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COMMENTARY
Saban's departure leaves Dolphins program in disarray

By Ray McNulty
Scripps Howard News Service

If you’re wondering to what depths South Florida’s once-proud and long-revered NFL franchise has sunk, consider this: The Miami Dolphins haven’t gone into an offseason in such disarray — and with an outlook this bleak — since before Don Shula showed up and put Florida on the pro football map.

That was 37 years ago.

Richard Nixon, in his first term as president, was trying to find a way out of Vietnam. “Marcus Welby” was America’s favorite TV doctor. And the Beatles’ final album, “Let It Be,” hadn’t been released.

The Dolphins? Spawned by the old American Football League in 1966, they had won only 15 games in four years and still hadn’t put together their first winning season.

But then came Shula . . . and a reason for hope.

Which, quite frankly, is more than the Dolphins have now.

They don’t have a quarterback. They don’t have nearly enough playmakers on either side of the ball. And, as of Wednesday morning, they don’t even have a coach.

Not that Nick Saban’s decision to dump the Dolphins for a more-lucrative coaching job at The University of Alabama was any real loss — he left after two unspectacular seasons with a 15-17 record — but, for the fourth time in 11 years, the team must start over.

This time, though, the challenge will be far greater than anything they’ve encountered since Shula’s arrival in 1970 and, certainly, much tougher than it has been since Shula was shoved into retirement after the 1995 season.

This time, the Dolphins must not only embark on a total reconstruction project, but they also must rebuild the community’s lost confidence in the team.

This time, there doesn’t appear to be another Shula-type coach ready, willing and able to answer the call.

“There’s only one thing I want to do, and that’s win,” Dolphins owner Wayne Huizenga was saying Wednesday, when he announced Saban’s return to college football. “I don’t care what it takes, what it costs, what’s involved. We’re going to make this a winning franchise.

“It’s no fun owning a team if you’re not winning, I can tell you that. And we are absolutely, positively going to get back to being a winning team. And sooner rather than later.”

That’s exactly what you’d expect Huizenga to say. It’s precisely what he needed to say.

And you want to believe him — especially after the classy way he handled a difficult, awkward and embarrassing situation.

At one point during his press conference, in fact, Huizenga made a hokey-but-heartfelt attempt to garner goodwill with the South Florida media Saban so despised, actually welcoming criticism and soliciting suggestions for ways to improve the team.

“All I want to figure out,” Huizenga said, “is how the heck we’re going to win.”

Then you look at his team, which failed to reach the playoffs for the fifth consecutive season, the longest such drought in Dolphins history. You look at the damage done by Saban, who left the place a mess. You look around at the pool of possible candidates to be the Dolphins’ next coach.

And you realize there will be no quick fix.

Even if the Dolphins get lucky — even if they can find the next Sean Payton, Eric Mangini or Lovie Smith to run the show — they don’t have the players needed to chase a championship. It will take a year or two to acquire the right pieces and put them in the right places. And even then, they’ll need to make up ground on the rest of the AFC East, which appears to be on the rise.

First, though, the Dolphins must find a coach.

And they can’t afford to make another mistake.

The best man for the job, however, probably isn’t interested. Charlie Weis, who won three Super Bowls as the New England Patriots’ offensive coordinator, already has his dream job at Notre Dame. The only NFL team that might tempt him is the New York Giants.

The next-best choice would be Southern Cal’s Pete Carroll, but he seems to be having too much fun winning on the college level to return to the NFL, where he was fired by the New York Jets and New England Patriots.

Then there’s Kirk Ferentz, whose name surfaces about this time every year but who always ends up staying at Iowa.

Which brings us to the more likely candidates: current NFL assistants.

There’s Jim Caldwell in Indianapolis, Cam Cameron in San Diego, Ken Whisenhunt in Pittsburgh, Ron Rivera in Chicago and former Green Bay head coach Mike Sherman, now the offensive coordinator in Houston.

At the moment, though, there’s no realistic candidate who jumps out at you, nobody who gets you excited, nobody you can point to and say, “We’ve got to get that guy.”

So the Dolphins will have to do it the hard way. They’ll need to do their homework. They might need to get lucky.

But whoever gets the job will have plenty of work to do.

He’ll need to start over.

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