The legendary former Miami Dolphins coach will always be remembered as the perfect coach.
NFL’s winningest coach transformed Dolphins from ordinary to champions
Legendary Miami Dolphins coach Don Shula will always be remembered as the perfect coach, not just for the achievement of an undefeated season, but because he came along at the right time and made professional sports matter in South Florida.
The NFL’s winningest coach died Monday morning at his home, the Dolphins announced. He was 90.
“Don Shula was the patriarch of the Miami Dolphins for 50 years,” the team said in a statement. “He brought the winning edge to our franchise and put the Dolphins and the city of Miami in the national sports scene. Our deepest thoughts and prayers go out to Mary Anne, along with his children Dave, Donna, Sharon, Anne and Mike.”
Shula took the Dolphins from a nondescript expansion team to back-toback Super Bowl championships within four seasons. He is best known for leading them to a Perfect Season in 1972, going 17-0 to become the only NFL team to complete an undefeated run to the championship. They won the Super Bowl again the following season, finishing 15-2.
“If there were a Mount Rushmore for the NFL, Don Shula certainly would be chiseled into the granite,” Dolphins owner Steve Ross said in a statement. “He won more games than any coach in the NFL, and his 1972 Perfect Season team stands alone in the 100-year history of the league. His contributions to his sport, to the Dolphins franchise, and to the South Florida community will have a lasting impact. We were so fortunate to have him associated with the Dolphins for 50 years, and he was a source of inspiration to me every time I was around him. There will never be anyone like him.”
Shula, his prominent jaw firmly set, was the iconic symbol of the Dolphins for 26 seasons. He went on to win an NFL-record 347 games (with just 173 losses and six ties) in 33 seasons, surpassing George Halas’ mark of 324 victories in 1993. He retired after the 1995 season.
“Coach Shula — you will truly be missed! You embody the definition of greatness,” Hall of Fame quarterback Dan Marino wrote on Twitter. “You brought that winning attitude with you every day and made everyone around you better. Thank you for always believing in me. You made me a better player and person. My thoughts & prayers are with the entire Shula family. Love you Coach!“
Shula appeared in six Super Bowls, going 2-4, and reached the playoffs in four different decades. He only had two losing seasons (1976, 1988).
“It’s a very sad day to lose an icon like that,” Dolphins Hall of Famer Larry Little said. “He was not only a great coach, but also a great person who had a huge impact on my career. I became a good player because of him, and I’ll always be grateful for that. In fact, I have so much respect for him I asked him to be my introducer when I was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Coach Shula was a man of character, honesty and integrity.”
Shula was elected in 1997 to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio, 50 miles from where he was born in Grand River, Ohio.
“I went to high school in Palm Beach Gardens and was a big fan of the Dolphins, so to be drafted by Coach Shula and the team was a dream come true,” said former Dolphins defensive tackle Bob Baumhower. “I had the opportunity to play under him for 10 years. When I look back at our time together, I realize how much I owe to him. He moved me to a position I never wanted to play [nose tackle] and that led to my career being as long as it was. He was such an important figure in my life. He will be remembered forever.”
Pete Rozelle, the late commissioner who shepherded the NFL during its rise to the nation’s most popular sports league, once said: “For a very long time, Shula’s name was synonymous with the NFL and all that was good about the league and the game.”
As co-chairman of the league’s Competition Committee for more than 20 years, Shula played an influential role in significant changes in the game, such as placing more emphasis on offense, introducing the use of instant replays, proposing the two-point conversion and adding rules about downfield chucking of receivers.
But his greatest accomplishment was in putting South Florida on the sports map. Hired away from the Baltimore Colts by thenDolphins owner Joe Robbie in 1970, he turned a 3-10-1 team to 10-4 in his first season and got them to the Super Bowl the next year, losing 24-3 to the Dallas Cowboys.
That laid the foundation for back-to-back titles as the Dolphins went 32-2 over the next two seasons. A 14-7 victory over the Washington Redskins in Super Bowl VII gave South Florida its first team championship in a major pro sport. They successfully defended it by dominating the Minnesota Vikings 24-7 the following year.
Recalling the Perfect Season, Shula once said, “The thing I remember about that year is we’d win the coin toss, receive, our offense would hold the ball for eight or nine minutes, score, the other team would go three-plays-and-out and our offense would hold the ball for eight or nine minutes and score again.
“We’d be ahead 14-0 and the first half is damn near over with.” He laughed. “That’s the way to coach.”
Shula got an early start in coaching after playing six seasons as a defensive back with the Browns, Colts and Redskins. He was 33 when Colts owner Carroll Rosenbloom hired him in 1963, the youngest head coach in the modern era of the NFL until son David Shula took the reins of the Cincinnati Bengals in 1991 at 32.
