Every NFL scouting combine week, Shula's Steak House became one of Indianapolis' hottest spots

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St. Elmo’s has the shrimp-cocktail factor to this day, and Prime 47 probably has overtaken all other downtown Indianapolis restaurants as the hub of activity during NFL scouting combine week.

But there was a time and place where Shula’s Steak House on the second floor of the Westin Hotel was, starting sometime in the late 1990s or early 2000s, one of the see-and-be-seen centers for activity during one of the few weeks when most of the NFL’s heaviest lifters are in one place at one time.

Don Shula’s death on Monday brought remembrances of and tributes to his incredible span as an NFL head coach, and even as a player in the 1950s. He won two Super Bowls with the Miami Dolphins and holds the NFL record for victories by a head coach with 347.

Shula also was a noted public speaker and businessman in his later years. He was highly successful at both.

Shula’s Steak House chain — once overseen by his son, Dave, the one-time Cincinnati Bengals head coach — was a worthy post-coaching endeavor for the Hall of Fame coach. It still boasts eight locations (five in Florida) and several offshoot restaurants under the restaurant group’s umbrella.

Yet it was the now-closed Indianapolis location that was the most important, at least in terms of football activity. The big wigs were all theoretically there to watch the combine workouts, but a lot of the major attraction was to talk to anyone who mattered in the league face-to-face.

There was no place quite like it during the combines of yore.

Closing an important chapter in NFL combine history

Shula’s Indianapolis location shuttered a year ago, and it was only fitting that it stayed open through the first few days of the 2019 combine in February. When it closed, so too did the door on a bygone day when that restaurant was one of the places where important football people talked big ideas and bigger money. Only fitting in a high-end joint where the bone-in dry-aged ribeye and a glass of Cabernet might have set you back $100 or more.

Don Shula was a Pro Football Hall of Fame coach, and his eponymous steakhouse in Indianapolis once was a hub during NFL combine week. (Photo by Stephanie Himango/NBCU Photo Bank/NBCUniversal via Getty Images via Getty Images)
Don Shula was a Pro Football Hall of Fame coach, and his eponymous steakhouse in Indianapolis once was a hub during NFL combine week. (Photo by Stephanie Himango/NBCU Photo Bank/NBCUniversal via Getty Images via Getty Images)

The grunt coaches and scouts hung out elsewhere — maybe even Hooters or Steak & Shake, after hours. The league’s power brokers conducted their business in places such as Shula’s and St. Elmo’s. Naturally, media flocked there because of it.

“Shula’s wasn’t the place for scouts,” Senior Bowl director Jim Nagy said via email. “It was the place where deals were made. Prime 47 and St. Elmo’s are those places now, but for a long time Shula’s was the place where GMs and agents met to get business done.”

Steaks, drinks and tampering

My first combine as a member of the media was in 2003, and my fellow (low-paid) coworker convinced me that at the very least, we needed to have a “dinner” there, perhaps a $26 Caesar salad and a $4 tonic, if for nothing other than to see who was talking. It was more than worth it, even if we left hungry.

Had I been a more seasoned reporter then, I might have taken keener note of former Chargers head coach Marty Schottenheimer and general manager A.J. Smith — back when they could stand to be in the same room as one another — talking with a man I didn’t recognize. It turned out to be agent Mitch Frankel, who at the time represented soon-to-be free agent wide receiver David Boston.

Who knows, maybe they were talking all night (wink, nod) about the Steak Diane?

Perhaps, but about a month after that dinner, the Chargers signed Boston to a massive deal … one that ended up being one of the worst contracts in the franchise’s history. After all, not all good decisions are made over beef and bourbon. Less than a year after that signing, the troubled Boston was traded to Miami for a sixth-round pick and Jamar Fletcher, the player the Dolphins drafted over Drew Brees.

Having learned to pay more careful attention at the following combine in 2004, I noted that former Titans GM Floyd Reese and agent Drew Rosenhaus were breaking bread at Shula’s, perhaps signaling an extension for soon-to-be free agent Jevon Kearse. It was not to be, as Kearse ended up signing a big deal in Philadelphia. Wonder who picked up the check that night?

For years, Shula’s was part of my regular-stop routine in Indy. Walk in there after 9 p.m., and you might see Bill Belichick and Scott Pioli talking with agents, Mike Holmgren holding a staff dinner, or some other heavyweight from the NFL’s ruling class making big decisions or, God forbid, having a few too many cocktails among their contemporaries.

The NFL might be a sewing circle, and the draw of Shula’s was the scuttlebutt that permeated the city that week. There also was an unspoken code of protection that existed there. Even with all the media eating and drinking alongside, you had to be careful with what you saw. Reporting who dined with whom back then — or worse, noting what or how much they drank — could earn you an angry call from the dining parties in due time.

Where deals used to get done

Oh, but if those walls could have talked. Most of them were covered with the pictures of its famous diners, giving the place an air of added importance amid such football heft. It often was, for one week every February, the nerve center of the free-agent period set to take place a few weeks later. You could say that tampering was as big a feature on the menu as any steakhouse staple they served.

Eventually, Shula’s slipped from the main combine circuit. It was still a place where some of the old guard gathered until the very end. Even this past February, I heard from an NFL connection who asked me to meet “outside Shula’s” even though it had been closed nearly a year by then. (The space is now inhabited by a restaurant called Nourish, which by no means is an NFL hot spot that I can tell.)

The last time I think I went into the old Shula’s was in 2014. The 49ers’ brass — that included then-GM Trent Baalke and Paraag Marathe — sat at a table with six place settings and a few empty chairs. Not long after, Colin Kaepernick’s two primary agents at the time joined them. About three months later, those parties agreed to a six-year extension that broke the record for guaranteed money at the time at north of $61 million.

Now those deals are done elsewhere, Prime 47 and St. Elmo’s being the biggest ones, with other spots — the hotel bar at The Conrad, the lobby of the JW Marriott — also earning their fair share of NFL biz. More and more in the age of social media, the league’s who’s who are becoming less visible, either booking private rooms in restaurants or finding the most out-of-the-way holes in the wall for their dealings.

Times have changed, and the old spot is no longer what it was. Being inside that restaurant during combine week was an experience unlike any other back in the day. Shula’s legacy reaches so far, and in so many other directions. But his eponymous steakhouse, based on what happened in Indianapolis for one week a year over a two-decade period, no question owns a small but important sliver of NFL history.

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