Analysis. History. Perspective.

Sports Then and Now

Remembering Legendary Coach Don Shula

Posted on May 14, 2020 by Dean Hybl

The sports world lost one of the most accomplished coaches in modern history with the recent passing of longtime NFL coach Don Shula at the age of 90.

While Shula is recognized as the NFL’s career leader with 328 regular season coaching victories and 347 total including the playoffs, he was also a great tactician and innovator.

A former player under legendary coaches Paul Brown and Weeb Ewbank, Shula spent seven seasons as a defensive back for the Cleveland Browns, Baltimore Colts and Washington Redskins. He finished his career with 21 career interceptions and four fumble recoveries.

After retiring following the 1957 season, Shula spent two years as a college assistant coach, first at the University of Virginia and then at the University of Kentucky.

In 1960 he joined the staff of NFL head coach George Wilson with the Detroit Lions. He was Defensive Backs Coach in 1960 and then served as the Defensive Coordinator in 1961-62. In 1962 the Lions posted an 11-3 record, which was the best record in team history.

Following three seasons in Detroit, the 33-year old Shula returned to Baltimore to replace Ewbank as head coach of the Colts. At the time, Shula was the youngest coach in NFL history and younger or a similar age to many of his players, several of whom were his former teammates.

After posting an 8-6 record in 1963, Shula led the Colts to a 12-2 record and the NFL Championship Game in 1964. The Colts lost the title game to the Cleveland Browns 27-0, the first of a number of disappointing losses by Shula coached teams in championship games.

In 1968 the Colts posted an NFL best 13-1 record and defeated the Minnesota Vikings 24-14 and the Cleveland Browns 34-0 to win the NFL Championship. Heavily favored in Super Bowl III, the Colts lost to the Weeb Ewbank coached New York Jets 16-7.

Shula spent one more season with the Colts, but a disappointing 8-5-1 record in 1969 as well as continued tension with ownership following the loss to the Jets the previous season led to his exit from Baltimore.

It didn’t take Shula long to find a new home as he, ironically, replaced his former boss George Wilson as head coach of the Miami Dolphins. Wilson had been the first coach of the AFL expansion team in 1966 and won only 15 games in four seasons.

Though they had not achieved success in their first four seasons, the Dolphins had accumulated a solid core of talent including quarterback Bob Griese, running backs Larry Csonka, Jim Kiick and Mercury Morris and several young defensive standouts.

In addition to adding Shula for the 1970 season, the Dolphins also added former Cleveland Browns All-Pro wide receiver Paul Warfield in a trade with Cleveland.

After opening the 1970 season with a 4-1 record, the Dolphins lost three straight games to fall to 4-4. They then won six straight games to finish with a 10-4 record and a spot in the playoffs. They were defeated in the AFC Playoffs by the Oakland Raiders 21-14.

The next season, Miami posted a 10-3-1 record to win the AFC East title. In their first playoff game, they defeated the Kansas City Chiefs 27-24 in a dramatic overtime contest that was the longest in NFL history. Shula then was able to evoke some revenge on his former team with a 21-0 victory over the Colts to win the AFC Championship and advance to Super Bowl VI against the Dallas Cowboys.

The Super Bowl was a matchup between Shula and Dallas coach Tom Landry, both of whom had gained a reputation for struggling in the biggest games. The day would prove to be Landry’s as the Cowboys defeated the Dolphins 24-3.

Though they lost Super Bowl VI, the Dolphins were picked by many to repeat as the AFC Champions for 1972. However, no one was expecting the season that followed.

In a rematch of their dramatic playoff game from the previous season, the Dolphins defeated the Chiefs 20-10 in the season opener. Two weeks later, the Dolphins defeated the Minnesota Vikings 16-14 to remain undefeated. Despite the loss of starting quarterback Griese in week five against the Chargers, the Dolphins continued to win. They became the first team since the 1934 Chicago Bears to finish the regular season undefeated and the first team to post a 14-0 regular season record.

While the 1934 Bears lost the championship game to the New York Giants in the famous “Sneakers Game”, the Dolphins were able to complete a perfect 17-0 season as they defeated the Cleveland Browns and Pittsburgh Steelers in the playoffs and the Washington Redskins in Super Bowl VII.

The Dolphins lost their second game of the 1973 season to the Oakland Raiders to end their run of 18-straight wins. However, they lost only one more game during the regular season on their way to becoming the first team to reach three straight Super Bowls. Miami then defeated the Minnesota Vikings 24-7 to win Super Bowl VIII and join the Green Bay Packers as teams to post back-to-back Super Bowl victories.

Though Miami did not return to the Super Bowl during the decade, they won 10 or more games in five of the six remaining seasons in the decade. For the decade of the 1970s, the Dolphins won 10 or more games in nine of 10 seasons. They were 6-8 in 1976, which was the first losing season in Shula’s career.

In 1982 the Dolphins were 7-2 in the strike shortened season and then claimed the AFC Championship Game to reach Super Bowl XVII against the Washington Redskins. Unlike their matchup a decade earlier, this time it was the Redskins who came out victorious.

Under the guidance of second year quarterback Dan Marino, the Dolphins reached the Super Bowl for the fifth time in Super Bowl history while Shula became the first coach to reach six Super Bowls (breaking a tie with Tom Landry with five).

The Dolphins lost to the San Francisco 49ers 38-19 in what would prove to be the final Super Bowl appearance for Shula.

Over the next decade, the Dolphins reached the playoffs five more times, including reaching the AFC Championship Game in 1985 and 1992.

In 1993 Shula passed George Halas to become the NFL’s all-time winningest coach. He retired following the 1995 season with a regular season record of 328-156-6 and a playoff record of 19-17.

Shula was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1997 and was one of 10 coaches named to the NFL 100th Anniversary Team in 2019.

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