Don Shula: Coaching Longevity and Greatness

The discussion of greatest National Football League head coaches typically includes names like George Halas, Vince Lombardi, Bill Belichik, Tom Landry, Chuck Knoll, John Madden, and Bill Walsh. All these men led talented rosters to championships and helped shape the NFL into what it is today. But, another name on the list of coaching greats competed against all the previously listed names across 44 years of playing and coaching football. In 33 of those seasons, he was a Head Coach in the NFL and won 328 regular season games 347 games including playoffs, a record by a rather wide margin in both categories. That man was Don Shula.

Born in Grand River, Ohio, on January 4th, 1930, to Hungarian immigrants Dan and Mary, Don lived a rather typical small town Americana life in his youth.

He was one of seven kids in a faithful and church going Catholic family and played all sorts of sports. At Harvey High School in Painesville (OH), Shula earned 11 varsity letters, mainly in football and track. His most notable sports adventure came in his sophomore year when Mary, his mom, prohibited Don from playing football because of a serious gash across his face playing the game in a youth league. Don forged his parent’s signature and earned his way onto the team anyway. His efforts earned a scholarship to play football at John Carroll University, a Jesuit School in the Cleveland suburb of University Heights.

Shula had two turning points in his time at John Carroll. First, he went on a weekend retreat to discern the possibility of joining the priesthood. He seriously considered it but ultimately declined. Too much of his heart was in football to make a collar his uniform. He remained a faithful Catholic for the rest of his life, noting that at the height of his coaching career in 1974, he was attending daily Mass every single day. Shula felt more called to the gridiron than the seminary. With that direction clear, Shula had his second defining moment at the end of his college years.

Today, the John Carroll Blue Streaks play DIII football but back then, they played DI opponents. most notably, in 1950, the Blue Streaks hosted the Syracuse Orangemen in front of a 16k person crowd in Cleveland. The staff of the Cleveland Browns were in attendance to scout the Orangemen. Shula caught their eyes instead. In his penultimate game, Shula rushed for 125 yards and helped the Streaks to an upset.

Don Shula as a John Carroll Blue Streak

When Shula graduated with his Sociology degree and Mathematics minor, he was offered a job teaching and coaching at Canton Lincoln High School in Canton, Ohio for $3,750 a year (about $36,000 in 2020 money). Instead, the Browns remembered him and selected the Carroll player with the 110th pick in the 1951 draft. Shula signed with Cleveland for $5,000 a year.

Don Shula as a Cleveland Brown

As a player, Shula was respectable. He switched from running back to defensive back and played his way into the lineup as a rookie, appearing in all 12 games. Cleveland went 11-1 that season with their only loss coming against the Norm Van Brocklin and Elroy “Crazy Legs” Hirsch led Los Angeles Rams in the NFL Championship game, 24-17. Shula intercepted four passes in his rookie year.

He then was a member of a National Guard unit that was activated in January of 1952 with the Korean War raging. He never served in active combat, though domestic service did prevent a full football season. Shula returned to the Browns in November and played in the final five games that season. Again, Cleveland played in the NFL Championship Game. And again, the Browns lost, this time to the Detroit Lions. After the season, Paul Brown traded Shula and nine other players to the Baltimore Colts. Shula, who completed a Masters in Physical Education at Case Western Reserve University before going to Baltimore, played four seasons with the Colts under Head Coach Weeb Ewbank and tacked on one final season with the Washington Redskins in 1957. Overall, Shula played 73 games in 7 NFL seasons, intercepted 21 passes and played in two NFL Championship games. Certainly a respectable NFL career.

Then began his coaching odyssey. Shula started as a 28 year old assistant at the University of Virginia in 1958. That team went 1-9, only beating Duke 15-12 in the second week of the season. This was the worst record Shula would ever be a part of across 38 years of coaching and his only season in Charlottesville. He joined Blanton Collier’s staff at Kentucky next season, coaching the defensive backs and helping the Wildcats to a 4-6 record.

Shula rejoined the NFL as an assistant with the Detroit Lions staff in 1960. He started as the DB coach but became the defensive coordinator in 1961. The Lions boasted a respectable defense, allowing the fewest yards in 1962, and posted records of 7-5, 8-5-1, and 11-3, finishing 2nd in the Western Division, only behind Vince Lombardi’s 2-time Champion in this stretch Green Bay Packers.

In 1963, Shula became a Head Coach for the first time. Baltimore Colts owner Carol Rosenblum fired Weeb Ewbank following a few mediocre seasons and strategy disagreements. Rosenblum knew Shula as a player and trusted his football philosophy enough to make the 33 year old the youngest NFL Head Coach to that point, younger even than many of the Colts on the roster.

