In the pantheon of great NFL coaches, Don Shula stands at the top. He had 347 career wins, more than any other coach in NFL history. Shula has died at the age of 90, according to his longtime team the Miami Dolphins.
In his 33 seasons as a head coach, first with the Baltimore Colts and then later with the Dolphins, Shula took his teams to six Super Bowls. With the Dolphins, Shula recorded the NFL’s only perfect season ever.
“Don Shula was the patriarch of the Miami Dolphins for 50 years,” the team said in a statement. “If there were a Mt. Rushmore for the NFL, Don Shula certainly would be chiseled into the granite,” Dolphins Chairman of the Board Stephen Ross added.
Hall of Fame Quarterback Dan Marino played under Shula for 13 years. In an interview with the Miami Herald, Marino said Shula was simply a great coach and a great man. Marino said it started with “what he expected of himself, how competitive he was and it just went throughout the whole team. He made everybody kind of come to his level.”
Shula led Miami for 26 years and became an institution. Today, there’s an expressway in Miami named for him and his statue stands outside the stadium where the Dolphins play.
When he announced his retirement after the 1995 season, it was broadcast live throughout South Florida. At the news conference, Shula said, “I’d be lying to you if I didn’t say that it’s going to be gut-wrenching when that ball is kicked off in September. Because this is going to be the first time in 43 years, that I haven’t been on the sideline in the National Football League.”
Before he was a coach, Don Shula was a player — a defensive back mostly with the Cleveland Browns and the Baltimore Colts. When he was hired as Baltimore’s head coach in 1963, Shula was just 33, at that time the NFL’s youngest head coach ever. He led the Colts to seven winning seasons and the Super Bowl.
In 1970, Shula took the head coaching job with the Dolphins, an expansion franchise with an abysmal record. In his first year, Miami went to the playoffs. Shula remained the Dolphins’ head coach for the next two and a half decades, along the way becoming the winningest coach in NFL history. Miami Herald sports columnist Greg Cote believes it’s an achievement that may never be repeated. “Shula’s record, I think, is unassailable,” Cote says. “I think it’s up there with Joe DiMaggio’s hitting streak and some of the other sports records that just will not fall.”
Shula’s first trip to the Super Bowl in 1969 was with the Colts, an NFL powerhouse led by Hall of Famer Johnny Unitas. The Colts were the decided favorites over the New York Jets, who were American Football League upstarts led by flamboyant quarterback Joe Namath. Namath brashly guaranteed victory and then shocked the Colts and the nation by making good on his promise.
Cote says, “Don Shula was on the losing end of that guarantee and yeah, that hurt him a lot.” The loss, Cote says, created bitterness between Shula and Colts’ owner Carroll Rosenbloom and was a factor in Shula’s decision to take the Dolphins’ offer in 1970.
In Miami, Shula inherited a team with a lot of talent, including future Hall of Famers — quarterback Bob Griese and running back Larry Csonka. In his second year, Miami went to the Super Bowl, losing to the Dallas Cowboys.
Shula learned something important from that loss. In 1997, at his induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio, he said, “When you’re there, it’s not good enough to be there. When you’re there, you better walk away with that ring because they’re only thinking about one team when that game is over. Before the game, they’re talking about two football teams. When the game is over, there’s only one winner.”
The next year, Shula and the Dolphins were undefeated all season long and found themselves back in the Super Bowl. This time, they walked away with the 1973 Vince Lombardi trophy after beating the Washington Redskins.
It was the perfect season, the only time in NFL history a team has gone unbeaten and won the Super Bowl. Other teams have come close. The New England Patriots almost did it in the 2007 season, as did the 1985 Chicago Bears. In 2007, Shula said the perfect season was one of the records he was most proud of. “When you realize just how tough an accomplishment it was, it makes it that much more meaningful because teams haven’t been able to do it,” Shula said.
In 2013, in belated recognition of their perfect season, President Obama welcomed the 1972 Dolphins to the White House. The president, a well-known Chicago sports fan, acknowledged he’d held a similar reception just a few years earlier for the ’85 Bears. Shula reminded Obama that it was the Dolphins that spoiled the Bears’ run at a perfect season.
Shula and the Dolphins won the Super Bowl a second time in 1974. In the 1980s, Miami made two more Super Bowl appearances, the last one in 1985 with Dan Marino as quarterback. After his retirement, Shula was involved in a number of business ventures, including a chain of steakhouses that bear his name.
As a coach, Shula was known as a leader and motivator, getting the most from his players. Cote, the Miami Herald sports columnist, says he adapted his coaching style to capitalize on the strength of his players. After relying on a running game in the 70s, Cote says Shula changed his coaching style after the Dolphins drafted Marino. “Marino was setting all kind of passing records,” Cote says. “Shula knew what he had, and all of a sudden this conservative, run-the-ball, defense-first coach became a guy who was the mastermind of all this record-setting offense.”
One of the few regrets Shula said he had in his long career was never winning a Super Bowl with Marino. But with a perfect season and the most NFL coaching wins ever overall, Shula said he was pretty satisfied with his record.