By Ronald B. Scott
Updated December 02, 1974 12:00 PM

Kneeling in the nearly empty chapel at Biscayne College in Miami, his face still smarting from a quick shave, the coach of the Miami Dolphins, Donald Francis Shula, recites the prayers of the rosary while waiting for 7 a.m. mass. He has begun nearly every day of his adult life in church, and Shula at 44 likes to think it has helped. Something has. Miami seems headed for an unprecedented third consecutive world championship, and he is coming to be regarded as the best football coach in history.

Since he was a boy in Painesville, Ohio, Don Shula has been climbing toward this summit. “I forged my mother’s signature so I could play high school football,” he admits. Later he performed respectably, though not brilliantly, for John Carroll University, the Cleveland Browns, the Baltimore Colts and finally the Washington Redskins. He coached at two universities, Virginia and Kentucky, and the Detroit Lions before moving to the Colts in 1963 at the age of 33.

He was lured to the Dolphins in 1970 for more money and part ownership, now about 12 percent, worth $2.4 million. Driving the Dolphins like a Marine drill instructor, his preseason training camps quickly earned the reputation as the most demanding in the NFL. And the Dolphins won: in his four years in Miami, they have gone to four play-offs and three Super Bowls, winning in 1973 and 1974.

Throughout his career he has often, as his wife Dorothy puts it, “worn his religion on his sleeve.” Says Shula: “I once seriously considered the priesthood myself. But then I decided I couldn’t be a priest and a coach too.” Even now he refuses to go on the road without Father John McDonnell, an Augustinian who is the president of Biscayne College. In the 1971 Christmas Day play-off, Miami’s opponent, the Kansas City Chiefs, had their own priest on the sidelines. Shula got extra insurance by taking an archbishop along, Coleman F. Carroll of Miami. The result was the longest game in pro football history—which the Dolphins won, 27-24, in two overtimes.

To withstand the formidable pressure of championship coaching, Shula turns unselfconsciously to church and family. This year has been particularly hard. First, three of his top players, Larry Csonka (whom Shula regards almost as a son), Jim Kiick and Paul Warfield, announced they were leaving in 1975 for the World Football League. Then the temperamental owner of the Dolphins, Joe Robbie, yelled at Shula at an awards banquet, and Shula retaliated by threatening to deck Robbie. After 14 days of bitter silence, it took the intervention of Archbishop Carroll before the two men would speak again. No sooner had they settled their dispute than the long and bitter player strike erupted.

“The last six months have been the worst of our lives,” Dorothy says. “We would sit up at night worrying who was going to go to the World Football League next. I know Don has taken it very personally. I did too. We had pictures of Larry and Jim hanging all over the living room, but the day I heard they had signed with WFL, I took them down.”

Shula himself admits: “Losing Csonka was a bitter pill for me. It is going to take a lot of joy out of the job.” Although the coach discounts the effect the defections have had on team morale this year, the Dolphins got off to a shaky start. They lost two of their preseason games, then dropped the season opener to New England and later bowed to Washington.

Despite this season’s unusual demands, Shula still finds—or makes—time to watch his sons, David, 15, and Michael, 9, play football. He shouts encouragement like any parent, but rarely criticizes the coaches’ decisions. He doesn’t hesitate to fault the refereeing, however. “Sometimes they call holding too quickly,” he complained. “Hell, they’ve got to let the kids play the game.” Daughters Donna, 13, and Annie, 10, are becoming skilled horsewomen, and Sharon, 12, is a cheerleader at league football games. “I try to get to know my family,” Shula says. “They’re so caught up in my life, I feel it’s important to get involved in theirs, too.”

Every Sunday afternoon when the Dolphins are in town, the three youngest children sit with the family maid, Lucy Howard, in the stands. Dorothy joins the other coaches’ wives in an air-conditioned box high in the Orange Bowl.

The price of success is already being felt by the Shulas. After the second Super Bowl victory last year, FBI agents stood guard over their $165,000 ranch home because of threats. Now the children are required to call home even when they’ll be only a few minutes late.

In spite of the lavish palms and patio Miami living, Dorothy longs for the colonial home she left in Baltimore. Both she and Don are wondering what they will do after this season, even though his contract has three more years. If he leaves he must sell his share in the team. “There have been rumors of my going here or there [Green Bay and New York],” he admits. “Any time people disagree, the threat is there that someone will jump. But Robbie and I are communicating. I plan to honor my contract with Miami.” Shula pauses and his face softens—perhaps as prospects for coaching the Jets creep into his handsome, massive head. “But I do love the change of seasons—and Dorothy loves Connecticut.”