Fifty years ago, Don Shula taught us about passion.
For a kid growing up in Florida, at least that’s what it felt like. Until then, we had been the orphans of the sports world. The ones forced to follow superstars from somewhere more important than Tampa Bay.
Atlanta had Aaron. Baltimore had Unitas. New York had everyone else. It wasn’t until Shula abandoned the Colts to come to Miami in 1970 that it felt like big-time sports had finally arrived around here.
By then, he was already a star. In the era of Vince Lombardi and Tom Landry, no NFL coach had won more games than Shula in the previous seven seasons, including an NFL Championship in 1968.
He was only 40 but already walked like a legend. His jaw was square and his manner was impeccable. He was a generation’s first introduction to the word stoic.
The expansion Dolphins had already been around for four years, but had never won more than five games in a season. In Shula’s first year, they won 10. By his second year, they were in the Super Bowl.
By his third season, they were perfect.
That’s where most of today’s obituaries will probably start. Shula, who passed away Monday at age 90, was the coach of the only NFL team to have an undefeated season from beginning to end.
It’s as good an epitaph as any, but it barely scratches the surface. Anyone can have a special season. And many have won Super Bowls, before and since. What Shula did in a career that spanned eras was unprecedented.
In his first season as a head coach, the league MVP was Y.A. Tittle. In his final season, it was Brett Favre. The league went from 14 teams and a single championship game in 1963 to 30 teams and a month-long postseason by 1995.
And through it all, Shula had the bearing of a deity of the sideline. Chuck Noll won more Super Bowls and George Halas had a slightly better winning percentage, but no coach ever won as consistently or through the decades the way Shula did.
He was a head coach for 33 years and had only two losing seasons. Two! Not that you need reminding, but in the past 33 years the Bucs have had 22 losing seasons.
Turns out, Don Shula also taught us about excellence.
Before Shula, most of us had inherited our heroes from our parents. A Willie Mays in our house, or an Ernie Banks for the kids next door from Chicago. Shula and the Dolphins gave us something different. A team of our very own, even if Miami was half a state away.
On Christmas Day, 1973, I taped up posters of Bob Griese, Paul Warfield and Larry Csonka on my bedroom wall and they remained there even after the Buccaneers were born several years later.
We had never quite seen anything like the Dolphins in Florida. From 1970-75, they had an .804 winning percentage, went to three Super Bowls and won two of them.
And while most coaches have a particular signature (the defenses of Noll’s Steelers or the offensive innovations of Bill Walsh’s 49ers) Shula was constantly evolving. His Colts had the No. 1 scoring offense in the NFL in 1964 and ’67, he had the No. 1 scoring defense in 1972 and ’73, then the No. 1 offense again in 1984 and ’86.
The genius of Shula wasn’t necessarily in the Xs and Os. It was always in the wins and losses. It wasn’t that he was funny or thoughtful or even particularly lovable. It was that he was the best, and for a long time that’s all we needed.
Even when it seemed like times were changing and Shula’s gruffness was in danger of growing dated, the Dolphins kept winning. In his last six seasons, only four teams had a better record than Miami’s 59-37.
Yet, by the end, he had grown victim of his own success. The Dolphins kept winning, but not quite at the pace they had before. There were whispers that Shula was not made for this generation, and the truth is, he probably wasn’t.
He had coached screwballs and malcontents in every decade, but the power was slowly shifting from coaches to stars. If acquiescing was going to be part of the job description, then it wasn’t the job for him.
Shula still had a year remaining on his contract when he chose to retire after the 1995 season and a first-round playoff loss. He left as he arrived, with his dignity and pride still intact.
By then, Florida had become rich with teams and stars. There were now three NFL franchises, two NHL teams, two NBA teams and soon-to-be two MLB teams, all arriving after Shula did in 1970.
We’ve seen Shaq and LeBron, Sapp and Marino, Longoria and Stamkos since then. We’ve seen glib coaches and flashy players. The state has seen a Stanley Cup title, two World Series winners, two NBA championships and a Bucs Super Bowl win since Shula retired.
But for Florida, Shula will always be the first.
And in a lot of ways, the best.