FAU’s Dan Shula learning to find own way with a legendary name

(Courtesy FAU)

ASN-FAU-CharlottePick his brain, Dan Shula picks back. The last name gets the most attention, but how many Conference USA football coaches have a degree in psychological and brain science from Dartmouth?

“That’s really just a fancy term for psychology,” the Florida Atlantic assistant coach chuckled. “It was just a psych major. I mean, it was just something I was interested in doing. If I didn’t get into coaching, I was leaning toward kind of research-type stuff. That was kind of what I was interested in when I was in college.

“Yeah, I’ve always been really fascinated with how the mind works, how people learn always fascinated me. That’s really translated well in football — how to teach players. This player might learn best by watching film. This player might learn best by drawing plays in a notebook. There’s a lot of different ways a player can go about learning. I’ve got 16 different wide receivers, and 16 different personalities, different ways of doing things.”

Some of it’s learned. A lot of it’s inherited, nature over nurture. The 31-year-old wide receivers coach is carrying the torch for a third generation of football coaching Shulas, honoring the past while forging his own path.

“It was very hard for me to picture myself doing anything outside of football,” said Shula, son of former NFL coach David, nephew of former Alabama coach Mike, and grandson of Pro Football Hall of Famer Don.

As a teen, Dan was a standout quarterback at St. Thomas Aquinas High School in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., then a signal-caller and all-around brain-studier at Dartmouth. The youngest Shula knew the last name would raise some eyebrows in football circles, but he wanted his work ethic, his end product, to be the key that opened doors.

“I don’t think I could’ve had a normal 9-5 job and have season tickets to the Dolphins and been a spectator and not be a part of the game,” said Dan, whose Owls visit Charlotte Saturday at 7 p.m. ET on ASN. “(I said), ‘I’m going to do something in sports.’ I was hoping on playing as long as I could, then it ran its course. And then I never really thought of doing anything outside the game.”

Which is understandable when you grow up on the sidelines, at training camps, totally immersed, holding headphone cords and shagging balls. A smart cookie, Dan was cognizant of the risks, too: His father’s tenure with the Bengals ended in 1996 after five seasons and 19 victories. He also witnessed firsthand how fickle the profession can be with Uncle Mike, for whom he worked as a grad assistant at Alabama in 2006.

“He was ranked No. 4 (in ’05), then let go the next year,” Dan said. “So, yeah, it’s definitely a roller-coaster. I think they all did a good job preparing me for it. And they made sure I knew that the highs will be higher than anything that you could get in a ‘normal’ job and the lows are also a lot lower than you get in a ‘normal’ job. And I was prepared for that.”

Dan Shula talks with his grandfather Don before a game in 2014. (Courtesy FAU Media Rleations)
FAU head coach Charlie Partridge talks with Don Shula before a game in 2014. (Courtesy FAU Media Rleations)

After three seasons at Illinois State, including a run to the Football Championship Subdivision quarterfinals in 2012, he was prepared for a return to South Florida in December 2013, and the chance to bring his kids closer to both sides of the family tree. They live five miles from one set of grandparents and seven miles from another.

“There really wasn’t any pause,” Shula recalled. “The only pause was that I really loved my job at Illinois State, and it was a great place and we had some success there. The No. 1 draw for the job, to be honest with you, was working with (FAU) coach (Charlie) Partridge; I’d known him for seven or eight years before (taking) this job. He could have been coaching in Alaska and I would’ve followed him there.”

Grandpa Don, meanwhile, spends the bulk of his time in California these days. The annual Florida Atlantic-Florida International game is dubbed “The Shula Bowl” in honor of the area’s most famous football clan; Dan is the first close family member to coach in the contest.

“(Don) kind of let me do my own thing,” Dan said. “It’s more, for me, just learning from what he did, the fact that he was so consistent — treated every day the same whether they won the week before or lost the week before. It’s really more the building off of his habits. All his players who worked under him said he was the same every day, didn’t cut corners, was thorough in everything he did. And those are the same things I learned from him every day.”

Dan still has a kinship with Uncle Mike, with whom he shares similar traits. The nephew even visited his old mentor up in Charlotte – where he’s working as the Carolina Panthers’ offensive coordinator – for a few days this past winter to catch up and watch film.

“Mike and I are very similar, personality-wise — my family’s been saying that ever since I was little,” Dan said.

Conflicting schedules make face-to-face meetings rare, but this weekend is one of those fleeting times when the football paths intersect. The Panthers are home to the New Orleans Saints on Sunday, so the plan is for Dan’s folks to hit the FAU-Charlotte game Saturday, then stay for the NFL contest.

“Just getting a chance to work with and work hand-in-hand with him … it was just a fun experience,” Dan recalled. “He’s had probably more of an influence on me than anyone else, just because I was able to work with him directly and because our personalities are so similar.”

So many lessons learned, and learned well. Namely, that there’s more than one way to skin a defense.

And to get your point across.

“(Psychology) is definitely something I’ve always been interested in,” Dan said. “It’s always been a big part of my family’s career … my grandfather was a really fiery guy, whereas my personality doesn’t fit quite as much. I was a little bit more laid back than he was. So I’ve got to be able to get the same results and do it in a way that matches me. Players will know if you’re trying to coach in a way that’s not you. They figure that out. So you’ve got to still be you and still try to have the same success.”

Above: Dan Shula yells encouragement during the FAU-Miami game earlier this year (Courtesy FAU Media Relations)