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Celebrating the life of Don Shula (1930 – 2020)

Byvoodoovos

May 26, 2020

By Lawrence Vos (@F10YRetro and @NFLFANINENGLAND

I happened to be flicking through a 2000 NFL Record and Fact Book the other day, and as the league looked forward to a new century of statistical achievements I stumbled upon a table that listed head coaches with over 100 career wins. 

Picture credit: Hoylosangeles.com

Atop the table was the former Baltimore Colts and Miami Dolphins head coach Don Shula with an all-time leading 328 regular season victories and 347 overall, including playoffs. 

As the league headed into a new millennium Patriots head coach Bill Belichick had just 36 wins, just over 10% of Shula’s total wins. 

Fast forward 20 years, and as we hopefully enter the 2020 NFL season in September, I took another look at the all-time wins for an NFL head coach. 

Whilst Bill Belichick has now moved into third all-time with 273 wins, the man he still trails by 55 games remains Don Shula. If Belichick wins 11 games a season for the next five years, which is going to be a fascinating watch without Tom Brady at the helm, then he will tie Shula’s record at the end of the 2024 regular season. That’s how impressive Shula’s coaching record is in NFL history. 

Picture credit: CREDIT AL DIAZ/MIAMI HERALD STAFF

Shula sadly passed away in May 2020, aged 90, with a resume that may be light in Super Bowl trophies, but is undeniably outstanding; 

  • Two Super Bowl wins with the Miami Dolphins (VII and VIII) 
  • An NFL Championship in 1968 with the Baltimore Colts (prior to the NFL/AFL merger) 
  • Four time NFL Coach of the Year (1964, 67, 68 and 72)
  • Sports Illustrated Sportsman of the Year 1993 
  • A place on the NFL 100th Anniversary all-time team
  • The only coach to go an entire season (plus playoffs) undefeated (1972)
  • 33 seasons coaching in the NFL – 31 of those ending as winning seasons
  • And most importantly the most wins by a coach in NFL history 

The raw numbers say one thing, but it was the man behind the victories that made Don Shula such a remarkable person.

Shula was roaming the Dolphins side-line in 1988 when I attended my first ever NFL game at Wembley Stadium. The Shula led Dolphins won the game against the 49ers thanks in huge part to a single coaching call, a David Woodley bootleg touchdown run in the final period sealing the win. 

By the late 80s Shula had been coaching the Miami Dolphins for 18 full seasons, after moving from the Baltimore Colts in 1970. 


Shula as an NFL player

You have to go back almost a further 20 years to 1951 to mark the occasion that Shula and the NFL first came together. 

Picture caption: morning journal.com

Following a successful college career as a running-back at John Carroll University, a private Jesuit school in Cleveland, Shula got the attention of NFL scouts.

Shula was drafted by the Browns in the 9th round of the 1951 draft, joining a Cleveland team that was the reigning NFL champion and featured Hall of Fame players Otto Graham and Marion Motley. Shula was one of only two rookies the Browns drafted that year to make the Week 1 roster. 

In the NFL Shula was moved to the position of defensive back, and as a rookie had four picks in 12 games. The Browns lost the NFL championship in Shula’s first season, giving him a very early taste for finals.

Despite some military service time in 1952 Shula returned to the Browns, and lost in a second NFL championship game. 

The following season Shula got traded as part of a behemoth 15-player trade with the Baltimore Colts. 1953 also saw Shula complete a Master’s Degree in PE. 

Shula suffered four consecutive losing seasons with the Colts, from 1953-56, which included an eventful 1955 season when Shula had five interceptions and one broken jaw. 

After being released before the start of the 1957 season by the Colts Shula was picked up by the Washington Redskins, where he played his final season as a DB. 


Shula as a head coach

Johnny Unitas and Coach Shula – Picture credit: touchdownactu.com

Shula began his coaching career between 1958 and 1959 with two one-year stints at college teams. He was DB coach at the University of Virginia and then the same job at the University of Kentucky. His college career saw him on teams that won just five games in two seasons. 

In 1960 Detroit Lions head coach George Wilson welcomed Shula back into the NFL family, recruiting him as a defensive backs coach. In three seasons with the Lions (1960-62) Shula was part of a Detroit team that had winning records, somewhat aided by a legendary defensive line called the ‘Fearsome Foursome’.  

1963 saw Shula return to the Baltimore Colts, but this time in his first role as an NFL head coach. Colts owner at the time Carroll Rosenbloom made the bold move to hire Shula, who was aged just 33, and the youngest head coach ever. 

The 1963 Colts went 8-6 under Shula’s leadership on the side-line and Johnny Unitas on the field. The Colts followed with a four game improvement to finish 12-2 in 1964, but they suffered a heart-breaking 27-0 loss to the underdog Cleveland Browns in the NFL championship game. Shula did gain some redemption as he was given the Coach of the Year moniker.

