The presence of a great coach and a great QB, tied at the hip like a set of Siamese twins, often defines NFL dynasties. The phrase, “leadership starts at the top,” rarely goes beyond the coach of these teams, but this is far from true. Strong leadership above the coach is the cement that holds the organization together. Any successful endeavor begins with an impassioned leader at the very top whose ethic and determination funnels down through the organization.
In its infancy the NFL came into being by the persistence of men who did not view their team as a toy or a status symbol, these were men of passion. Joe Robbie was one such man. He built the Miami Dolphins with his own blood, sweat and tears, into one of the most successful franchises in NFL history. There is a direct correlation to the demise of the franchise with the loss of Joe Robbie.
Like any great leader, the keys to success are seeing that same greatness in others and providing the tools, guidance and respect, those people need to succeed. Steven Ross did not rise to his current pinnacle without understanding these basic principles. This cannot happen if the team is merely a toy or a status symbol. He must approach the Dolphins with the same passion that led to his success in business.
Breaking down those four keys can provide insight into where the Dolphins came from, where they are now and how to dig out of the current hole.
Provide the Tools
Give Proper Guidance
On January 12th 1969, Don Shula led the heavily favored 13-1 Baltimore Colts into the Orange Bowl for Superbowl III against the New York Jets. The Colts were a juggernaut that season, which culminated with a 34-0 crushing of the Cleveland Browns in the NFL championship game. The season began inauspiciously with QB Johnny Unitas injuring his throwing shoulder and the team having to resort to little known back-up Earl Morrall. Morrall led the team to one of the greatest seasons in NFL history and Shula chose to start Morrall in the Superbowl even though Unitas was now healthy. This fateful decision changed the fortunes of Don Shula and the Miami Dolphins.
The Colts lost that game 16-7 when Morrall could not muster the Colt’s offense and Joe Namath became a NFL icon by guaranteeing a Jet victory. More importantly for the Dolphins, the relationship between Colts owner Carroll Rosenbloom and Don Shula deteriorated to the point where Shula was “allowed” to resign. Joe Robbie saw an opportunity and seized the moment so readily the Dolphins were forced to give the Colts a 1st round draft pick for tampering when Robbie and Shula negotiated prior to Shula’s resignation from the Colts.
Joe Robbie recognized greatness, even at the cost of a 1st round pick and the largest coaching contract in NFL history at the time, Robbie did not hesitate. Shula would then lead the Dolphins to an undefeated season and nearly 30 years of unparalleled success. Under Robbie and Shula, the Dolphins became a model NFL franchise and Shula’s 347 victories is a record that may never be broken.
Steven Ross duplicated Robbie’s tenacity by negotiating with Jim Harbaugh, but did so, while still having Tony Sparano under contract. It was an ill-fated attempt to land the coach, but Harbaugh’s instant success with the 49ers shows Ross correctly recognized Harbaugh’s potential for greatness. Tony Sparano may not be a bad coach, but he clearly will never be a great coach in Miami. Ross didn’t get his guy, but he must not allow failure to stop him from boldly pursuing a great coach. It is his team and he must couple himself with a coach, of his selection, who shares his passion.
Provide the Tools
Joe Robbie did not start by hiring Don Shula, he started by hiring GM Joe Thomas. Thomas was responsible for acquiring a core of players that Shula would later lead to greatness. Thomas became infuriated with the spotlight shining on Shula and Robbie fired him in 1971 but not before Thomas found such players as Bob Griese, Larry Czonka, Nick Buoniconti, Dick Anderson, Manny Fernandez and may others. Thomas began to place himself above the team and Robbie quickly removed the problem hiring Bobby Beathard in 1971. Thomas actually inserted himself as the interim coach of the Baltimore Colts in 1974 before his arrogance finally landed him out of the NFL.
Robbie again struck gold by hiring Bobby Beathard who worked seamlessly with Don Shula to complete the makings of a dynasty. Robbie knew he needed a GM who did not aspire to be a coach or a football czar, he needed a man who excelled at player acquisition and Beathard was that man. Beathard was able to understand the type of players Shula could mold and provided him with the tools he needed to be a successful coach.
