While most NFL fans know Don Shula as the winningest coach in league history, younger ones might not have a true sense of just how great and influential he was. Here are reasons why Shula -- who died at 90 early Monday -- was much more than just the NFL’s all-time greatest winner.
He didn’t have to deal with free agency, but…
NFL free agency started in 1993, and Shula’s final year as a coach was 1995. While players having freedom of movement inarguably made life more difficult for coaches, doing the job in the 1960s, '70s and '80s presented its own set of challenges. If teams had great draft classes, they could keep a dominant core intact longer, which made coaching a trickier proposition; there might have been wretched teams, but the best of the best stayed together and stayed tough to beat. Shula’s ability to thrive in that era — he won double-digit games every year in the 1970s except for 1976 — was exceptional.
His versatility was a strong suit
Shula made it to only one Super Bowl (1984) with Dan Marino and a high-flying passing attack, but he was adept at winning with a variety of styles; his early-1970s Dolphins teams featured power running and talented and aggressive defense. What’s more, he managed to guide Miami to its perfect season despite not having starting quarterback Bob Griese for the majority of the year due to injury. Thirty-eight-year-old Earl Morrall, who played for Shula with the Baltimore Colts, stepped in and went 9-0 as the starter. With Griese healthy the next season, Miami again won the Super Bowl but with a sharper passing attack as part of its repertoire.
He won the right way
No one disputes Bill Belichick’s greatness, but even his most ardent supporters must admit that some of his methods are borderline at best, untoward at worst, with the legacy of Spygate continuing to dog him in some circles to this day. Shula was the complete opposite. Included in his Miami Herald obituary was a window into Shula’s values. When asked what he wanted his legacy to be, Shula said, “I want them to say that he won within the rules, that he had players that took a lot of pride in playing within the rules.” He continued, saying, “I want them to say that we did it all the right way. Always the right way.”
He inspired one of the all-time great quotes
Legendary Houston Oilers coach Bum Phillips was known for his clever, folksy quotes about his players, opposing players and opposing coaches, among other things. Phillips summed up Shula’s coaching greatness when he said, “He can take his’n and beat your’n and take your’n and beat his’n.”
He was great before he got to Miami
Shula became famous for his back-to-back Super Bowls and perfect 1972 season with the Dolphins, but he had already accomplished much before going to Miami. He coached the NFL’s Baltimore Colts from 1961-1969, piling up a 71-23-4 record, with no losing seasons. He was on the wrong end of one of the great upsets in NFL history, Super Bowl III, but his work with the Colts was sterling and foretold of the greatness that was to come. Baltimore never finished worse than 8-6 under Shula’s leadership, and that was in his first season, when he was the youngest head coach in the NFL, at 33 years old.
His perfect season was even more impressive than it looks
Belichick couldn’t do it. The record still stands, nearly 50 years later. Only the 1972 Dolphins have managed to go undefeated. Shula’s 17-0 squad got it done with backup quarterback Morrall starting nine of 14 games, and because of a now-defunct rule that dictated that the site of the AFC championship game would be awarded on a rotating basis, they also had to beat the Steelers in Pittsburgh to earn a trip to the Super Bowl. What’s more, Shula had to make a tough decision to bench Morrall and bring in a recovered Griese with Miami trailing 10-7 in the third quarter. Griese commanded two touchdown drives, and the Dolphins went on to win, 21-17.
Losing seasons? What are those?
Perhaps Shula’s greatest trait as a head coach was his consistency. In 33 seasons, he had just two losing campaigns: 1976, when the Dolphins went 6-8, and 1988, when they went 6-10. He had four 8-8 campaigns but boasted a winning record in his other 27 seasons. He even managed to navigate both strike seasons — 1982 and 1987 — with winning records, going 7-2 and 8-7, respectively. No other coach with at least 25 seasons of experience has fewer than three sub-.500 years.
He was focused on his job, but he wasn’t a robot
Shula’s focus on his job was famously evidenced by the fact that he thought “Miami Vice” star Don Johnson was an actual vice cop. But unlike many great coaches who have deserved reputations as hot-heads and bullies, Shula was a calm, collected presence on the sideline, and during his collegiate playing days, he was known as a fun-loving, affable guy. Shula was a change from the norm because he actually appeared to enjoy his work.
He worked to make the NFL a passing league
Shula was instrumental in helping shift the league’s offensive focus to passing, as he served on the rules committee for 20 years, from 1976-1996. This is particularly interesting because when he joined the committee, the Dolphins were very much defined by their running game and defensive prowess, with their greatest successes accomplished when relying on those two elements. Former committee chairman Tex Schramm, when describing Shula’s contributions, said, “He was a unique individual who could look at what was best for the game and the league rather than what was necessarily best for his team. That’s not easy for the people in this league to do.”
He nearly worked for Donald Trump
Shula flirted with leaving the Dolphins in 1983, when Trump, who then owned the New Jersey Generals of the USFL, offered him a considerable raise from his reported $400,000 a year salary with Miami to get him to coach the Generals. The two sides couldn’t come to an agreement, however, because Shula wanted a rent-free apartment in the Trump Tower in New York City. Once news of the talks leaked, and Trump refused to budge on the apartment, Shula decided to stay in Miami.
His post-coaching career was also impressive
Shula did plenty of traveling, and seemed to thoroughly enjoy retirement, and for younger fans, his name is probably as much associated with steakhouses and restaurants as it is football. There are restaurants bearing Shula’s name in six different states, and he was also a pitchman for NutriSystem.
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