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Wannstedt pushes right buttons

The Dolphins' first-year coach is having success in large part because he has his players' respect.

By JOE FRISARO

© St. Petersburg Times, published December 28, 2000


DAVIE -- He owns a Harley-Davidson, accepts blame and uses corny props to make subtle points. Dave Wannstedt's down-to-earth coaching style has driven the Miami Dolphins to their fourth straight playoff appearance.

Few could have predicted such a smooth ride for the Dolphins in Wannstedt's first season as coach.

Unlike his predecessor, Jimmy Johnson, Wannstedt delivered an AFC East title. And unlike Johnson -- a psychology major -- Wannstedt doesn't play mind games with his players.

Occasionally, though, Wannstedt will pull off a prank like the one before the Dolphins played at Cincinnati on Oct. 1.

Warning his team against a letdown, Wannstedt had mousetraps placed on each seat in the locker room.

"The guys were like, "What is this?' " safety Brian Walker said. "Then Dave explained to us, he didn't want us to fall into a trap."

The gimmick clicked, and the Dolphins won 31-16.

For much of the season, Wannstedt has pushed the right buttons. His players believe in him largely because they relate to him.

Wannstedt has experienced failure. From 1993-98, he went 40-56 coaching the Chicago Bears. Successive 4-12 seasons led to him being fired. He was blamed for a number of questionable personnel moves.

"We all have a lot in common," said veteran receiver Leslie Shepherd, who has bounced around. "Dave has been fired. A lot of players in here have been released or given up on. I was released."

Miami has sold itself as a team of misfits. Quarterback Jay Fiedler was a career backup. Running back Lamar Smith, formerly with the Saints and Seahawks, gained 1,139 yards. Offensive coordinator Chan Gailey was fired as coach of the Cowboys.

For the first time in more than three decades, the Dolphins lack national star power. They don't have a marquee coach. There is no icon quarterback like Dan Marino.

"We had something to prove to this league that we had a lot of football still in us," Shepherd said. "Jimmy's gone. And Dan's gone. Those guys were legendary. Now we are fighting for a common goal. Nobody here has a statue (like Marino) or a television show."

Hired as Johnson's assistant head coach last year, Wannstedt observed and got a feel for what worked and what didn't. By midseason, Wannstedt had won the players' respect because he stayed at the office late -- hours after Johnson called it a day, frequently at 5 p.m.

"Dave's style as a coach has changed quite a bit," said defensive end Trace Armstrong, who played for Wannstedt in Chicago. "When you get into the league, it takes a while to figure out how you want to do things and what kind of coach you want to be. The guys here have really responded to Dave's style. They really believe in what he's doing and rallied around what he's trying to accomplish. "I think the organization has a lot to do with it," said Armstrong, who led the AFC in sacks with 161/2. "Dave has got a lot stronger support staff here than he did (in Chicago)."

Wannstedt has the backing of owner H. Wayne Huizenga, who doesn't meddle in everyday decisions. Wannstedt took heat publicly when Marino wasn't welcomed back. But he sold Huizenga that it was time for a change.

"It was real difficult on me the first month," Wannstedt said of releasing Marino. "There were some letters early. ... That was handled the best it could be, given the difficulties."

Wannstedt hasn't been bashful about making tough decisions or speaking his mind.

On coaching instability, he said: "There is overkill and media scrutiny. Everything you say and do, every decision you make is dissected. ... And now there is a new breed of ownership and the money involved has made this -- a guy pays $800-million for a team and he thinks he should have success right now. It doesn't work that way. In a lot of cases the owners don't understand that."

When necessary, Wannstedt even points the finger at himself. He did so after the Dolphins lost 16-13 to the Bucs on Dec. 10. The coach accepted the blame for not running out the clock in the final seconds of the first half. Instead, Fiedler was intercepted by Shelton Quarles with 13 seconds left. The turnover set up Martin Gramatica's 38-yard field goal, giving the Bucs a 10-3 lead.

"A player won't hear a coach say (he's wrong) too many times in his career," Armstrong said. "It says a lot about his character.

"In the past we were more up and down emotionally. I don't know if that was Jimmy's fault, but that's the way we were. Now we're more consistent."

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