In 1988, having just won a national championship as the defensive coordinator for the University of Miami Dave Wannstedt could sense great opportunities were on the horizon. He had a loving wife, two beautiful daughters and a bright future. Yet he couldn’t escape a gnawing feeling of emptiness. After several unsuccessful attempts to fill the void, he concluded it must have something to do with God. In this candid life story, Dave and his wife Jan tell of how their lives gained fulfillment and stability in spite of the ever-changing world of the NFL around them. Here now are Dave and Jan:
Dave: Let’s pretend you’re in a locker room, okay? I’ll be a little more comfortable and we’ll get some good things accomplished there. So we’re going to have a little team meeting tonight.
Jan: Right. But you have to let the women in too though.
Dave: Yeah. That’s part of it. That’s part of the deal. We appreciate everybody being here. We’re excited about being here tonight with you and spend a little bit of time and hopefully everybody will leave here tonight with a little something to think about. In case you haven’t been following the Dolphins much, if you’re not big football fans, we’ve just completed our draft. And if you’ve seen the players that we drafted—the first guy that we drafted, we didn’t have a number one pick, but the first player that we took was a big offensive tackle: 6’7”. About 325 lbs. And then we drafted a full-back who’s going to block for him that’s about 6’2” 260 lbs. So, I know Dolphin fans have heard this for twenty years: We are going to run the ball! Now, the one thing I’ll promise, we’ll run the ball and hopefully this year we’ll run it forward. In fact, last year we used to kid, the only way we could see runs going forward is when we would get together the day after the game as coaches and sit around and run the tape backwards. You know, how you run it back and forth? We would see some positive runs.
It’s amazing how much work and effort we put into the draft. We would go out and scout these players. We’d go to the combineds and talk to them. We’ll go down to the universities and talk to Butch about his players. And then we’ll invite them in. Last weekend we had these guys we were thinking about drafting—and you know, you get anxious about a guy that has all the intangibles that you think could really help you. So there was this big kid in from Nebraska and I was excited about him. I wanted him to say all the right things and behave himself—have a good off-the-field record and all those things and all those things that we’re responsible for. So he’s just getting ready to leave. And I say, “Hey Tommy, I’ve got one question for you, one final question. What’s that “N” on the side of your helmet stand for? He says, “Coach, that stands for knowledge.” Well, we almost got a player from Nebraska. We were this close.
On a serious note, me being here last year on the staff, being the assistant head coach, it really gave me an opportunity to sit in. And it wasn’t as much to evaluate the players or evaluate the other coaches or evaluate what was going on. It was really an opportunity for me to kind of get a feel for where we were at as an organization. When Jimmy retired and I took over, the easy thing for me to do would have been to sit back and say, “You know what? We were two games away from going to the Super Bowl and we’ve got a good football team, one of the better teams in national football. Let’s just kind of let everything go and we’ll be fine. And we’ll fix it, whatever needs to be fixed, as things go.”
But nobody was happy the way the season ended from about the half-way point. And when I really sat back and thought about it, I said, “You know, that would be the easy thing to do and I wouldn’t be criticized for some of the changes that had to be made.” But for us to get better at anything, change has to take place. There has to be—with a true commitment—the change is part of it.
So, some of the tough decisions that I had to make were, I believe in my heart, all for the best of the Miami Dolphins. And right now, we have a football team down there that the energy level is tough to describe because we haven’t changed, but one player: Danny retired; the rest of our team is back. We’ve added nine free-agents. We’ve added two pro-ball players: one guy from Buffalo named Thurman Thomas, whom everybody knows. We’ve had a good draft. And the players—the Zach Thomases and Lindo Maureys—the players that went in the pro-ball, they now feel like, “Hey, we have a chance to kind of get a little bit of the spot light.” So the energy level around the facility right now is as high as what it ever was last year. And these young guys are excited about getting out there and really showing everybody what type of football players that they are and what we have as a team.
And with that—I was the assistant head coach last year—now we’ve got a new assistant head coach and I’ll kind of turn it over to her for a second.
Jan: All of a sudden I have a title!
Dave: She can answer all your quarterback questions, okay?
Jan: No, but I have a few questions of my own there! I want to give you a little history of Dave and myself and exactly how we met. We go back a few years. We did meet in high school. He was the football player, I was the cheerleader. Stayed together in high school, through college and I think we knew early on that we were probably meant for each other. Our lives at that point, with him being in football—and I do love sports. And the nice thing for us was that I knew that football would probably be part of our life at some point. In college, the last game of the season was a Pitt vs. Penn state game. A week after that game Dave and I got married. Unfortunately, during the Pitt vs. Penn state game—not the fact that Penn state beat us—but Dave broke his wedding hand and could never wear his wedding ring. And so I decided to have his finger tattooed, how happily married he was at the time. But no, we got the ring later. I did get a ring his size, but for some reason the wedding ring was never able to go on his finger because it was so swollen.
But, so we got married a week after the regular football season. We went to the fiesta bowl on our honeymoon. My birthday happens to be during the football season and several times we’ve been at a bowl game and Davie and Butch had been there when he’s forgotten my birthday. They remember every play, but they forget birthdays. I don’t know how that works.
We have two wonderful daughters. Our oldest, Carrie, is twenty-three. She was born during spring training camp. And Jamie, who is nineteen, was born during camp between Kansas City and Sandiego. So you see it just sort of evolves. We have moved six times in our lives with football. We started in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. We moved from there to Oklahoma State in Stillwater. Then we left there, went to U.S.C.; U.S.C. to Miami; Miami to Dallas; Dallas to Chicago; and Chicago back to Miami. So we’ve really gone full circle. We’ve been very fortunate. And for the last 27 years, we’ve really been happily married.
Dave: She gets mad when I say this, “The last fifteen were the best.” And I’m going to get into why here in a minute.
Jan: And that’s your story?
Dave: Yeah. Well that’s kind of the story, but what I’d like to talk to you about from a serious standpoint, I was at the University of Miami, and that’s why this is so fitting and why I feel so comfortable up here talking to you about it. I was thirty-five years old at the time and everything was good. And usually when people talk about making a change in their life, just like I was talking about making a change with our football team—you get beat 62 to 7.
Jan: That was the first half.
Dave: A situation like that really makes you say, “You know what? There’s time to make a change.” It helps. Or if you go through a crisis with a job or you go through a crisis with your health or your family. But, I was thirty-five years old and things were really never as good in my life as what they were at that time. The girls were healthy. We had a great house down there. We would never lose a football game. We only lost one football game the entire time I was at the University of Miami. I was reunited with a bunch of friends, with Butch and Jimmy and other people that we’d been together with for a long time.
And I had a real feeling in my heart that life was not complete. That would be the simplest way to put it to you. And I don’t know if you’ve ever felt that way or maybe you’re feeling that way right now. But everything that I had, materialistically and relationship-wise, wasn’t enough. It just wasn’t enough. So, my thinking, as a football coach, it had to be because I was stressed out, right? I’m reading all these books about coaches getting stressed out. So I go to see our team doctor: Doc Cunio. I said, “Doc, I’m stressed out. You know, we just lost the Penn State national championship—players are wearing army fatigues—I mean they’re going to run us out of town.” I said, “I’m stressed out. I don’t feel good.” He does all these tests and he says, “Dave, you’re fine.” And I didn’t want to hear that. So I said, “Okay.” And he says, “Relax.” I sign up for a yoga class. Now can you imagine that? I sign up for a yoga class and I go into this class and there’re about twenty people sitting around. And I can’t touch my knees let alone my toes. So that lasted two days.