When I first heard that Don Shula was retiring after 33 seasons
as a head coach in the NFL, I was struck by a couple of
unfathomable facts. The first one was that in more than three
decades of coaching, there were only two seasons in which a Don
Shula-coached team finished below .500. Now, that's consistency.
The other was the number of Shula victories--347--a mark that may
never be surpassed. Do you know that that is the equivalent of
more than 20 undefeated seasons? Over his 33-year career at the
helm of the Baltimore Colts and the Miami Dolphins, he has
averaged more than 10 victories per season.
I am going to miss Don Shula. I like him and I admire him. I'm
going to miss looking those 53 yards across the field and
thinking, There is a coaching legend. I remember when I was a
special teams coach with the Redskins in 1972. We played the
Dolphins in Super Bowl VII in the Los Angeles Coliseum. I was
just an assistant, but I felt a real sense of pride being on the
same field with Shula. Whenever I think of baseball, the first
name that comes to mind is Babe Ruth. What the Babe was to
baseball, Shula is to football coaching. There are certain
figures in sports who are larger than the games they play or
coach, and Don Shula is one of those.
Over the years we became friendly rivals, but I never stopped
admiring him. People sometimes ask me to name the greatest coach
in NFL history. George Halas may have set the standard, but Don
Shula has won more games than anyone, and he has done it in the
most competitive era. He had an incomparable ability to evaluate
players, to motivate them and to teach them the game of
football. Above all else, he was honest. His teams played clean,
hard, by-the-rules football. He was the keenest of competitors
from the day he entered the league until the day he retired, and
he respected those who competed so hard against him.
He probably doesn't remember, but I once called him when I was
out of work. It was 1983, and he was scouting at the East-West
Shrine game and he must have had a hundred messages from guys
like me who were looking for jobs. I didn't expect to hear from
him, but he returned my call. We just talked about coaching for
a few minutes. He didn't have a job for me, but he certainly
left an impression. This was a man who didn't just like
coaching; he liked coaches. He never got too big for the other
guys in the game.
When I announced this fall that I was entering the hospital for
prostate cancer surgery, Don was one of the first people to call
my office and wish me well. The next day, after the surgery, I
received a get-well telegram at the hospital from him.
I knew this day was coming, but I was still sad to hear Shula
say goodbye. He seemed at peace with the decision and with his
life, yet I couldn't help but feel a sense of loss for the game
of football. There has recently been loud, angry criticism
directed at a man who deserves so much better. As coaches, we
learn to accept criticism for our decisions. If a writer says
you shouldn't have gone for it on fourth-and-one, we understand
that's part of the job. We expect it. But I think a mentality
prevails today that thrives on accentuating the negative. Most
of the time, it's completely unfair. Just look at this season in
Miami: The Dolphins went 9-7 and made the playoffs. A lot of
teams and towns would have settled for that.
I don't think we'll see the likes of Don Shula again, in this
era or perhaps ever.
I have to admit being bothered by the notion that Shula was
suddenly too old to coach. Maybe I feel this way because I'm
even older than he is: I'm 70 and he's 66. Gee, the three oldest
coaches in the league--Ted Marchibroda, Don and me--all had our
teams in the playoffs this season. Don may have a little more
gray hair than he had a few years ago, but he's as tough and as
sharp as ever. I looked this up the other night: His record in
the last 10 years is 89-70, and his last losing season was seven
Someone asked me how it felt to coach against Don Shula in his
final game. Obviously I didn't realize when we were on the field
that it was his final game. It felt like every other game I
coached against him. It was special because he is special.
Someday soon I intend to take my grandchild to the Pro Football
Hall of Fame. When I point to that bronze statue, I'll say, "See
that jut-jawed man? Now, there was a football coach."