Remembering the wackiness of an old Dolphin

by Gary Shelton on February 18, 2022

in general

Friday, 4 a.m.

Funny how a news item of today can bring you back to yesterday. I guess that's the price of getting old.

Still, when the news came out that the NFL might force Jeffrey Ross to sell the Dolphins (for untold millions, no doubt), the first thing I wondered was how Joe Robbie would take it.

Probably not well.

Then again, Joe didn't take anything particularly well.

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You remember Robbie, the guy who fired Flipper, right? He was the one-time owner of the Dolphins, a whale of a businessman but a lousy owner. And the last words he ever said to me wsre "Go away."

I'm sure he meant it in the best possible way.

Robbie and I didn't get along, in other words. Still, most of the stories I tell aobut him are either complimentary or amusing. Sure, I saw him drink, and I know that he jumped out at a columnist once and asked why he didn't his share of the credit for the Dolphins' early successes.

But he was a whale of a business guy. He bought into the Dolphins for a $100,000 finder's fee, and he eventually took over. He built his stadium when the popular wisdom said an owner didn't do that. He was cheap, and he was cantankerous, a cartoon of a man, and he absolutely hated that NFL games were televised if they sold out in advance. He called it an affront to his customers, the ticket-buyers.

He was the first NFL owner to charge $20 for a ticket, and the first whose tickets averaged $20 (a pittance today). But his wisest scheme was the club seat, which along with luxury boxes, is what financed his stadium.

That was the thing I learned about Robbie. The last football decision he made was to hire Don Shula. I'm not sure he knew how many downs his team got before it had to punt. But that's not what being an NFL owner is about. It's a job where you hire a great coach and stay out of the way. Robbie knew better than to test Shula's will. Some owners might not have.

I was at an NFL owner's meeting when he was trying to get league rules to adapt to his ticket plan (he wanted to share only the revenues of a regular ticket, not of the inflated tickets). I ran into Dallas' Tex Schramm on my way back from talking to Robbie. Schramm snarled "we've conceded enough to that damn stadium." I quoted him. Of course I did.

The next day, Robbie was furious at me. He felt he should have gotten the last word in his local newspaper. I told him that he had his say, and that I ran into Schramm later. I was still explaining when he looked at me and, in fine parting words, said "go away." And I did. Of course I did.

He was a crusty old goat, but then, maybe that was the key to his success. Who knows?

One day, he came out to Dolphins practice -- a rare occurrence in those days, and stood on the sideline as punter Reggie Roby tried to hit him with a punt. He came close a few times.

The Dolphins were struggling that year, and at one point, Robbie told reporters "At the end of the season, Shula will deal with the players, and I'll deal with Shula."

Deal with Shula? What the hell did that mean. Was he going to sit him in the corner? Make him run gassers?

So I asked. "What do you mean, deal with Shula? Are you thinking about hiring a new coach?"

Robbie backtracked, saying that wasn't what he meant. I don't even think his statement made any newspapers. But the next day, it was Shula's turn to be angry at me. I had to call him about another story, and he asked what happened. I told him.

The next day, he saw me and again, asked me to tell him the story. I did.

Shula sighed and said that another reporter said I had baited Robbie into saying that. I told him I'd play the tape for him. How can anyone bait an owner into saying something and then not write about it?

Shula finally sighed and said "I would think I'm above that."

I shrugged. "Maybe you should be," I said, "But Robbie isn't."

Shula erupted at the suggestion that it might not be his decision to make. He dismissed me, and we didn't speak again for a week or so.

Those were strange days in Miami. Dan Marino was a fantastic quarterback, but he had an aging offensive line and a defense that kept getting hurt.The Dolphins practiced at a horrible facility. The draft went haywire.

Joe? Joe blustered until the end.

And me? Eventually, I went away.

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