February 1, 2019 - 7:31 pm
Updated February 1, 2019 - 9:29 pm
ATLANTA — It was around June 2017, a few months into Sean McVay’s tenure with the Los Angeles Rams, when the head coach and a Rams defensive assistant met an author they admire, Jon Gordon, at the Fairmont Miramar Hotel in Santa Monica, California.
Over lunch, three things were decided.
Gordon, whose books relate to leadership, positivity and team-building, would address Rams players that summer during training camp. Two: Gordon was convinced the Rams made a home run hire in McVay. And three: the writer had a read on Chris Shula, the assistant who accompanied McVay and mostly listened during their conversation.
“He’s going to be a head coach one day,” Gordon said of Shula in a Friday phone interview. “You can mark my words.”
That name, Shula, should sound familiar. His father, Dave Shula, was a head coach for the Cincinnati Bengals. His uncle, Mike Shula, is the offensive coordinator for the New York Giants. And his grandfather, Don Shula, has more wins than any other coach in NFL history. Chris Shula will coach Sunday in the Super Bowl against the New England Patriots.
Lately, he’s heard less about his last name.
“I probably get more questions about Sean and going to college with Sean than I do about being a Shula,” said Shula, an assistant linebackers coach. “It’s pretty funny that now that association has taken precedent.”
The two met in 2004 as college freshmen at Miami (Ohio).
They were football teammates for four years, McVay a wide receiver and Shula a linebacker. They lived in the same on-campus dorm building and apartment complex as freshmen and sophomores. In their third and fourth years, they lived next to each other off-campus.
The two were together regularly.
When Shula invited a few friends to Florida for spring break, that group included McVay.
“We would be the two guys who would get up and do sprints on the beach,” Shula said. “Our other buddies would be like, ‘What are you guys doing?’ That’s just kind of how we always were.”
And still are.
A 4,660-square-foot property in Encino, California, was a lot of house for McVay and his longtime girlfriend. So in early 2017, he did not hesitate when inviting Shula, whom he just hired away from the Los Angeles Chargers, to live there during their first season with the Rams.
The multimillion-dollar home offered a valuable vantage.
Shula overheard McVay on the phone with Reggie Smith, the Rams’ senior director of sports medicine and performance, when planning a training camp schedule. Various guests, such as a decorated U.S. Navy SEAL, visited. A lunch meeting with Gordon became a table for three. McVay asked Shula to accompany him to a radio show appearance.
The two coaches were 31 at the time. McVay, now 33, is the youngest head coach in Super Bowl history.
Shula will turn 33 on Tuesday.
“I kind of tagged along with him to a lot of stuff,” said Shula, who lived with McVay for about 10 months until moving to a nearby residence a year ago. “It was a pretty cool experience. It was like being a coach’s kid.”
He would know.
Some of his earliest childhood memories are of staying at Wilmington College each summer during training camp when his father coached the Bengals. Chris Shula and older brother Dan served as water boys. Once, during a stretch period, Chris Shula recalls edge rusher Alfred Williams calling him over and wrestling him to the ground.
This was his introduction to football.
“It puts a smile on my face now,” Dave Shula, now the wide receivers coach at Dartmouth College, said in a phone interview, “to think about looking off to the side and seeing whatever he might be doing, whether it be spotting the ball in practice or just playing catch on the side or pour drinks on the side.”
Personally and professionally, McVay said that experiencing the Super Bowl with Chris Shula “means a lot.”
But he emphasized why Shula is here.
“He deserves the job,” McVay said. “He happens to be one of my closest friends in life who’s a really good football coach. It’s not like we’re doing any favors around here. We’ve all got to support our families and different things like that, and he’s here because he’s a great football coach who happens to come from a football family and is one of my closest friends.
“There are a lot of guys on the staff that you’re really fortunate to have really strong relationships with, but the reason they’re here is because they’re great football coaches, good people and good communicators.”
Shula is in no rush to climb the NFL coaching ladder.
He knows the opportunity he has.
He shares a position room with linebackers coach Joe Barry, an energetic teacher with defensive coordinator experience. Wade Phillips, a former head coach who is part of the NFL’s only other three-generation coaching family, is defensive coordinator. Close friend McVay oversees the staff.
This is an ideal setting in which to learn.
“His last name, he gets name recognition instantly,” Barry said. “But to me, probably the most impressive thing about Chris is he doesn’t rely on that. He relies on his work ethic, and he’s got unbelievable knowledge. He works his (expletive) off.
“To me, a lot of times, again, when (people) have a certain last name, they can get jobs, they can get their foot in the door just because of who they are, who they know. … His best attribute and the thing that he does from Day One is … he’s a grinder. His last name doesn’t make him a great coach. His work ethic and how he attacks every single day, that’s what makes him a really good coach.”
A running joke in league circles is teams are searching for the “next Sean McVay.” The punchline is any person who bumped shoulders with McVay at a hotel elevator five years ago or who shared an Uber or Lyft carpool is suddenly qualified for stardom.
Shula knows McVay.
But he is his own person. He is not his last name. He is not his friend.
He hopes his experience from McVay and other mentors will prepare him to lead an NFL organization.
“I’m really enjoying my job right now,” Shula said. “That’s one thing my dad has always said is not to be always looking for your next job. Do the best job with the one you have. That’s what I’m going to do. I don’t have a set time frame. I’d love to be a coordinator at some point, a head coach at some point. I’m in this for the long haul. I know there are going to be a lot of ups, and there’s going to be some downs, too. Just stick through it for the ride and enjoy the process.”
The ride continues Sunday.