL people tumbled to the idea that maybe they had overlooked someone who could build champions.
One time, at a California Rotary Club luncheon, Walsh gave some of his personal philosophy away when he told his listeners:
``How you look at your opposition is important. Rather than be obsessed with others, we work instead for a standard of performance. . . . In football the distractions are the crowds, the travel, the officials, and the weather. But if the standards are there, performance will be able to rise undistracted by all that.''
Shula is a rock-jawed perfectionist whose Miami Dolphins reflect his personal commitment to discipline, hard work, and organization. Going into the current season, Don's career winning percentage of .709 ranked him among the all-time top NFL coaches involved in 100 or more games. He is also extremely proud of the fact that Miami has been the league's least penalized team during his 15 years there, proof indeed that the Dolphins won't be drawn offside easily or commit other costly infractions in the heat of battle.
Shula spends hours in practice going over situations like two-minute drills that are needed either to control the football or score with it near the end of a game. Don has also been very shrewd over the years in stockpiling excess talent as a hedge against injuries. When a Dolphin is sidelined, he always seems to have just the right replacement.
``We never let an error go unchallenged, because uncorrected errors only multiply,'' Shula once explained. ``One time when somebody asked me if there was any benefit to be derived from occasionally overlooking a small flaw, I didn't know what to say. Maybe if somebody could tell me what a small flaw is, I could have answered him.''
Often referred to as more architect than martinet, Shula nevertheless ultimately passes on all major decisions involving the Dolphins. When he feels right inside about something he goes with it, like the time three years ago when he decided to make his son David the Dolphins' receivers coach.
He knew what the initial reaction would be: that highly successful fathers who hire a son to coach under them in anything as complicated as pro football are courting disaster. But Don did it anyway, and the fact that the move proved out so well simply reinforces his reputation as a man who can fit parts together without ever upsetting the balance of his team.
In summing himself up one time Shula said, ``The important thing isn't what Don Shula knows or what any of his assistant coaches know. The important thing is how well we transmit that knowledge to our players. Basically that's what good coaching is -- the ability to transmit information.''
When these two outstanding coaches match wits Sunday, the edge in Super Bowl experience definitely goes to Shula, who is bringing a team to the big game for a record sixth time (his four previous Miami entrants were 2-2, beating Washington and Minnesota and losing to Washington and Dallas, while his 1968 Baltimore club lost to the New York Jets).
It's only the second Super Bowl for Walsh, but so far he's 1-for-1 via that 1982 victory over Cincinnati.