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Don Shula, the winningest coach in pro football history, has died

He became the only coach to guide an NFL team through a perfect season when the 1972 Dolphins went 17-0.
The Miami Dolphins, who won two Super Bowls in the 1970s and made two more appearances in the Big Game in the 1980s, had arguably the greatest coach of all-time in Don Shula.
The Miami Dolphins, who won two Super Bowls in the 1970s and made two more appearances in the Big Game in the 1980s, had arguably the greatest coach of all-time in Don Shula.
Published May 4, 2020
Updated May 5, 2020

Measuring Don Shula by wins and losses, no NFL coach had a better year. Or career.

He looked the part, thanks to a jutting jaw and glare that would intimidate 150-pound sports writers and 300-pound linemen alike. He led the Dolphins to the only perfect season in NFL history, set a league record with 347 victories and coached in six Super Bowls.

Near the end of his career, his biography in the Dolphins’ media guide began with a quote from former NFL coach Bum Phillips: “Don Shula can take his’n and beat you’n, and he could take you’n and beat his’n.”

Mr. Shula died peacefully on Monday (May 4, 2020) at his home across Biscayne Bay near downtown Miami, the team said. He was 90.

“We lost someone who cannot be replaced, who cannot be equaled, and who personified everything that is right not only about our sport, but about the way we all should conduct ourselves,’’ former quarterback Bob Griese said.

Bucs coach Bruce Arians tweeted: “We lost the greatest coach of all time. RIP Coach Don Shula.’’

Mr. Shula surpassed George Halas’ league-record 324 victories in 1993 and retired after the 1995 season, his 26th with Miami and 33rd as an NFL head coach. He entered the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1997.

Mr. Shula’s Dolphins went 17-0 in 1972. They also won the Super Bowl the following season, finishing 15-2.

The 2007 Patriots flirted with perfection but lost to the Giants in the Super Bowl to finish 18-1.

The Glazer family that owns the Bucs said in a statement: “Don Shula was a legend on and off the field who had a profound impact on professional football. Some of our fondest childhood memories watching NFL football revolved around Don and the Miami Dolphins in the 1970s and ’80s. We are saddened by his passing and send our deepest condolences to his wife, Mary Anne, the Shula family and the entire Dolphins organization.’’

When asked in 1997 if he was the greatest coach in NFL history, Mr. Shula said he didn’t know how to measure that, but added, “I always thought that’s why they keep statistics and wins and losses.”

Mr. Shula coached three Hall of Fame quarterbacks: Johnny Unitas, Griese and Dan Marino.

Because the Dolphins last reached the Super Bowl after the 1984 season, Mr. Shula came under increasing criticism from fans and the media. He was replaced in January 1996 by Jimmy Johnson, and Shula later said the adjustment to retirement was difficult.

Related: Tony Dungy was a 'a third-generation’ coaching disciple of the late Don Shula

“There’s such a letdown,” he said in 2010. “There’s no way you can fill the time you spent as a coach. Life is great after football, but you don’t have those emotional ups and downs you had on game day.”

Hall of Fame fullback Larry Csonka was among the ’72 Dolphins who threw a surprise party for Mr. Shula in December to celebrate his 90th birthday.

“It was the first time in the entire time I’ve known him where he was genuinely surprised,” Csonka said. “I think he was very happy.”

Mr. Shula always enjoyed talking about the 17-0 team, and he and his 1972 players drew criticism for the way they savored their unique status each season.

“People think we’re a bunch of angry old guys who can’t wait for that last undefeated team to get beat,” Mr. Shula said in 2010. “We’re very proud of our record, and if somebody breaks it, I’m going to call that coach and congratulate them. Until they do, it’s our record, and we’re proud of it.”

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As for regrets, Mr. Shula put not winning a Super Bowl with Marino at the top of the list. They were together for 13 years, and Marino became the most prolific passer in NFL history, but Marino made the Super Bowl only once, losing to Joe Montana’s 49ers after the 1984 season.

Marino tweeted: “Coach Shula —You will truly be missed! You embody the definition of ‘greatness.’ Thank you for always believing in me. You made me a better player and person.’’

Mr. Shula was born and raised in Painesville, Ohio. He played running back at John Carroll University in Cleveland and cornerback in the pros for seven seasons with Cleveland, Baltimore and Washington.

Mr. Shula became the youngest head coach in NFL history when the Baltimore Colts hired him in 1963 at age 33. They lost 27-0 to Cleveland in the 1964 title game, and suffered perhaps the biggest upset in NFL history by falling to Joe Namath’s Jets of the American Football League in Super Bowl 3 after the 1968 season.

In 1970, after the NFL-AFL merger, Mr. Shula joined the Dolphins, a fourth-year AFL expansion team known for losing.

In this Oct. 25, 2009, file photo, former Miami Dolphins head coach Don Shula waves to the crowd during a half time ceremony of an NFL football game between the Miami Dolphins and the New Orleans Saints in Miami.
In this Oct. 25, 2009, file photo, former Miami Dolphins head coach Don Shula waves to the crowd during a half time ceremony of an NFL football game between the Miami Dolphins and the New Orleans Saints in Miami. [ JEFFREY M. BOAN | AP ]

The 1971 Dolphins lost to Dallas in the Super Bowl. The next year, when Miami took a 16-0 record into Super Bowl 7 against Washington, Mr. Shula said his legacy was on the line.

“If we had won 16 games in a row and lost the Super Bowl, it would have been a disaster, especially for me,” he said in 2007. “That would have been my third Super Bowl loss. I was 0-2 in Super Bowls and people always seemed to bring that up: ‘You can’t win the big one.’”

The Dolphins won 14-7.

“Best coach on earth, best coach in heaven,” former Dolphins receiver Mark Clayton tweeted.

After Mr. Shula retired, he traveled extensively with his wife, Mary Anne. He would also wrestle with his grandchildren, lose to his wife at gin, read John Grisham novels and fall asleep watching late-night TV.

He had success as a businessman and influence as a motivational speaker and endorser of products and causes.

A chain of popular steakhouses bearing Mr. Shula’s name includes a location on W Kennedy Boulevard in Tampa. Shula Burger, which once operated at Tampa International Airport, re-opened in Tampa’s Soho District in 2018.

In this July 26, 1997, file photo, Don Shula, center, stands with his sons David, left, and Mike after being enshrined into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio.
In this July 26, 1997, file photo, Don Shula, center, stands with his sons David, left, and Mike after being enshrined into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio. [ MARK DUNCAN | AP ]

On Monday, Csonka, the MVP of Super Bowl 8, tweeted: “He was such a dominant force. I fully expected he’d live to see 100. Winning was critical to him but winning WITHIN THE RULES was more important. There was only 1 perfect team in the first 100 years of the NFL and Coach Shula is the reason!”

Csonka often enjoyed pushing the boundaries to see what Mr. Shula would put up with.

He and teammates Bill Stanfill and Manny Fernandez once dumped a live alligator in Mr. Shula’s shower.

“Stanfill caught the alligator, Larry kept his secretary busy, and I snuck in and put it in his shower,” Fernandez said. “We taped the gator’s mouth shut so it wouldn’t leave him in danger. He ran down the hall naked with a towel screaming for (the equipment manager) to get the alligator out of his shower.”

Fernandez reminded Mr. Shula of that gator caper the last time they were together, in December, and Mr. Shula smiled. Fernandez gave him stuffed alligator as a gift.

“He worked his butt off to do what he did,” Fernandez said, reflecting on Mr. Shula’s career. “He gained everybody’s respect. I feel so fortunate to have had him in my life. I don’t know what kind of a career I would have had without him.”

Fernandez paused.

“He was,” Fernandez said, “the perfect coach.”

In this Jan. 14, 1973, file photo, Miami Dolphins coach Don Shula is carried off the field after his team won  the NFL football Super Bowl game 14-7 against the Washington Redskins in Los Angeles.
In this Jan. 14, 1973, file photo, Miami Dolphins coach Don Shula is carried off the field after his team won the NFL football Super Bowl game 14-7 against the Washington Redskins in Los Angeles. [ ANONYMOUS | AP ]

Mr. Shula was about more than winning. He supported many charities, and the Don Shula Foundation, formed primarily to assist breast cancer research, was established as a tribute to his late wife, Dorothy.

They were married for 32 years and raised five children before she died in 1991. Mr. Shula married Mary Anne Stephens during a bye week in 1993.

His oldest son, David, coached the Cincinnati Bengals from 1992-96. When Cincinnati played Miami in 1994, it marked the first time in professional sports that a father and son faced each other as head coaches.

Don won 23-7.

Another son, Mike, is a longtime NFL assistant coach, including as Tony Dungy’s offensive coordinator with the Bucs, and was head coach at Alabama in 2003-06.

In this Nov. 8, 2007, file photo, Pro Football Hall of Fame coach Don Shula laughs during an interview at his home in Indian Creek, Fla.
In this Nov. 8, 2007, file photo, Pro Football Hall of Fame coach Don Shula laughs during an interview at his home in Indian Creek, Fla. [ WILFREDO LEE | AP ]

Mr. Shula spent more than 20 years on the powerful NFL Competition Committee, which evaluates playing rules as well as regulations designed to improve safety.

“If I’m remembered for anything, I hope it’s for playing within the rules,” Mr. Shula once said. “I also hope it will be said that my teams showed class and dignity in victory or defeat.”

Mr. Shula is survived by his second wife, two sons and three daughters.

In this Nov. 14, 1993, file photo, Miami Dolphins coach Don Shula is carried on his team's shoulders after his 325th victory, at Philadelphia's Veterans Stadium.
In this Nov. 14, 1993, file photo, Miami Dolphins coach Don Shula is carried on his team's shoulders after his 325th victory, at Philadelphia's Veterans Stadium. [ AMY SANCETTA | AP ]

“He was an inspiration to us all for his faith and love of family and community,'' the Shula family in a statement. "He is remembered as a great leader who shaped many lives by his example. He left us still undefeated!”