Comparing Miami's last repeat champs: '72-'73 Dolphins and Heat

Monday June 24th, 2013

How does the back-to-back championships by LeBron James and the Heat compare to the Dolphins' consecutive titles in 1972 and '73?
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They are the only two repeat major league sports champions in Miami history, their rosters featured some of the best-known athletes in the country and each team built a winning streak of near-record length.

Yet the 1972 and '73 Miami Dolphins and the 2012 and '13 Miami Heat climbed to the highest level of their respective sports in athletic environments that couldn't have been more different.

The Miami where the Heat reigns includes teams in all four major team sports plus the University of Miami, whose basketball program is on the rise and whose football team seems to alternate between winning national championships and wallowing in scandal depending on the decade.

The Heat have won three NBA titles, the Miami Marlins are a two-time World Series winner and the Florida Panthers have played in a Stanley Cup final.

When the Dolphins won back-to-back titles there were no other major league franchises in town and the Hurricanes were a middle-of-the pack program. The University of Miami didn't even field a basketball team between 1970-71 and 1984-85.

"Same accomplishment with the two straight championships but there's no similarity," said Hank Goldberg, a longtime radio voice in Miami who currently covers horse racing and the NFL for ESPN. "The Dolphins at the time were the first and only pro team in town. The Heat's accomplishment is far more of a bandwagon thing.

"The basketball customer is far different from what the Dolphins customer was. Now they buy [Heat] tickets as a social event. With the Dolphins it was all football."

But until the Dolphins began their championship run in the early 1970s, Miami was better known as a location where outsiders built their reputations and collected titles. Three of the first five Super Bowls were played in Miami, most notably Super Bowl III when the American Football League's New York Jets shocked the Baltimore Colts of the NFL.

In college football, Alabama (1965) and Nebraska (1970-71) captured national championships with victories in the Orange Bowl. A young Cassius Clay won the heavyweight championship over Sonny Liston in Miami Beach in 1964.

When the Dolphins opened play in 1966, they were the first expansion franchise for the six year old American Football League. Their local impact, however, was minimal. The team averaged 28,742 at the 75,000-seat Orange Bowl during their first four seasons -- all losing ones.

All that changed when Don Shula was hired as head coach in 1970. The Dolphins reached the playoffs in '70 and then became the first of only two teams to reach three consecutive Super Bowls.

The Orange Bowl was packed for every game as the Dolphins went 32-2 during the 1972-73 seasons, including 17-0 in '72.

"Electric," said Manny Fernandez, a defensive tackle on the three Super Bowl teams who currently lives on an 80-acre farm in Georgia. "Miami was a great place to live and to play football. The fans in Miami just embraced us. We helped bring the community together -- and it was a very diverse community."

Goldberg noted that Dolphins players were woven into the social fabric of Miami far more deeply than their Heat counterparts.

"You would see the Dolphins all over town," Goldberg recalled. "You would see [running backs] Jim Kiick and Larry Csonka. I used to go to a place in Coconut Grove and see [tight end] Marv Fleming and [defensive back] Jake Scott just hanging out. These Heat guys don't hang out.

"If you want to see the Heat guys you'd have to go to a restaurant that most people can't afford. The Heat players are like rock stars.

Former running back Mercury Morris, who along with Larry Csonka became the first pair of teammates to each rush for more than 1,000 yards in 1972 and still lives in Miami, said the 2013 NBA Finals "was one of the best series I'd ever seen."

He said the main difference between the two championship teams was that the Heat "really kind of declared they would win [championships] and then they did it.

"We needed to have our [butts] kicked in our first Super Bowl [a 24-3 loss to Dallas] before we were motivated to become a champion," he said. "And after we won our first Super Bowl, Don Shula said let's do it again to prove it's not a fluke."

Fernandez said it was easy for a Dolphin to move around the Miami of the 1970s. "We were all over Miami; we went anywhere we felt like," he said. "It was a very different environment than today. We'd go into bars and could run into the mayor or the district attorney. It was very casual. It was a big treat to go to Joe's Stone Crab when you're only making $20,000 per year."

Yet, Fernandez who recorded 17 tackles (11 unassisted) in the Dolphins' 14-7 Super Bowl VII victory over the Washington Redskins, sees a common bond between Miami's only repeat champions.

"This [Heat] team has held together for the past three years," he said. "There's so much movement in pro sports these days that teams often change their personalities. We had pretty much the same team since '68. We kind of grew up together.

"Hopefully, the Heat will keep together and become the first [Miami] team to win three straight."

Certainly, Miami is no longer the football town it was from the Super Bowl run through the Dan Marino years. "The Heat are so good and have been marketed so well that they have made the Dolphins irrelevant," Goldberg said. "The Heat are the game in town. They are the ones who get everybody excited. If people see me on the street they ask about the Heat. No one asks me how the Dolphins are going to do.

"With the two championships in a row and the one he won as a Miami's coach, [team president] Pat Riley belongs right there on the Miami Mount Rushmore of accomplishments with Shula."

Dolphins or Heat?

Which team was better, the 1972 and '73 Dolphins or the 2012 and '13 Heat?

Granted, they played different sports and in very different eras, but Goldberg gives the edge to the Dolphins, mainly because "they did what no other NFL team has ever done with the perfect 17-0 season."

And, yes, the Dolphins had no individual player to match the star power of four-time NBA MVP LeBron James. But they had the NFL's best power runner in Csonka, perhaps the best wide receiver in Warfield, the game's best offensive line and the top defense. Six Dolphins from the title teams are in the Pro Football Hall of Fame as well as Shula.

The Heat won 27 consecutive games this season, second-best in NBA history. The Dolphins won 18 straight (including playoffs), tied for second best in the NFL record book.

During the playoffs the Heat were tested, going 16-7 in both their championship seasons. (In comparison, the 1989 and 1990 Detroit Pistons went 15-2 and 15-5, the '96 and '97 Chicago Bulls went 15-3 and 15-4, while the 2001 and 2002 Lakers went 15-1 and 15-4).

The '72 Dolphins were pressed during the playoffs, winning their three postseason games by a total of 17 points. The '73 squad dominated, winning its three playoff games by an average of 17 points.

Many Dolphins say the '73 team that finished 15-2 was superior to the unbeaten squad. The '72 Dolphins faced only two winning teams and none that went to the playoffs. The '73 Dolphins met five winning teams, including three that reached the postseason. The '73 defense only allowed five touchdown passes. The website Pro ranks the '73 Dolphins over the '72 team in its Simple Rating Index.

The Dolphins' legacy, however, is complete. The Heat are not finished. As Fernandez said, the two-time NBA champions could yet become Miami's first triple champ.

"Miami has been a great sports town for the last 30-40 years," Fernandez said. "I'm glad we were there to help start it."

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