Skip to main content

What Dolphins could learn from Don Shula

By Bill Curry
updated 10:13 AM EST, Fri February 21, 2014
The Miami Dolphins have suspended Pro Bowl offensive lineman Richie Incognito following <a href='http://www.cnn.com/2013/11/04/us/nfl-dolphins-richie-incognito-suspended/index.html'>allegations of misconduct</a> from teammate Jonathan Martin. Incognito played for the University of Nebraska before he was drafted in 2005 by the St. Louis Rams. He also played for the Buffalo Bills in 2009 before joining the Dolphins in 2010. The Miami Dolphins have suspended Pro Bowl offensive lineman Richie Incognito following allegations of misconduct from teammate Jonathan Martin. Incognito played for the University of Nebraska before he was drafted in 2005 by the St. Louis Rams. He also played for the Buffalo Bills in 2009 before joining the Dolphins in 2010.
HIDE CAPTION
Richie Incognito
Richie Incognito
Richie Incognito
Richie Incognito
Richie Incognito
Richie Incognito
Richie Incognito
Richie Incognito
Richie Incognito
Richie Incognito
Richie Incognito
Richie Incognito
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Bill Curry: Vince Lombardi wouldn't tolerate racism in locker room; culture set at the top
  • Dolphins fired coach and trainer after bullying report; he says it shouldn't have come to this
  • He says football is violent, intense, needs leaders to set firm standards for alpha males
  • Curry: Famed Dolphins coach Don Shula let players have fun with limits; winning was focus

Editor's note: Bill Curry was a center in the NFL for 10 seasons: with the Green Bay Packers (1965-66), Baltimore Colts (1967-72), Houston Oilers (1973) and Los Angeles Rams (1974). He participated in three Super Bowls and two Pro Bowls. He was head coach at Georgia State University, Georgia Tech, the University of Alabama and the University of Kentucky. He has worked as a football analyst for ESPN.

(CNN) -- A great football team combines inherent violence with a certain order, always imposed by the coaches and team leaders. Famed Green Bay Packers coach Vince Lombardi allowed very little humor and made it abundantly clear that there would be no racism in his organization. Regardless of intent, any racist remark by a player was deemed malicious and resulted in instant dismissal from the team. The culture was established at the top. Leaders like Willie Davis were the enforcers in the locker room, along with Lombardi's "War Council," a group of hand-picked players who communicated directly with him.

The Miami Dolphins would have done well to take a page from Lombardi.

On Wednesday, the Dolphins fired offensive line coach Jim Turner and head athletic trainer Kevin O'Neill. It was the latest flareup in an ongoing, ugly controversy over bullying, leadership and NFL locker-room realities, one that has some of the characteristics of a wildfire: The slightest breeze ignites it for a fresh run over highly flammable terrain.

Bill Curry
Bill Curry

And now the heat has reached the top floor: The firings apparently came at the behest of team owner Steve Ross, who, news reports said, conducted his own investigation into the treatment of Jonathan Martin by fellow player Richie Incognito and others -- and the role their teammates, coaches and front office have played in the Dolphins' locker room culture.

That's significant, since owners normally leave such issues to coaches.

The Dolphins melodrama is a sad story of too much smart-ass talk and not enough supervision. The team's leadership should have laid down specific guidelines regarding acceptable discussion of race and gender preference and about outright harassment. This was clear from the beginning. The team has suffered, and from the trainer to the owner, everyone -- literally everyone -- is affected. It should have never gotten this far.

Whether Ross' firm action this week is sufficient to restore order to the Dolphins is open to question, since players have weighed in on both sides. Someone should have shut the guys' mouths on day one. Normally, that would come from within the team and coaches.

I have a long view on this culture. Last fall marked the first season in 58 years that I was not employed full-time in a football job. Fourteen of those years were spent in the NFL -- 10 as a player (including with Lombardi's Green Bay Packers) -- and I wake up each morning with painful reminders. They seem a small price to pay for having competed in the greatest team sport ever devised.

With all the sometimes absurd chatter over the Dolphins' story, it must be difficult for thinking people to know or understand how the team's situation could have developed.

Maybe I can add perspective -- to explain, if not to completely excuse.

What goes on inside NFL locker rooms?
Agent: Bullied player trying to move on
Agent: 2014 will be good year for Martin

Football is the only sport in which every player needs every teammate on every play just to survive. Simply put, everybody matters.

Football locker rooms are loaded with alpha males, and daily conflicts are inevitable.

My sensitive, scholarly friend, writer George Plimpton, joined us with the Baltimore Colts when we were Super Bowl champions and actually played four plays against Detroit in Ann Arbor before 104,000 fans. As we left the field, he turned to me and said, "That is the most disgusting experience in my life! You guys are deranged! I have never felt such palpable hatred in my life!" I said "That was not hatred; it was intensity. We are competitors!" He was inconsolable, and our argument continued until he decided we should do a book about the subject ("One More July").