Don spent seven seasons in Baltimore and posted a successful mixed bag. On one hand, Shula’s Colts went over .500 every season and were a consistent playoff fixture in his tenure. On the other, this era of Colts football is regarded as one of the most famous “close but no cigar” stretches in football.

The Colts reached the NFL Championship Game in 1964 behind League MVP Johnny Unitas, halfback Lenny Moore’s NFL record at the time 19 touchdowns, and the best scoring defense in football. Shula won the Coach of the Year Award for his efforts. Oddsmakers and sportswriters favored Baltimore, but they were shutout by the Cleveland Browns. (A few sidebars, this was the only Title that Jim Brown won and the last Cleveland sports championship until the Cavaliers in 2016).

Baltimore went back to the playoffs in 1965 and visited Green Bay. Both quarterbacks on the roster, Johnny Unitas and Gary Cuozzo, were unavailable due to injury. Shula responded by giving Tom Matte, the starting halfback, a wristband with call signs for plays and made him the quarterback. It almost worked. The Colts led 10-0 behind their improvised offense. But these were the Lombardi Packers. They came back to tie the game late in regulation, albeit aided by a controversial call on the game tying field goal that the Colts believed was missed, and then won 13-10 in overtime, enroute to the first of 3 straight NFL Championships.

In 1967, Baltimore posted an 11-1-2 record but did not make the playoffs at all. Their lone loss came to the LA Rams in the final game of the season, putting the Rams in the playoffs. Unitas again won the League MVP, Shula claimed another Coach of the Year, and Baltimore posted a .917 winning percentage, still the highest winning percentage in North American professional sports to not appear in postseason competition.

But the best season and biggest disappointment came in 1968. With Johnny Unitas injured, journeyman backup Earl Morrall stepped in and won the NFL MVP. Shula won his 3rd Coach of the Year award and the Colts went 13-1 with an average margin of victory of 21 points. Baltimore avenged their only loss of the season by going to Cleveland and beating the Browns in the NFL Championship Game 34-0. Their reward was a trip to Miami to play in the third Super Bowl, a championship game between the established NFL and upstart American Football League. Lombardi’s Packers won the first two in convincing fashion and Baltimore was predicted to do the same to the New York Jets in the third edition of the game. Baltimore was favored by 17 points. Instead, Jet Head Coach Weeb Ewbank got a measure of revenge against his former employer by entrusting Joe Namath to lead the most significant upset in pro football history. New York won 16-7 by intercepting Morrall and Unitas (who attempted a late comeback) four times and running Matt Snell through the Colts defense.

Shula during Super Bowl III

After so many bitter defeats, a disappointing 8-5-1 1969 season, and the embarrassment of Super Bowl III, Rosenblum and Shula were weary of each other. The following offseason, Miami Dolphins owner Joe Robbie was looking for a Head Coach and credibility for his young franchise. He contacted the Colts for permission to talk to Shula about leaving Baltimore and while the actual details of the conversation are contested to this day, the result was that Shula signed with Miami. Rosenblum cried foul, alleging Robbie of tampering and the NFL compensated Baltimore by awarding them Miami’s first round draft pick that year.

Following the messy split, Shula settled into his new job and transformed the Dolphins from an ignored Miami sideshow into a force of nature. He spend 25 years at the helm of the Dolphins and authored some of the most memorable seasons in NFL history.

In 1970, Miami improved from 3-10-1 to 10-4 and a playoff berth. They dropped their postseason game to the Oakland Raiders, but the seeds for future success were laid.

1971 saw the first postseason wins for Miami. The Dolphins went to Kansas City and played a double overtime thriller against the Chiefs. Still the longest game in NFL history (82 minutes and 40 seconds), Miami won 27-24 on a Garo Yepremian 37 yard field goal. The next week, Shula got some measure of revenge against Carol Rosenblum by shutting out the Colts 21-0 in the AFC Championship Game. That good fortune did not continue in the Super Bowl, though. Miami was stymied by the Dallas Cowboys 24-3, still one of only two times a Super Bowl participant has failed to score a touchdown.