In 1965 the Colts again did well, finishing 10-3-1 but again failed to cap off the season with any silverware after a defeat to the Packers in a playoff contest prior to the NFL Championship. In 1966 the Colts went 9-5, and improved to 11-1-2 in 1967 but failed to gain a playoff berth. Shula won a second Coach of the Year award although he did not reach the final. 

Finally the Colts managed to gain revenge on the Browns and in 1968 they dismantled them in the NFL Championship game before reaching the third ever Super Bowl. 

Shula’s Colts, a heavy favourite against the upstart New York Jets from the AFL, again failed to pick up all the marbles as Joe ‘Willy’ Namath ‘guaranteed’ victory and delivered on his proclamation with a 16-7 win that shook the professional sports world to its core. 

Shula saw out the 1960s with the Colts, with 8 wins in 1969, and a total of 71 wins in seven seasons, averaging over 10 wins a year. 


Shula and the Dolphins

As the 60s faded into the sunset and the 70s rose, like a crocus in the dawning of a new spring, Shula got snapped up by the Miami Dolphins, to become just their second ever head coach. 

What you may not know was the decision by Dolphins owner Joe Robbie to recruit Shula cost his team a first round draft pick. As negotiations occurred before and after the NFLs merger with the AFL it was seen as tampering. 

Shula valued a dominant running game and an intimidating defensive line as the foundations of his winning recipe and those ingredients helped him and the Dolphins to nine winning seasons in the 1970s, along with five AFC East division titles. 

In 1970 Shula led the Dolphins to 10 wins but Miami got dumped out of the playoffs in the divisional round by the Oakland Raiders. For you history buffs the first touchdown scored in the Shula Dolphins era was a 5-yard scramble by QB Bob Griese 

Miami repeated 10 wins in 1971 and won two playoff games before Shula suffered a fifth finals defeat as a player and coach in a loss to the Dallas Cowboys in Super Bowl VI. 

Super Bowl VII – Picture credit: i.imgur.com

Having accrued enough bridesmaid dresses to start a small boutique in a leafy part of Surrey, Shula finally lifted a Super Bowl trophy at the end of the 1972 season, with a team that remains the only one to ever complete an entire NFL season and playoffs without a loss. The 14-7 win in Super Bowl VII cemented Shula’s legacy as a great head coach.

Not to rest on his laurels Shula showed the rest of the NFL that his Dolphins were not in any way lucky, as Miami went 12-2 and won their second Vince Lombardi Trophy with a 24-7 win against the Minnesota Vikings. 

Looking to three-peat  in 1974 the Raiders again proved to be the Dolphins nemesis in the playoffs, and to somewhat of a surprise the Dolphins failed to win a playoff game for the rest of the decade, despite four of their last five seasons of the 1970s culminating in 10 or more regular season wins. 

In the 21st century it’s doubtful Shula would have kept his job going into the next decade, but back in the 80s Shula was seen as untouchable in Miami. 

An inauspicious start to the decade, an 8-8 dud, was followed by five consecutive division wins, and 11 playoff games between 1981 and 1985. 

More heartbreak followed for Shula as his Dolphins lost not one, but two Super Bowls (XVII to the Redskins in 1982 and XIX to the 49ers in 1984). 

It’s not often that you lose a Super Bowl and then the following Spring draft your starting quarterback for the next 17 seasons, but canny Shula snagged Dan Marino at pick 27 in the first round of the 1983 NFL draft. 

Much like the 70s Shula only had one losing season in the entire 1980s, reaching three AFC Championship games. Between 1986 and 1989 the Dolphins ownership stuck with Shula despite no playoffs and no more than eight wins. 

Picture credit: si.com

The 1990s saw Shula game-planning in his fourth decade as an NFL head coach, and in his final six seasons Don won two more division titles, three more playoff games and had one trip to a Conference championship in 1992, where they were outclassed by Jim Kelly and the Buffalo Bills. 

Shula’s final NFL game was another playoff loss to the Bills, this time in the wild-card round. The Dolphins were 27-0 down after three quarters before scoring 22 in the final period. The final points scored in the Shula era was a Dan Marino two-point conversion to WR O.J. McDuffie.   


Shula legacy

Shula’s 328 regular season victories stand as a record that at the start of the 21st century seemed impossible to ever be beaten, but Patriots Dark Lord Belichick has a chance to eclipse this by the end of the 2020s, but it will be one almighty challenge. 

Picture caption newsday.com

For me I spent over 20 seasons watching Don Shula on tv, adding to his leather faced tan in the Florida sunshine, and I even went to one of his steak houses on a trip to Miami around 10 years ago. I was simply not brave enough to try his 48oz steak challenge, but I clearly recall the menu being painted on an authentic NFL ball. I also remember being served the best French onion soup I have ever eaten. 

The history of the NFL cannot be written without including a jam-packed chapter about Donald Francis Shula, son of Hungarian immigrants, who had to fake his parents signature to play High-School football.

I would normally say rest in peace when an NFL legend passes away, but I hope Shula has a headset on up in heaven and is barking out orders as his team drives down into the red-zone to get good field position for the game-winning field-goal. 

Join me for more blasts from the past @F10YRetro