Here are the fundamental and immutable truths that escape many media analysts and others:

• When you watch an NFL game, you are observing angry young men smashing each other with all their might on every snap of the ball. And each generation of players is bigger, faster and stronger than the one before.

• Football is not a contact sport. It is a collision sport. That is the essence -- indeed, the whole point -- of the game.

• College football is a petting zoo. The NFL is a jungle. When players cross the white lines in the NFL, they take on the persona of the gladiator. The intent is to destroy the opponent's will, to dominate him, to beat him into submission. There are no nice guys on game day.

• Some players can exit the field and resume life as decent human beings: kind, reverent and socially aware. Some cannot. Their unresolved anger issues are too dominant and manifest in often dangerous ways. For these players and former players, there is no equivalent in civilian life to the catharsis of two hours a day of physical combat.

• The only people who understand a specific locker room are those who lived or live there.

When I moved to Don Shula's team in Baltimore, for example, I was surprised to learn that there was much more laughter than in my previous locker room. The team motto was "If you can't take a joke, bleep you!" Only we didn't say "bleep."

Everyone was fair game, especially superstars like John Unitas. The great John Mackey literally stripped his britches off down to jock once, in the middle of practice with several hundred spectators, because Tom Matte had planted a cicada in his pants. Everyone laughed, including Mackey. Shula smiled but quickly restored order, reminding us that we had better execute if we wanted the fun to continue.

If practice deteriorated, Shula stuck that jaw out, and our safety valve, Dan "Sully" Sullivan, would say, "Cut the crap. He's not smiling." I really feel that Shula's phenomenal record was due in part to his ability to allow for some nonsense from time to time and because we had people like Sully, who became his surrogates in the huddle.

There was only one Lombardi, and there is a reason the Super Bowl trophy bears his name. There will never be another Shula.

Every organization must have its own ethos and standards that are hammered into the men's consciousness every day as the team's complex mix changes with waivers, injuries and trades.

Players often feel that they are fighting for their lives. There must be constant reminders of the focus. When the team wins, everybody benefits.

Individual players with differences should be expected to take care of business in private or on the field -- like the men they claim to be.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Bill Curry.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 12:56 PM EDT, Sat July 26, 2014
Megan McCracken and Jennifer Moreno say it's unacceptable for states to experiment with new execution procedures without full disclosure
updated 1:28 PM EDT, Sat July 26, 2014
Jeff Yang says it's great to see the comics make an effort at diversifying the halls of justice
updated 11:55 AM EDT, Sat July 26, 2014
Rick Francona says the reported artillery firing from Russian territory is a sign Vladimir Putin has escalated the Ukraine battle
updated 4:08 PM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
Paul Callan says the fact that appeals delay the death penalty doesn't make it an unconstitutional punishment, as one judge ruled
updated 6:25 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Pilot Robert Mark says it's been tough for the airline industry after the plane crashes in Ukraine and Taiwan.
updated 11:10 AM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
Jennifer DeVoe laments efforts to end subsidies that allow working Americans to finally afford health insurance.
updated 11:33 AM EDT, Sat July 26, 2014
Ruti Teitel says assigning a costly and humiliating "collective guilt" to Germany after WWI would end up teaching the global community hard lessons about who to blame for war crimes
updated 8:45 AM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
John Sutter responds to criticism of his column on the ethics of eating dog.
updated 9:02 AM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
Frida Ghitis says it's tempting to ignore North Korea's antics as bluster but the cruel regime is dangerous.
updated 2:50 PM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
To the question "Is Putin evil?" Alexander Motyl says he is evil enough for condemnation by people of good will.
updated 2:03 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Laurie Garrett: Poor governance, ignorance, hysteria worsen the Ebola epidemic in Sierra Leone, Guinea, Liberia.
updated 9:49 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Patrick Cronin and Kelley Sayler say the world is seeing nonstate groups such as Ukraine's rebels wielding more power to do harm than ever before
updated 6:05 PM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Ukraine ambassador Olexander Motsyk places blame for the MH17 tragedy squarely at the door of Russia
updated 7:42 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
updated 2:53 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Les Abend says, with rockets flying over Tel Aviv and missiles shooting down MH17 over Ukraine, a commercial pilot's pre-flight checklist just got much more complicated
updated 9:17 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
updated 12:37 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Gerard Jacobs says grieving families and nations need the comfort of traditional rituals to honor the remains of loved ones, particularly in a mass disaster
updated 10:13 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
The idea is difficult to stomach, but John Sutter writes that eating dog is morally equivalent to eating pig, another intelligent animal. If Americans oppose it, they should question their own eating habits as well.
updated 12:30 PM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Bill van Esveld says under the laws of war, civilians who do not join in the fight are always to be protected. An International Criminal Court could rule on whether Israeli airstrikes and Hamas rocketing are war crimes.
updated 10:08 AM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Gordon Brown says the kidnapped Nigerian girls have been in captivity for 100 days, but the world has not forgotten them.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT