The victories are smaller now, the fabled intensity faded, but the NFL’s winningest coach—mentor to Unitas and Marino—remains fiercely proud of his legacy. Perfection will do that to a man
From now until the start of training camps, The MMQB will be running a series of our Greatest Hits from the site’s first year. Here from last August, Jenny Vrentas visited Hall of fame coach Don Shula at his home in South Florida.
MIAMI BEACH, Fla. — Don Shula has noticed something not-so-perfect about the symbol of perfection he wears on his left ring finger.
The centerpiece diamond, a perfectly circular stone surrounded by 16 smaller stones, wiggles now. On a Wednesday morning in mid-May, he showed his wife, Mary Anne, in the marble-floored living room of their stately Indian Creek home. “It’s a little bit loose,” he said, leaning forward as he sat on an ivory chair.
“I’ll have that fixed,” she assured him. “We don’t want to lose that.”
Both Shula and his Super Bowl VII ring have become a bit unsteady with age. The NFL’s alltime winningest coach moves slowly and with effort now, his 83 years and a recent health scare forcing him to lean on a walker to stand and to ride a motorized scooter when he leaves his home. He is taunted by the private golf course across the street where he used to hit at least a few shots nearly every afternoon. And though he can recite every starter from his first NFL coaching job as the Lions’ defensive coordinator in 1960, he often searches for his misplaced glass of diet cola.
The man who has an expressway named for him in South Florida has lived out of the public eye since a blood clot ruptured in his left leg a little more than two years ago. The clot shot through Shula’s heart and went into his lungs, sapping much of his energy and strength. It could have been much worse if Mary Anne hadn’t noticed his swollen foot and puffy calf as she bent down to help with his socks and shoes. No more than 30 minutes passed from the time the clot broke loose at their home in Pebble Beach, Calif., to Shula’s being treated at the nearby Community Hospital of the Monterey Peninsula.
Three of Shula’s five children with his first wife, the late Dorothy Bartish, flew in overnight from the East Coast. For three days they waited for the blood thinners to take effect and for their father to stabilize. He remained in the hospital for nearly two weeks, and then required at-home nursing care to monitor his blood pressure and oxygen levels for a month.
“Since then he’s not been the same,” says Dave Shula, the coach’s eldest child. “He was always such a vibrant, physical person, and to see that side of him diminished—he is enjoying things on a day-to-day basis, more so than he did in the past.”
Shula’s legendary toughness and intensity have softened like his once-fiery eyes. He was famously demanding in 33 seasons as coach of the Colts and Dolphins, forcing players to practice four times a day without water and requiring quarterback Dan Marino to call his own plays at practice and during meetings as a rookie. This was a man who would grumble at his son to turn off the car radio, but now Dave catches his father singing songs “from his era” like the Sound of Music soundtrack. These days, his greatest victories are celebrated when he takes a golf cart across the street and sneaks a hot dog or bologna sandwich away from Mary Anne’s watchful eyes at the country club.
Time slows down and weakens people, but it’s had the opposite effect on Shula’s legacy, strengthening and preserving it. His 347 career wins and his 1972 undefeated season with the Dolphins seem all the more remarkable with each passing autumn. In this way Shula stands alone in NFL history. But where does that place him in the pantheon of coaches?
Shula lets out a genuine, hearty chuckle when presented with this premise. You get the sense that this living legend—a man who coached in six Super Bowls, who was a contemporary of Vince Lombardi, who was the one-time boss of Chuck Noll—could still hold his own in a postgame press conference. His pale eyes twinkle, and he asks, “You want me to say that I’m the greatest coach of all time?”
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There was a time when Shula never wanted to entertain this sort of question. He wanted a clean break when he walked away from the game following the 1995 season. He saw no worth in preserving his meticulous library of game plans, all 33 seasons’ worth, some handwritten and others computer-generated depending on the decade. “Just throw it away,” he told Mary Anne. “I don’t want any of it.”
She made sure he didn’t part with his life’s work and filed the papers away in Shula’s home office—except for the 17 game plans from 1972 that are kept in a safe. But Shula couldn’t stay away from football. He still writes notes on a yellow pad of paper during Panthers games to share with his son, Mike, who was promoted to the team’s offensive coordinator this year. He advises his son to find a balance between using all of quarterback Cam Newton’s distinctive abilities, but not asking him to run too much to minimize the risk of injury. He knows the Panthers’ roster by number, and as he did so well during his career, suggests tactics to create favorable matchups. “He’s into a lot more trick plays now,” Mike says, laughing. “But trust me, there is a reason for everything he says, so I always listen and try to make it fit.”