Taking a close objective look at the job Jeff Ireland has done, Steven Ross will quickly see the difference between Ireland and Beathard. As an example, both traded for wide receivers, Beathard’s choice was Hall of Famer Paul Warfield, Ireland’s choice, Brandon Marshall. Beathard decisively traded the number one pick in the draft for Warfield, giving Shula the downfield threat he needed to go with a devastating rushing attack. Ireland traded for a troubled player, one-step from league suspension. Marshall is a good possession receiver who has never had the knack for finding the endzone.
Ireland has done a decent job of drafting, but with the exception of Jake Long, his picks have been okay. His work in free agency has been abysmal and has left Tony Sparano with a collection of okay players after 4 years. If Ross wants to provide his coach with the proper tools, it’s obvious; he needs to find a man with a keener eye for talent and the confidence to take bold action on his convictions.
Give Proper Guidance
When Joe Robbie saw Don Shula and Joe Thomas were not a good mix, he demonstrated his leadership to Shula by not hesitating to fire Thomas. Robbie never made an indecisive, Wayne Huizenga maneuver, by hiring a czar to find a coach or GM for him; he went out and found his own people. He never displayed the lack of confidence in his decision-making that has eventually led to the current lack of confidence throughout the entire organization. Robbie was a man of action and through confidence; he provided guidance to all the people who worked for him.
When the city of Miami refused to replace the crumbling Orange Bowl, Robbie built a stadium for the city. Talking does not provide guidance, action does, and anyone who worked for Robbie knew words meant little to the man, actions spoke much louder. Steven Ross must have this same resolution and demonstrate it through actions. He must realize the entertainment of football is football. If the action is to fill a stadium with celebrities, the guidance to Ross’ underlings is to find celebrity players. Under this guidance comes a player like Reggie Bush when a proven playmaker like Darren Sproles ends up in New Orleans.
Ross must make the decision that his football team is the priority, not the people who sit in the luxury boxes. This guidance will enable the people below him to make decisions based on football and those decisions will then fill the luxury boxes and the stands as well. The cart does not move every well when the horse is behind it. Demonstrate a commitment to building a football team and everyone in the organization will follow that guidance.
Joe Robbie had the decency to fire George Wilson before approaching Don Shula. The lack of respect Ross showed to Tony Sparano has gone a long way toward the situation the Miami Dolphins now find themselves. Taking Ireland with him in the quest for Jim Harbaugh also placed Ireland in a position of disrespecting Sparano. This example of disrespect is reprehensible and filters all the way through the organization.
Perhaps Steven Ross wanted to make a bold Joe Robbie type move by pursuing Harbaugh, but he lost his coach of choice by the lack respect he showed Sparano. This could continue to haunt Ross because every coach he tries to hire, from this point on, will wonder whether the owner will eventually show him the same lack of respect. The leader must make the hard decisions and if it means firing someone, then the deed must be done.
It doesn’t always make sense that people will respect someone who fires another man but this is the essence of leadership. If an employee is a non-performer and the leader does not take appropriate action, he loses the respect of the rest of the employees. If Ross felt strongly enough to jump on a plane and court Jim Harbaugh, it clearly meant he was unhappy with Tony Sparano’s performance. He owed it to every person in the Miami Dolphin organization to show his leadership by firing Sparano, by not doing so, he lost the respect of his employees.
There is no other option for Ross, he must fire Tony Sparano. Tony knows it, everyone inside the Dolphins organization knows it and the fans know it. The impending doom reflects on the field and in the locker room. The only way for Ross to regain respect is by stepping up and being the leader he should have been last year. Respect is a fickle thing not easily acquired but easily lost. Ross must prove his dedication to his football team before it is possible for him to earn their respect.
Here is your plan Mr. Ross…
Provide the Tools
Give Proper Guidance
Bringing back the Miami Dolphins will not be an easy task but following these four keys will set the team on the right path. Miami fans will once again fill Joe Robbie Stadium and bask in the glory of victory.