Shula dies at 90
Winningest pro coach also led Dolphins to only perfect NFL season.
MIAMI — Measuring Don Shula by wins and losses, no NFL coach had a better year. Or career.
He looked the part, thanks to a jutting jaw and glare that would intimidate 150-pound sports writers and 300-pound linemen alike. He led the Miami Dolphins to the only perfect season in NFL history, set a league record with 347 victories and coached in six Super Bowls.
Near the end of his career, Shula’s biography in the Dolphins’ media guide began with a quote from former NFL Coach Bum Phillips: “Don Shula can take his’n and beat you’n, and he could take you’n and beat his’n.”
Shula died Monday at his home across Biscayne Bay from downtown Miami, the team said. He was 90.
“If there were a Mount Rushmore for the NFL, Don Shula certainly would be chiseled into the granite,” Dolphins owner Stephen Ross said in a statement.
Shula surpassed George Halas’ league-record 324 victories in 1993 and retired following the 1995 season, his 33rd as an NFL head coach. He entered the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1997, and the induction ceremony took place at Canton, Ohio, 70 miles from his native Grand River.
Shula became the only coach to guide an NFL team through a perfect season when the Dolphins went 17-0 in 1972. They also won the Super Bowl the following season, finishing 15-2.
The 2007 Patriots flirted with matching the perfection of the 1972 Dolphins but lost to the Giants in the Super Bowl and finished 18-1.
When asked in 1997 if he was the greatest coach in NFL history, Shula said he didn’t know how to measure that, but added, “I always thought that’s why they keep statistics and wins and losses.”
Shula reached the playoffs in four decades and coached three Hall of Fame quarterbacks: Johnny Unitas, Bob Griese and Dan Marino. During his 26 seasons in Miami he became an institution, and his name adorns an expressway, an athletic club and a steakhouse chain.
“There was no better man or coach in the history of the profession than coach Don Shula,” Miami Heat President Pat Riley said in a statement. “He was tough, courageous and an authentic leader with great integrity in his pursuit of perfection, which he achieved!”
Shula supported many charities. The Don Shula Foundation, formed primarily to assist breast cancer research, was established as a tribute to his late wife, Dorothy. They were married for 32 years and raised five children before she died in 1991. Shula married Mary Anne Stephens, the ex-wife of Stephens Inc. founder and former Augusta National chairman Jackson T. Stephens, during a bye week in 1993.
“Don was not just an iconic figure in the history of our game,” Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said in a statement. “He was an American institution who always represented the highest levels of character, leadership and integrity. Being in his presence was always a special opportunity to rub shoulders with true greatness.”
Shula’s oldest son, David, coached the Cincinnati Bengals from 1992-96. When Cincinnati played Miami in 1994, it marked the first time in professional sports that a father and son faced each other as head coaches.
Shula’s active retirement included plenty of travel and social events. In January 2010, the Dolphins threw him an 80th birthday party at their stadium, and guests included NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, former U.S. Sen. Bob Graham and former NFL coaches Marty Schottenheimer and Dan Reeves.
Shula always enjoyed talking about the 17-0 team, and he and his 1972 players drew criticism for the way they savored their unique status each season.
“People think we’re a bunch of angry old guys who can’t wait for that last undefeated team to get beat,” Shula said in 2010. “We’re very proud of our record, and if somebody breaks it, I’m going to call that coach and congratulate them. Until they do, it’s our record, and we’re proud of it.”
Shula was born Jan. 4, 1930, and raised in Painesville, Ohio. He played running back at John Carroll University in Cleveland and cornerback in the pros for seven seasons with Cleveland, Baltimore and Washington. He entered coaching as an assistant at Virginia in 1958.
Shula became the youngest head coach in NFL history when the Baltimore Colts hired him in 1963 at age 33. The Colts finished 12-2 the following season and were widely seen as the league’s dominant team.
But they lost 27-0 to Cleveland in the title game, and for
the next few years continued to come up short.
The humiliation was greatest in the Super Bowl to end the 1968 season. The Colts steamrolled through the NFL, finishing 13-1 and outscoring opponents by a nearly 3-1 margin. After crushing the Browns 34-0 in the title game, they were overwhelming favorites to defeat the Jets of the upstart AFL, which had lost the first two Super Bowls.
But the Colts lost 16-7, blowing numerous scoring opportunities and allowing Jets quarterback Joe Namath to control the game.
The result is still regarded by many as the biggest upset in pro football history, and it contributed to Shula’s departure after the 1969 season. In 1970, after the NFL-AFL merger, Shula joined the Dolphins, a fourth-year AFL expansion team that had gone 3-10-1 the previous year.
Miami improved to 10-4 in his first season and made the playoffs for the first time, and the 1971 Dolphins reached the Super Bowl before losing to Dallas. The following season, when Miami took a 16-0 record into the Super Bowl against Washington, Shula considered his legacy on the line.
“If we had won 16 games in a row and lost the Super Bowl, it would have been a disaster, especially for me,” he said in a 2007 interview. “That would have been my third Super Bowl loss. I was 0-2 in Super Bowls and people always seemed to bring that up: ‘You can’t win the big one.’”
The Dolphins beat the Redskins 14-7, then repeated as champions the following year by beating Minnesota in the title game.
“The guy had me fooled,” said former Dolphins fullback Larry Csonka, who was with the team from 19681974. “He was such a strong personality and figure, you take for granted he’s always going to be there. I just assumed in 10 years we’d be celebrating his 100th birthday if the rest of us were lucky enough to live that long.”