Don Shula had a 71–23–4 record in seven seasons with Baltimore, but he was just 2–3 in the postseason, including two losses in championship games in which the Colts were heavy favorites: the 1964 NFL title game won by the Browns 27–0 and in Super Bowl III — the game in which Joe
Namath guaranteed and delivered a New York Jets victory.
The loss to the Jets in the Orange Bowl was his most bitter disappointment. It took an undefeated championship run to expunge it.
He poured a relentless work ethic into attaining it, which became the hallmark of his teams.
“We took a lot of pride in working harder and always feeling better prepared than our opponent. That helped us win a lot of games,” Shula told the South Florida Sun Sentinel in 2012.
He recalled that when he arrived in Miami the players were on strike. Once the labor dispute was settled, he worked the Dolphins four times a day to make up for lost time.
“They didn’t know what hit them. They complained about it. Then we won our first game. Then we won again, and they started to say maybe there is something to hard work and success. Then they bought into the program,” Shula said.
An important ingredient to his success was in adapting to the strengths of his players.
The Dolphins’ Super Bowl championships were built around a punishing running game led by Larry Csonka and an unheralded group of defenders. He got to the Super Bowl in the 1982 season with perhaps the least likely starting quarterback in Super Bowl history — David Woodley — on a team that leaned on the Killer B’s defense.
When Dan Marino joined the Dolphins the next season, Shula abandoned his old-school emphasis on the run to exploit his pass-happy quarterback’s vision of “see the guy and let it fly.”
Shula has the distinction of having coached five different quarterbacks in Super Bowl appearances (John Unitas and Earl Morrall in 1968, Bob Griese in 1971, 1972 and 1973, Woodley, and Marino in 1984), with three of them (Unitas, Griese and Marino) Hall of Famers.
His most memorable victories included the NFL’s longest game, the 27-24 double-overtime playoff win over the Kansas City Chiefs on Christmas Day 1971, which lasted 82 minutes, 40 seconds; and the 38-24 upset of the Chicago Bears on Dec. 2, 1985 that prevented the eventual Super Bowl champions from matching the Dolphins’ undefeated feat.
Many of the 1972 Dolphins were on the sideline for that memorable Monday night in the Orange Bowl. Shula called the 31-point first-half outburst, with Marino picking apart Buddy Ryan’s famed “46’’ defense, “the best half of offense I’ve been associated with.”
Some of Shula’s signature moments came in notable defeats.
His Colts’ 13-10 overtime loss to the Packers in a special tie-breaker playoff in 1965 was with running back Tom Matte playing quarterback due to injuries to Unitas and his backup. Shula simplified the offense and had the plays written on Matte’s wrist band, and the improvisation worked in a 20-17 win over the Los Angeles Rams to force the playoff.
The Dolphins’ 41-38 overtime loss in the playoffs to the San Diego Chargers on Jan. 2, 1982 was voted the NFL’s Game of the 1980s by the Pro Football Hall of Fame; Shula called it “maybe the greatest game ever.”
The epic struggle included the most famous play in Dolphins history — the hook-and-lateral for an improbable touchdown. Shula called the trick play with six seconds left in the half and the Dolphins on the San Diego 40. Don Strock threw the pass to Duriel Harris, who tossed the ball back to Tony Nathan, who romped untouched to the end zone, electrifying the Orange Bowl.
Shula was famous for his intense, single-minded focus on football. Once he screamed so vehemently about a penalty during an exhibition game that an official finally replied, “Don, it’s only 5 yards.”
“Five yards is my life!” the coach said.
Both of Shula’s sons followed him into football. David played briefly in the NFL and coached in the league for 15 seasons. The Dolphins’ 23-7 victory over David’s Bengals on Oct. 2, 1994 marked the first time in professional sports that a father and son faced each other as head coaches.
Younger son Mike joined the coaching ranks in 1988 and was head coach at the University of Alabama for four seasons before becoming the offensive coordinator of the Carolina Panthers.
After Shula’s first wife, Dorothy, succumbed to a six-year battle with breast cancer, he started a foundation to raise money for research into combating the disease.
Shula was remarried, to Mary Anne Stephens, in 1993 and remained a fixture in South Florida for the remainder of his life.
But what ultimately endures is the indelible image of the coach on the sideline, stubborn jaw extended in granite resolve that led to a season no team has matched or can exceed.
When his bust was unveiled for his induction into the Hall of Fame, Shula gave his approval to the prominent jaw cast in bronze.
“That’s the way it should be,” he said. “When you get away from all the numbers, the jaw is the one thing people associate with me. I really like the bust.”
Dolphins head coach Don Shula is carried on his team's shoulders in 1993 after his 325th career victory.
Don Shula, with his sons Dave, center, and Mike, pose with Shula’s bust during enshrinement ceremonies at the Pro Football Hall of Fame at Canton, Ohio, in 1997. Shula is the NFL’s all-time winningest coach.