Thursday, January 13, 2005

THE WINNING EDGE by Don Shula: A Book Review (1 star of 5)

Knowing what we know now but Shula didn’t know then, I wonder whether declaring that they had the winning edge was the main factor that caused the Dolphins to have the winning edge in 1972, their legendary perfect season. Psychology and neurology have recently taught us that our words (self-talk and conversational talk) have great power over how we feel, how we see the world, how the world responds to us, etc. The word center in the brain, unlike other brain functions, is said to directly influence the entire nervous system. Of course, philosophy and religion had been telling us that for a very long time, but it takes a doctor to make us listen.

Shula discusses how Csonka and Kiick shared an agent who held them out of camp jointly for bargaining power. Naturally this irked Shula. He fined them each $2,000 for being late to camp and made sure they paid it. Today’s players drop $2,000 at the strip club and never miss it. Considering how the end of Shula’s coaching career played out, it was probably the escalating player salaries and the change in mentality and balance of power that caused Shula to be the wrong coach for a new generation of players. This is even more the case today. You see that in Minnesota, for example, where Mike Tice has his hands full with Randy Moss, but what’s a coach to do? Or with Lawrence Phillips, a repeat criminal who was given chance after chance. Shula had power. Tom Coughlin has the same approach today but not the same power. It’s a different set of dynamics. Sort of. Shula says boo hoo, the most he ever made in his 7-year NFL career was $9,700, but compounded at 4% annual growth for 45 years, that’s $454,000 – not a bad living, but a far cry from the millions players earn today, some of them even before they ever take the field, and before endorsements and incentives.

Incidentally, the agent was employed by Mark McCormack’s group in Cleveland. McCormack was a sports marketing pioneer and his books I do recommend. McCormack’s work with Arnold Palmer put golf on the map and paved the way for Tiger Woods some decades later.

I follow the Steelers pretty closely and I can see some Shula in Bill Cowher’s program. For example, Shula was unusual for stressing the importance of off-season conditioning. He expected players to show up ready to play. His players hated but understood the “gassers” Shula would make them run on the first day of camp – wind sprints designed to test the players’ endurance and separate the conditioned athletes from the unconditioned. Cowher conducts a similar “run test” on the first day of camp. I remember a few years ago, former first-round pick Jamain Stephens showed up fat and weak at camp. His wife had had their first baby and he discovered Sun Chips and late night TV or something. He failed to finish the run test and Cowher cut him that very day. Stephens had started 10 games the previous season under Cowher. Now THAT will send a message to the team about why you play, how you prepare, and how disrespecting your team will cause you to have to find another team. Stephens did find another team, actually two, but has only started four games since 1999.

Shula repeatedly remarked how intelligent Bob Griese was and how he stuck with Griese early in his career because of his mental gifts, not his physical gifts. Obviously that paid off, and continues to – Griese’s son is now an NFL quarterback. You could say the same about Archie Manning – his mental gifts helped him outperform more “talented” quarterbacks, and his mentoring of Peyton and Eli is paying clear dividends, although some criticize Peyton for his purely analytical approach to the game. They would like to see him jump around once in a while after a big touchdown. But if I have one big game to win, I’ll take the technician. I have seen too many games won and lost by one team outscheming the other in their game planning or taking advantage of a specific vulnerability on a particular big play. In the Steelers’ December 12 victory over the Jets, for example, they ran Bettis off right tackle in a certain situation. In a similar situation later in the game, they ran the play out of the same formation, which pulled the linebacker in and allowed Bettis to throw a TD to the tight end. Later in the game, at the same spot on the field, they ran the play a third time. The previous throw loosened up the defense and Bettis ran it in for the clinching score. I’ll take that kind of methodical game planning and situational execution over a Mike Vick who can run around and make plays. Manning’s 49th TD pass was a good example of a methodical QB who assessed the defense, nodded at his receiver, and threw to a spot before the receiver had even made his break. That pass was a thing of beauty, made possible by understanding the other team’s tendencies and understanding how to exploit them.

Disappointments: It was clear that the ghost writer wrote the book. Much of the book is garden-variety recaps and reflections on each game of a season, as if lifted directly from the Miami Herald or post-game quotes. Also, the author’s accounts use vocabulary that writers use but coaches don’t, like “gridiron” for example. The author refers to the thousands of “Miami Dolphins’s fans” who welcomed the team back home from a Christmas Day win. What Dolphins fan would ever say Dolphinses? I got the feeling the author was not a big football guy.

The biographical section was very shallow. Hungarian immigrant, mom didn’t want him to play football, got a scholarship to John Carroll University, and on to his playing days, all in the space of a few pages. Tell me about your childhood, your formative influences, your playing years, your triumphs and disappointments, why you always wanted to coach... I got the impression Mr. Shula is not an introspective kind of fellow. That impression was magnified by his sharp recollection and outing of everyone who had ever said anything bad about him, and how he got them back.

I was looking for some deep insights into the psychology, the craft, of coaching. After all, Shula inherited a Dolphins team in 1970 that had never had a winning season, and in 1972 they made history at 17-0. The payoff came in the form of his “Winning EDGE”: E for Extra study, D for Determination, G for Gassers, and E for Extra effort. Oh happy day.

Point of interest: I never realized that Garo Yepremian’s oft-replayed botched field goal, where he recovers his blocked kick and feebly tries to throw a pass, which is intercepted and returned for a touchdown, took place in the Super Bowl at the end of Miami’s perfect season with the Dolphins nursing a 14-0 lead late in the game. Shula explained his reluctance to attempt the field goal, since the only bad thing that can happen to you at that point in the game is a blocked FG returned for a cheap TD, which is exactly what happened. He explained that soccer-player Yepremian had never been told to fall on the ball in that kind of situation, which was a failure in coaching, not a failure on the kicker.

All in all, pretty dry, pretty tame, and exceedingly boring. I skimmed most of it. It was billed as a tell-all but is not very spicy by today’s standards. After all, he still had to go back and work for the same owner and coach the same team after they read his book. It read more like the “All-Pro Heroes of the NFL” paperbacks that were common in those days.

The last few sports books I've read have been disappointing. Any recommendations?

Addendum: I looked up author's Lou Sahadi's credits at Indeed, he made his living churning out such mass market paperbacks as Pro Football's Gamebreakers; Ken Stabler and the Oakland Raiders; The Steeler Gang: Bradshaw, Harris, and Their Super Teammates; Basketball's Fastest Hands; The 49ers, Super Champs of Pro Football; Steelers! Team of the Decade; Broncos! The Team That Makes Miracles Happen; The L.A. Dodgers, The World Champions of Baseball; All-Time Basketball Stars; and Great Pro Running Backs. Today's equivalent is the special commemorative Sports Illustrated offer that appears after every major sports championship.


Tom said...

Good observation. So few of these kinds of books are worthwhile. Jim Kaat seems to write in his own voice and he has some strong opinions, but the book is forgetable.

I have high hopes for "A Pitcher's Story" by Roger Angell. It's written with and about David Cone. Angell writes baseball for the New Yorker and releases a collection of his work every few years.

As far as all-time classics, Robert W. Creamer's biography on Babe Ruth is among the best baseball biographies ever written.

It's a bit of an antique now, but Ring Lardner's collection of stories called "You Know Me Al" are some really funny pre black sox fiction.

I also liked David Halberstam's "Summer of '49" and "October 1964."

"The Glory of their Times" by Lawrence Ritter is a great capsule of old time ballplayers reflecting on the pre-Ruth game. Ritter just traveled the country in the 1950s and 60s looking up then obscure legends and asked them about the game. I listened to it on tape from the library and it's the actual voices of the old guys answering Ritter's questions.

Dude said...

Biographies are best penned by omniscient observers or autopenned in one's golden years. Only then can a writer look upon a life story as a finished project rather than a work in progress. I am always amazed to find biographies at Target of Britney Spears and such people who have just scratched the surface of leaving their mark.

A few months ago, I watched an ESPN documentary on Chuck Noll, who is still alive and lucid, reflecting on what made him such a successful coach. I was very impressed by Noll. He is of the same generation as Shula, but has the benefit of hindsight and unparalled sucess to look back at his coaching career, while enjoying retirement and owing amends to no man.

The last three sports books I have read I believe would be the autobiographies of Satchell Paige and Ty Cobb, and Nine Innings.

Paige was an interesting character, but is notable mostly for having a right arm that was a freak of nature.

Cobb's book is interesting, knowing as we do that he more or less held the ghost writer hostage and forced him to write a heroic recap of Cobb's life against the writer's own best judgment. When Cobb died and the world was finally free of the prick, the writer went on to write the "real" biography of Cobb as a horse's ass.

It's been a few years since I read NINE INNINGS, but I very much enjoyed it. The author picks one random game in 1982 (BAL @ MIL) and picks apart the strategies and personalities involved that make baseball such a great game. A very fun book and lots of major stars in attendance, including early Ripken and '82 Cy Young Award winner, Pete Vuckovich.

I nearly fogot MONEYBALL, which I read last summer and hailed as a masterwork in my Amazon review.

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