Entering 1972, Shula had a reputation as a good coach, but not a Champion. That changed when Miami authored the only undefeated and untied season in NFL history. Old Colts friend Earl Morrall stepped in for injured quarterback Bob Griese and won Comeback Player of the Year. The backfield of Larry Csonka, Mercury Morris, and Jim Kiick, and the “No-Name Defense” played a perfect 14-0 regular season before beating Cleveland in the Divisional round and Pittsburgh in the Conference Championship game (played in Pittsburgh thanks to bafflingly stupid divisional rules, meaning the unbeaten Dolphins went on the road for the AFC Championship). Don Shula claimed his fourth NFL Coach of the Year Award for his work. Super Bowl VII pitted the Dolphins against George Allen and gave Shula a chance to finally call himself a champion. He took it and finally won. 14-7 was the final. DB Luke Scott was voted MVP for a two interception game.

Fans and Dolphins players carry Don Shula off the field after beating Washington in Super Bowl VII to complete the perfect 1972 season.

The next season wasn’t another perfect season, but it was another Super Bowl year. Safety Dick Anderson won the NFL Defensive Player of the Year Award and Miami defeated Cincinnati (coached by the same Paul Brown who drafted Shula as a player in Cleveland 21 years prior) and Oakland in the AFC playoffs. Larry Csonka ran the ball 33 times for 145 yards and 2 touchdowns for the game’s MVP and a second consecutive Super Bowl Championship.

Super Bowl VIII Pregame

Miami has a chance at a three peat the next season, but ran out of championship glory in Oakland in the AFC Divisional round. Rookie Benny Malone gave Miami a late lead, but Ken Stabler’s touchdown pass to Clarence Davis and Phil Villapiano’s interception gave the Raiders one of the most dramatic wins in league history. The “Sea of Hands” game, as this became known, was described by Shula as the toughest loss he ever suffered.

Don remained as Head Coach of the Dolphins until 1995 but never had quite as good teams as he had in the early 70’s. He coached many award winners and excellent seasons and took part in a few legendary games and moments. Doug Betters won the Defensive Player of the Year award in 1983. Miami played a dramatic playoff game against San Diego in 1981, still known for Kellen Winslow’s heroics. In the lockout shortened 1982 season, Miami went 7-2 and beat the Chargers, Patriots and Jets in the AFC Playoffs to reach the Super Bowl for the first time in nine seasons. Only John Riggins’ record setting day in the Washington Redskins backfield (38 carries, 166 yards) prevented another Miami Super Bowl win.

The best player Shula coached in this time, and probably the best player he coached overall was Dan Marino. The Pitt QB fell to Miami at the 27th pick in the 1983 draft and tore defenses to shreds almost immediately. His 2nd season saw maybe the finest passing in league history. 5,084 yards and 48 touchdowns on a 64% completion rate. He won the NFL MVP and would win it with those numbers in the modern NFL as well. That 1984 Dolphin team went 14-2 and reached the Super Bowl, where they lost to Joe Montana, Bill Walsh, and the San Francisco 49ers. This was the sixth and final Super Bowl Shula ever coached.

Shula, Marino, and backup Don Strock in the background.

It is a tremendous credit to Shula’s coaching chops that he adapted his coaching to the talent he had. The Dolphins were built on a stout defense and a power running game in the early 70’s. Yet when Marino showed up, the offense changed to an aerial attack. Actually a throwback to Shula’s Colts days. Three different QB’s (Unitas, Morral, and Marino) won NFL MVP awards for a total of four such trophies between 1964 and 1984. Bob Griese, the Super Bowl VII starting QB was no slouch either. He made the Hall of Fame, but he was never asked to throw the football to all corners of the earth. Shula took his skills and put him in the best position to succeed, as he did with all his players. All-in-all, 15 Hall of Fame players suited up for Shula’s teams.

Two of Shula’s 15 Hall of Famers, Quarterbacks Bob Griese and Dan Marino, with their Hall of Fame Coach

Don hung around until 1995, ending his career with 328 regular season wins, more than any NFL coach by 10, over George Halas of the Chicago Bears. Bill Belichick is the closest active coach to him with 273 wins. Shula added 19 postseason wins for a total of 348 wins, again leading George Halas’ 324 wins overall. Belichick is the active leader in total wins with 304, 30 of them in the postseason.

In retirement, Shula’s name graced a series of successful restaurants. He also endowed the Don Shula Chair of Philosophy at his alma mater, John Carroll University. His name also graces the football stadium at John Carroll.

Shula passed away on May 4th, 2020 at the age of 90 years old. He died peacefully at his home in Indian Creek, Florida.

God rest the soul of the great Don Shula.

Shula’s Hall of Fame induction in Canton in 1997
Miami carries Don Shula off the field following a 19-14 victory over Philadelphia on November 14, 1993, making Shula the winningest coach in NFL history.

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