Wannstedt rebuilds ties to past, but will he win?
By Steven Wine, Associated Press, 08/29/00
MIAMI -- If Dave Wannstedt becomes a bust as coach of the Miami Dolphins, he should consider a job at the United Nations.
After all, anyone who can simultaneously maintain cordial relations with Don Shula, Jimmy Johnson and Dan Marino is a superb diplomat.
Wannstedt has yet to win a game in Miami, but has already won praise as a bridge-builder. While his predecessor, Johnson, spurned the Dolphins' rich tradition, Wannstedt has restored ties to the past and stressed that anyone wearing a Miami uniform has reason to be proud.
Given the outlook this season, the Dolphins need all the pride they can muster.
Marino's retirement has left Wannstedt with a sputtering offense and quarterback controversy as Jay Fiedler and Damon Huard compete to fill the void. The running back will be journeyman Lamar Smith, the offensive line is unimpressive and memories of last season's 62-7 playoff humiliation at Jacksonville are still fresh.
Expectations are the lowest since Shula became coach in 1970. But at least the Dolphins have history on their side -- the 1972 perfect season, premier quarterbacks in Marino and Bob Griese, celebrity coaches in Shula and Johnson, and just two losing seasons in the past 30 years.
"The Dolphins are one of the best organizations in the league," Wannstedt says. "There are a lot of reasons to be awful proud to be a part of this. You look at our young players and say, `Hey, you're a member of the Dolphins now, and that should mean something.' That's where I'm directing this."
Most significantly, Wannstedt has brought Shula back into the fold. The Hall of Fame coach had a strained relationship with Johnson and kept his distance from the team the past four seasons.
When Wannstedt revamped the coaching staff, he hired Shula's son Mike as quarterbacks coach. During an April minicamp workout, the elder Shula visited practice for the first time since retiring, and he's glad to see the new head man embracing the Dolphins' tradition.
"I don't know why it wasn't done before," Shula says. "That's a very positive move. It's going to bring back a lot of former players and coaches into feeling a part of the organization."
Last season Johnson's relationship with Marino also soured, and the quarterback briefly considered playing this year for the Minnesota Vikings. But as Marino adjusts to retirement, he now proclaims himself a "Dolphin for life."
Wannstedt has repeatedly paid homage to Marino and even agreed to an unusual, potentially distracting tribute: The conversion of Marino's locker stall into a glass-encased memorabilia display.
Reaching out to the past has required considerable tact by Wannstedt. He and Johnson remain close friends, but Wannstedt acknowledges with a smile that his approach is a change.
"I haven't done anything other than just try to do it the right way and show the respect where it needs to be shown," Wannstedt says. "I've never been one big on ego. I don't want the attention on me. I want the attention on the players and on the organization -- and that's a little bit different."
Current Dolphins are well aware that ties to the past have been revived. They see Wannstedt warmly greeting Shula at practice. They see Marino being honored before a crowd of 52,000 at an event organized by the Dolphins.
Whether these warm feelings affect the won-loss column is debatable. Wannstedt can only hope his team is worthy of the Dolphins' tradition.
"I see Dave as trying to be the glue that holds some elements together that haven't been together in the past," says former Miami tight end Jim Mandich, now a radio broadcaster covering the team.
"But he can be the greatest cheerleader and flag-bearer in the organization, and if he doesn't win games, he's going to be out of here."