Donald Trump is the news again, both as a presidential candidate and as a beauty pageant owner on the outs with the television networks. Seems that he’s always making some kind of bold play, which got me thinking about the time he took a run at stealing Don Shula from the Miami Dolphins.
It was 1983 and Shula had one year left on his contract. Everybody figured he and Dolphins owner Joe Robbie would work it out, but suddenly the regular season was on, and then it was October, and then, in a shock that nobody saw coming, Trump announced he was deep into negotiations to land Shula as coach of his New Jersey Generals team in the rival United States Football League.
Trump’s comments were videotaped and broadcast by CBS at halftime of a Dolphins game at Baltimore. I looked back on my story from that day, which included details on The Donald’s assertion that Shula wanted to work for him and that the deal was being delayed only because the coach wanted an apartment in Trump Plaza on New York’s Fifth Avenue.
That didn’t really sound like Shula at the time, but as it turns out he and Trump really had been talking. What broke up their potential partnership was having it publicly revealed in the middle of the Dolphins’ season. Miami beat the Colts 21-7 that day but the postgame mood went instantly south when one of the first questions that reporters asked Shula was about Trump and the USFL.
“It really has developed into a huge distraction,” Shula said the following afternoon as he declared he was “no longer interested” in switching leagues and going to work for Trump, who was 37 at the time and the new owner of the Generals.
The next move was for Trump to paint the end of negotiations as a decision he had reached himself.
“Don is a good man,” Trump said. “An excellent guy, really. He just called me to say he was no longer interested, but I could not have done the deal. I could not have given him an apartment in Trump Tower.
“Money is one thing. Gold is another. I wasn’t very enthusiastic over the past few days. There was no way I could part with the apartment. I guess he was a little upset that the apartment thing came out. You know he was interested.”
Trump’s contract offer was believed to be around $1 million per year for five seasons. Shula neither confirmed nor denied the offer of the apartment, which over time would have been worth much more.
Would Shula really have made the jump? Well, he left the Colts of the NFL in 1970 for the Dolphins of the new American Football League, so it’s not completely out of the question. Also, he didn’t deny listening to Trump’s pitch.
“I had the opportunity to review a tape in which Donald Trump said that I was all set and ready to go and the only thing he had to do was to meet certain economic conditions,” Shula said in officially withdrawing his name from consideration. “I’ve never felt that I in any way have ever committed myself to that extent.
“When I was approached, I showed interest in the offer and in what they had to say. The only way I could make an intelligent decision was to get all the facts, which is all that I ever attempted to do without any commitment at all.”
Shula was 53 when all this happened. He had won two Super Bowls in Miami and would be back in the championship game soon with Dan Marino. Still, this may have been a closer call than anyone knew if only Trump hadn’t overplayed his hand.
We’ve saved the best quote for last, Robbie’s belligerent bugle call.
“This confirms my impression that Donald Trump has been engaged more in ballyhoo for his grand entrance to the U.S. Football League than in a serious effort to build his franchise competitively by sound, professional management.
“Headlines in the sports pages and network television can be mighty heady to Fifth Avenue tycoons.”
It takes a guy like Trump to coax a word like “ballyhoo” out of an opponent. He’s been pushing everybody’s buttons like that for a long, long time.