SAN JOSE, Calif. — Aside from the last name and prominent jaw, Mike Shula is his own man when it comes to the coaching profession. He is the designer of the NFL's most prolific offense, the play-caller for Cam Newton, and creator of an innovative scheme that takes advantage of the Panthers quarterback's rare skills as a runner and passer.
"I'll be the first to admit that my dad, who he is, has opened doors," said Shula, the 50-year-old offensive coordinator of the Panthers and son of Hall of Fame coach Don Shula. "I'd be lying if I said it didn't. But I've always tried to be extremely appreciative and take nothing for granted."
The younger Shula has enjoyed a rediscovery because of his success with the Panthers. Broncos cornerback Aqib Talib, after analyzing Carolina's complex scheme, called Shula "a football genius."
"He understands football," Talib said. "He understands where people are going to be at. He understands defenses."
But "genius" wasn't what the Bucs ownership called Shula four years into his first job as an NFL offensive coordinator. Sixteen years ago this week, at age 34, Shula had fallen out of favor after leading a Tampa Bay offense that was 28th overall and 30th in scoring.
Former Bucs coach Tony Dungy is not surprised by Shula's success with Newton.
"Mike (Shula) was always good at designing the offense to the strength of his players," Dungy said. "I think what he has done there is taken a unique talent like Cam Newton and built an offense around him. He did the same thing with Warrick Dunn and Mike Alstott. It was different having a fullback like Mike who was really a big running back."
The Bucs had lost the NFC Championship Game to the eventual Super Bowl champion Rams 11-6 on a touchdown pass with 4:44 remaining to Ricky Proehl, coincidentally now the receivers coach for the Panthers. The Bucs were playing with their third-string quarterback — rookie Shaun King — and had backup players starting at tackle.
In those days, the staff of the losing teams in the conference title games coached the NFC and AFC teams in the Pro Bowl. Shula was running practice for the NFC offense when Dungy was informed the Glazer family, which owns the Bucs, and then-general manager Rich McKay did not want to offer Shula a new contract.
Dungy's contract gave him control of the coaching staff, and he wanted to retain all his assistants. After practice, Dungy was asked about his staff and whether he had a responsibility to hold the offensive staff accountable.
"Of course I do," Dungy said at the time. "I also know this. We've been through one round of the playoffs (in '97). We've been to the NFC championship. And we're trying to get to the Super Bowl. I know people have their opinions on how to get there, and I may have my opinions on how to get there, too. And I may be wrong, but I have my opinion."
Unfortunately for him, the Glazers didn't share that opinion. Dungy informed Shula of his dismissal during a private meeting at the Ihilani Resort in Honolulu. He told other members of the Bucs coaching staff of Shula's firing during a meeting described as somber at 10:30 p.m. Eastern, just before a scheduled luau. Shula left the next morning.
Who gets fired at the Pro Bowl?
"That's one of my few regrets," Dungy now says of Shula's firing. "I don't have many of them. From Day 1 when it happened I knew it probably wasn't the right thing to do and very soon after I felt bad about it."
Dungy's offense never found a fit with offensive coordinators Les Steckel and Clyde Christensen. Dungy was fired after a 31-9 loss to the Eagles in a 2001 NFC wild-card game.
Of course, both rebounded well. Shula wound up as head coach at Alabama from 2003-06, which included a 10-win season and a Cotton Bowl victory. But he went only 16-21 in the other three seasons. After four seasons as quarterbacks coach in Jacksonville, he took the same position with Carolina in 2011, when Newton arrived as the No. 1 overall pick.
"For me, Cam was just too talented to pass on," Shula said. "For me, I was selfish and I didn't want anyone else to have so much fun coaching this guy."
Shula never considered doing anything else besides coaching. He credits his older brother, David, who coached the Bengals, for deflecting the comparisons to his famous father.
After the regular season, Shula announced he didn't want to interview for head coaching jobs while the Panthers were still alive in the postseason. But Dungy believes he should get that chance soon.
"I'm surprised he's not a head coach because he should be," Dungy said. "Everybody wants the offensive minds and looks at the big numbers in the passing game. That attracts owners now. It took time for people to feel like Carolina was really good. It's a credit to Mike for saying this is what we have and this is what we do best."
If Dungy had a chance to do it over again, he says he might have resigned as Bucs coach rather than be pressured to fire Shula.
"I might have (left), and it might have been the best thing," Dungy said. "But it turned out well for Mike and I learned a good lesson."