CLEVELAND – If Don Shula doesn’t know quarterbacks, who does?
Growing up just east of Cleveland, his favorite player was Otto Graham.
Then, after the Browns drafted Shula out of John Carroll in 1951, he was Graham’s teammate.
Shula wound up as a head coach in six Super Bowls, which doesn’t even count his loss to Cleveland with the Baltimore Colts in the 1964 NFL championship game. His quarterback was Johnny Unitas.
As head coach of the Miami Dolphins, Shula coached two Hall of Fame QBs, Bob Griese and Dan Marino. Shula bowed out after the 1995 season with Miami as the winningest coach in NFL history. He still is.
When this Hall of Famer turned up at the Pro Football Hall of Fame Fan Fest on Saturday, it was only natural to ask him about the QB who has all of Cleveland talking.
And he knew plenty about Johnny Football.
We caught up to Shula at the 100-yard indoor football field where his alma mater, John Carroll, had just wrapped up a practice as one of the myriad curiosities at the inaugural Fan Fest. We asked if Manziel puts him in mind of Griese, the short quarterback who helped his 1972 team to an undefeated season
“Bob Griese was 5-foot-11, maybe 5-111⁄2,” Shula replied — Manziel is 5-113⁄4. “Everybody’s different. Griese was a great field general. Marino was a great quarterback throwing the football. Manziel is a guy who looks like he has ability both as a field general and as a passer.”
Manziel is a candidate to be the Browns’ pick at No. 4 overall on draft day. Shula said he doesn’t know if Johnny Football is the next Johnny Unitas, but …
“Whether he can bring that spark is something you don’t know until he has that opportunity,” Shula said. “But you’ve got to say that in his career at Texas A&M, he was always a guy who gave them a spark and was always there when they needed him.”
Shula’s son, Mike, was head coach at Alabama from 2003-06. He was fired and replaced in 2007 by Nick Saban, but the old man hasn’t stopped following Alabama.
“Johnny Manziel’s not the biggest guy,” Shula said, “but the guy beat Alabama when nobody was beating Alabama.
“He’s played some good football against some good teams. I think it’s going to be exciting to watch him.”
Echoes of the Browns have bounced across Shula’s long life. The Browns threatened his 1972 team’s run at history by taking a lead against the Dolphins in the playoffs. His last year in coaching was 1995, coinciding with the death of the original Browns. In 2013, after Rob Chudzinski became head coach of the Browns, Mike Shula replaced Chudzinski as offensive coordinator of the Carolina Panthers.
While Don Shula won big with the pint-sized Griese, and while he likes Manziel, he marvels at his son’s QB, Cam Newton.
“He’s 6-5, 250. He can run. He can throw. He’s smart. That’s the kind of guy you’re looking for,” Don Shula said.
None of the QBs in this week’s draft packs all of those traits into one body. Yet, Shula says whoever picks Manziel in a high spot needs to play him early.
“You’ve got to have the guy on the field as quick as you can,” Shula said. “He’s no good for you sitting on the sidelines.”
Shula still gets a big smile when he talks about his boyhood love of the Cleveland Browns, a team that has been of no good to anyone lately.
“I’ve always been a big Browns fan,” Shula said. “Paul Brown meant a lot to me in my career. It would be good to see them do well.”
SEASICK FOR STEELERS
When Seattle won the Super Bowl in February, Franco Harris felt no sense of connection, even though he finished his career with the Seahawks.
In his 12th and final year with the Steelers, 1983, he ran for 1,007 yards. As a Seahawk in 1984, he ran for 170 yards (2.5 a carry) and called it quits.
In a curtained-off auditorium in the IX Center, with Larry King firing questions and a crowd of about 300 looking on, Harris talked about his last stand.
“I just didn’t feel right,” he said. “Mentally, I just could not make the transition from Pittsburgh to Seattle.
“When your heart is not in it, you can’t play the game.”
Harris, 64, was one of the more popular Hall of Famers roaming the Fan Fest on Saturday.
Cleveland great Jim Brown used to poke fun at Harris for lacking the toughness to stay inbounds when he might have gained another yard or two.
“I’m not as tough as Jim Brown. I mean, he’s the best runner of all time,” Harris said. “I feel very fortunate that I played on the best team of all-time. I’d rather take that.”
The Steelers won four Super Bowls with Harris carrying the ball. The Browns were 1-2 in NFL championship games when Brown played.
At the time of his retirement, Harris (1972-84) ranked second in NFL history with 12,120 yards. Brown (1957-65, all with Cleveland) ranked first with 12,312 yards.
What of Brown’s old dogs?
“That’s something the press grabbed onto, really,” Harris said. “I didn’t run out of bounds more than any other back.
“To me, Jim’s always been the best and still is the best. I want to say we get along great. We’re fine.”
These days, 30-year-old running backs tend to be washed up.
Detroit’s Barry Sanders ran for 2,053 yards when he was 29 and 1,491 yards when he was 30, then called it a career.
Sanders announced his retirement before the 1999 season, at which point his former Lions teammate Lomas Brown had just jumped to the expansion Cleveland Browns.
Brown, an offensive tackle, bugged Sanders about joining him in Cleveland.
“I vaguely remember that,” Sanders said at the Fan Fest. “Maybe I should have listened to him.”
Sanders doesn’t think running backs are a dying breed in this era of pinball numbers for passers.
“There’s a good crop in the game,” said Sanders, 45. “You start with Adrian Peterson, then look at Marshawn Lynch, who is fantastic. Chris Johnson … Arian Foster … there are eight, nine solid runners in the game that are going to put up 1,200 to 1,600 yards.”
- While the Fan Fest drew crowds to Cleveland on Saturday, the HOF’s 7,000-square-foot traveling exhibit was in Louisville taking advantage of crowds flocking to the Kentucky Derby.
- The Vince Lombardi Trophy that will be presented to the next Super Bowl winner is on display at the Fan Fest.
- Hall of Fame coach Marv Levy, who will turn 90 in August, walked to most of his Fan Fest appointments in the massive IX Center. Plenty of Hall of Famers much younger than Levy got around in golf carts.
- Attending the first Fan Fest, which ends today, is not cheap. On-site general admission entry was $44.99. Entry to special autograph areas was $300, in addition to a general admission ticket. Tickets for today’s variety show starring Terry Bradshaw is $70.
BY STEVE DOERSCHUK