This father-son bond isn’t Shula’s only connection to the NFL. Until Mike Westhoff retired at the end of last season, Shula would call the special teams guru to talk strategy any time the Jets blocked a punt. “He loves that kind of stuff,” Westhoff says. “I can’t think of a part of the game that he wasn’t an expert in.” Shula has also been sought out by current Dolphins coach Joe Philbin, who asked him to address the coaching staff and the scouting department this spring at team headquarters in Davie, Fla.
Shula slyly recalls that it ‘wasn't hard to watch‘ the Dolphins struggle under Jimmy Johnson.
This was a meaningful gesture to Shula, whose legend in the franchise wasn’t always embraced by his successors. Jimmy Johnson, who made his name at the University of Miami and was waiting in the wings to replace Shula when he retired, made no secret that he cared only about the present and not the past. Johnson only lasted four years with the Dolphins, never finishing better than 10-6. Feeling distanced from his beloved team, Shula slyly recalls that “it wasn’t hard to watch” the Dolphins struggle under Johnson.
But Shula likes and respects Philbin for the same qualities that distinguished Shula: sincerity, honesty and integrity. For his visit, the Dolphins created a literal memory lane, decorating an area by the players’ entrance with 8x10 photos of some of Shula’s unforgettable moments.
There were the obvious ones, like the two times Shula was carried off the field, once after completing the perfect season with a 14-7 victory over the Redskins in Super Bowl VII and the other in November 1993 after breaking George Halas’ wins record against the Eagles. It was Westhoff, then the Dolphins’ special teams coach, who stopped the players from dousing Shula with Gatorade and suggested a ride off the field as a more fitting celebration. There was also a black-and-white shot of Shula running onto the field for his first training camp with the Dolphins, and one from the Dolphins’ double-overtime playoff win against the Chiefs in Kansas City on Christmas Day 1971, still the longest game in NFL history. There was also a picture of Shula and Dave on the day in 1994 when Don’s Dolphins played Dave’s Bengals, the NFL’s first father-son coaching matchup. (Dad won, 23-7.)
As a kid in Massachusetts during the 1970s, Philbin was in awe of the Dolphins’ dominance. This was his chance to learn how they did it. Shula talked about how he motivated players and organized his staff, and Philbin especially wanted to know what he did to get his teams to commit so few penalties. “There’s only one reason that the Miami Dolphins is a great coaching job, and that’s because of Don Shula,” Philbin says. “I got a 7-9 record [as a head coach], he’s won 340 more games than me, so there’s probably one or two things I could learn.”
Even after the pictures came down, Shula had a presence in the building. The standalone wooden desk in Philbin’s office is the same one Shula sat behind, and when the great coach shares his strong, sage opinions about today’s NFL, it feels as if he never gave up the pulpit.
A former cornerback who played seven seasons for the Browns, Colts and Redskins in the 1950s, Shula appreciates players’ frustrations about the rules changes that limit where they can strike opponents. Yet he agrees the solution is in the league’s “Heads Up Football” campaign, having always coached players to have “a bull neck and a head up” because “you see what you hit, and you get hurt when you put your head down.” During Shula’s playing days, players were tested for concussions by a doctor asking how many fingers he was holding up. He recalls times when he’d go to the sideline after a hit and look up at the scoreboard to see who his team was playing and what the score was. But years later, he quips, “I don’t get headaches, I give them.”
The greatest challenge of being a coach, he says, isn’t teaching X’s and O’s or trying to convince strong-willed men to follow your lead, though Shula was a master at both. It’s adapting to the talent and tailoring your approach to get the most out of players.
Everything on Shula’s resume—a .665 winning percentage (347-173-6), those record six Super Bowl appearances, two NFL championships, 19 playoff appearances in 33 seasons coaching the Colts and Dolphins, just two losing seasons in his 26 years in Miami—was achieved through his ability to do exactly that. He won with all types of quarterbacks, of whom he still speaks fondly, calling Johnny Unitas “probably the toughest guy, mentally and physically, that’s ever played the position”... and Bob Griese “a thinking man’s quarterback”... and Earl Morrall “the only guy I could beat” when Shula ran gassers with his players after practice … and Marino “the best pure passer that’s played the game.” He even once won a game with a running back, Tom Matte, playing quarterback.
Shula remains close with Marino, who on this May morning was sitting on the coach’s back patio overlooking Biscayne Bay and downtown Miami. Now an analyst for NFL Today on CBS, Marino was joined by Jimmy Cefalo, the former Miami receiver and current radio voice of the Dolphins, to film a promotional video that would be part of South Florida’s Super Bowl L bid presentation a few weeks later. (The game went to the 49ers and their new stadium in Santa Clara, Calif.)
