Sometimes I wish Don Shula had continued his NFL career in another market, just to prove to former Dolphins owner Wayne Huizenga and a greedy new generation of Miami fans that 9- and 10-win coaches don’t grow on trees.
Of course it would have felt all wrong seeing the franchise’s Don, the ultimate Dolphins’ winner, running some other organization. Shula didn’t have to be washed up at 66, though.
Nick Saban is 65 as he goes for another championship at Alabama and most any pro or college team anywhere would blow up the budget for a chance to benefit from whatever is left in his tank.
There’s something of a revival for seasoned coaches these days, and I’ve got to admit it makes old turkeys like me feel good. As the game evolves, smart coaches do, too, or at the minimum they collect the most innovative minds available to head up their staffs.
Take a look at the four teams that earned first-round byes this year. Half of them are coached by 63-year-old men. One of them, Bill Belichick, has been doing this forever. The other, Arizona’s Bruce Arians, was handed his first full-time NFL head coaching gig at 60.
So far, so good. Arians is 34-14 with the Cardinals. He’s been to the playoffs twice in three seasons and before all of this he went 9-3 as the interim head coach at Indianapolis during Chuck Pagano’s illness.
The average age of the 12 playoff coaches is just a smidge under 55, with Seattle’s Pete Carroll (64) and Minnesota’s Mike Zimmer (59) helping to push it up. Overall, there are five NFL head coaches 60 years and older.
Zimmer’s story is similar to Arians. He had a solid reputation from two decades in the league but didn’t get his first his chance as a head coach until two years ago. In fact, he had been passed over so many times that the competition between him and six younger coordinators for the Vikings’ job barely even felt like it was worth his time and energy.
“I almost didn’t go (on the second interview with Minnesota),” Zimmer said. “I was so disappointed. It was like, ‘Why even do this?’ It was to that point I figured I was getting too old. I thought, ‘Forget this.’ ”
Mike Shanahan, 63, surely doesn’t feel that way. He’s interviewed with the Dolphins and would like a crack at running the 49ers, too.
To me, it’s a matter of whether a guy is capable of collecting wins, not whether he’s collecting social security.
For that reason, I would say go ahead and cast the net wider, Stephen Ross, if you’re serious about changing the culture in Miami. What you’re looking for is something like Shula had with the Dolphins, a culture built on doing whatever it takes to win. Switching from conservative offense to the electric jolt of Dan Marino was included in that, and that revolution came in Shula’s 21st season as an NFL head coach.
Call Tom Coughlin, 69 and suddenly out of work, to see if he’s willing to push on until the age of 72, like George Halas did in Chicago and Marv Levy did in Buffalo. And while you’re at it, why not gauge Mike Holmgren’s interest in rejoining the league? He’s 67 and reportedly is giving the San Francisco opening a cursory look.
Doesn’t mean that the 49ers would want Holmgren, but really, are the Dolphins in any position to disregard any coach who’s been to three Super Bowls with two different teams and shows even the slightest inclination to do it again?
Dick Vermeil won a Super Bowl at 63, for crying out loud, and he coached Kansas City to a 10-6 season at 69.
The more I think about it, Shula could have been good for another five years and some other franchise would have been smart to talk him into trying.
Four of his last six Miami teams made the playoffs, and that supposedly was while the game was in the process of passing him by.