When Marino wasn’t booming his line—”Touchdown!”—he was on the receiving end of playful jabs from Shula, who affectionately needled the Hall of Fame quarterback about how he never wanted to do anything but throw the ball. “He always makes people around him feel comfortable,” Marino says with a laugh. “Maybe not when he was a coach, but now he does.”
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A coach’s life is one of routine, and Shula still has his. He reads The Miami Herald, the New York Post and USA Today every morning, and a physical therapist comes to the house three times a week to work on his sore back and muscle strength. But he’s not completely out of the public eye.
The coach who once infamously didn’t recognize Miami Vice star Don Johnson at a Dolphins game now enjoys spending the evening at the movies. He’s still the face of his restaurant empire, having recently made a round of appearances to launch the Shula Burger gourmet hamburger eateries. “You’ve got to try a Shula Burger,” he says. “Best meat money can buy.” Shula is also a spokesperson for a cruise line, and he’s told Mary Anne he’ll take her anywhere in the world for their 20th wedding anniversary in October.
Mary Anne has always called her husband Coach, with a tenderness no player ever matched.
The two met about a year after his first wife died from breast cancer in 1991, and they have 16 grandchildren and two great-grandchildren from their blended families, each one’s name and birthday marked on commemorative footballs in Shula’s home office.
“He’s happy, he’s fulfilled, he’s done the things he wants to do and he’s enjoying every minute of his life,” says Mary Anne, who has always called her husband Coach, with a tenderness no player ever matched. “He is a very spiritual man, and he’s at peace with the world.”
Shula learned long ago that you can never change the score of a game once it’s over, and even though he may be at ease, it doesn’t mean there aren’t regrets. The greatest, he says, is the Colts’ loss to the Jets in Super Bowl III. Forty-four years later he still calls it a “disaster” because it was the AFL’s first championship over the long-established NFL—the sting all the greater for Joe Namath’s cocky guarantee.
Shula still attends every Super Bowl, where he presents a national High School Coach of the Year award, and he often sits next to Namath at those games. They’ve found common ground in their shared Hungarian heritage and the fact that Namath’s daughter, Jessica, was enrolled at Alabama when Mike Shula coached there. But the old coach still believes he has a gift for truly knowing players. “I don’t think he was as big a playboy as he tried to pretend,” Shula says of Broadway Joe. “I think the image that he put out was maybe a little exaggerated.”
Super Bowl III ultimately taught Shula his most important life lesson: The worst defeats can lead to the greatest triumphs. Four years later he coached the NFL’s only undefeated team. A year after that he won his second straight Super Bowl.
The 1972 Dolphins celebrated the 40th anniversary of their undefeated season with a reunion at Shula’s home last December, and on Tuesday they’ll finally be recognized at the White House after missing their turn because of Watergate. Though no other team has touched perfection, the ’85 Bears sometimes get the nod in media rankings of the best team of all time. Those Bears won Super Bowl XX, finished 18-1 and became media darlings, with Walter Payton, Jim McMahon, the Fridge and the Super Bowl Shuffle. Mention this to Shula, and a rush of that famed intensity returns to his face. He’ll remind you that Chicago’s lone loss, a 38-24 drubbing in Week 13, came at the hands of his Dolphins. The way he recalls it, Bears defensive coordinator Buddy Ryan left open mismatches that Shula and Marino exploited, such as receiver Nat Moore lining up in the slot against a safety. Miami led 31-10 after two quarters. Shula calls it “the best first half of football I’ve ever been around.”
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In the end, it’s the big picture that matters. After all, what is greatness if not perfection?
“Nobody has done it since and nobody did it before. It just stands by itself,” Shula says. “If people aren’t going to acknowledge that, then there’s something wrong with them. Why wouldn’t you acknowledge it when only one team has done it?”
The only outside threat to Shula’s 347 career wins is Patriots coach Bill Belichick, who at 61 has 205 victories and must average 14 over the next decade to overtake the record. The secret to Shula’s success, he likes to say, was to win early and win often. So, does being the winningest coach of all time mean he’s the greatest coach of all time?
Shula doesn’t pause to ponder this question, one he’s no doubt considered countless times. “What I’m going to say is this,” he begins. “When two teams play each other, one team wins and one team loses. The team that wins is the better team. At the end of the year, you have a record, and if your record is good enough to get you into the playoffs, and if you win the Super Bowl, you are the best team that year. Over a period of time, over your coaching career, if you win the most games, you should be given credit for winning the most games.”
So, is that a yes?
Shula smiles warmly. He’s caught his breath after shuffling over to a crimson chair, where he sits in full command of the room. The South Florida sun shines in, at times glinting off his ring. He gives the perfect answer, “Is that how you decipher it?”