A dozen stories from a dozen NFL friends on the legendary Don Shula

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The winningest coach in NFL history died last Monday at 90. Don Shula was persnickety, exacting, disciplined, demanding, competitive, beloved by his players more in retirement (some, not all; and some didn’t like him long after retirement) than while playing. He had a long memory. He called out detractors. He remembered slights. He changed Miami forever. He endured. He was surprisingly and occasionally emotional. After one of the biggest losses an NFL coach ever suffered, the 16-7 Super Bowl III loss to the Jets, he won two Super Bowls and 282 football games. He became a head coach at 33 during the Kennedy Administration, and coached 33 years, through eight presidents. He had two losing seasons.

In 100 NFL seasons, only one team in one year has won every game it played: Shula’s 1972 Dolphins—14-0 in the regular season, 3-0 in the playoffs. The all-time NFL winner, and the only coach to ever have a perfect season, deserves your time this morning.

The life of Don Shula, in a dozen stories:

1965: The Kid

In his third season as a head coach, Shula had a quarterback crisis with the Baltimore Colts. Starter John Unitas and backup Gary Cuozzo were down with injuries entering a playoff game at Green Bay. NFL rules declared that unless a player was a member of a team’s roster on Dec. 1 of that season, he was ineligible to play in the postseason. So Shula in December began getting running back Tom Matte—a part-time quarterback at Ohio State in 1960—ready for a potential playoff game. That game came against tremendous odds: in the Western Conference playoff game, at Lambeau Field, on a windy 22-degree Sunday, against the great Lombardi, Starr, Davis and Nitschke. Shula had Matte wear a wristband with his 12 plays for the game written on it.

Tom Matte:

“At Ohio State, Woody Hayes converted me to quarterback, and he assigned [assistant coach] Bo Schembechler to work with me to learn the position. But I had a small hand. Luckily that college ball was smaller than the NFL ball. I really didn’t want to be a quarterback. I told Woody, ‘I really don’t want to play quarterback. I’m a running back.’ Woody said: ‘Do you want your scholarship?’

“In Baltimore, Unitas used to laugh at me when I’d throw a long pass—not exactly a tight spiral. So when John went down, Shula had me take a few snaps. I’d throw five-, seven-, 10-yard down-and-outs. Nothing too deep. But going into that Green Bay game, when they were both hurt, there was quite a bit of pressure on me. I thought, Now I REALLY have to learn how to play the position. But Johnny got me ready, and I could tell Shula had faith in me. I was a competitor. I was not intimidated going in there, at all. The advantage I had was the defense really didn’t know what was coming. I was kind of a curveball. I could step back and just follow a pulling guard through a hole. I could run a quarterback draw. I could throw a little.”

The Colts built a 10-0 halftime lead, and Matte got them to overtime. In a 10-10 game in OT, a Don Chandler field goal (that the Colts swore was wide) gave Green Bay a 13-10 win.

“I really appreciated Don Shula because he had so much confidence in me. If I was out there, he was going to put me in position to win. That was how he coached. If you were playing, there were no excuses. He used me everywhere—running back, quarterback, defensive back, backup punter. He took good, athletic players in the draft and got us ready to win.”

1969: The Upset

Shula’s Baltimore Colts, with a 15-1 record after routing the Browns 34-0 in the ’68 NFL Championship Game, were 18-point favorites over the Jets in Super Bowl III. In the week prior to the game, of course, Jets quarterback Joe Namath famously guaranteed a victory. That made Jets coach Weeb Ewbank furious.

Joe Namath:

“It’s funny—we were Colts fans in Beaver Falls [Namath grew up in Beaver Falls, Pa.] because Jim Mutscheller, a tight end for the Colts, was from Beaver Falls.

“I never thought they were overconfident entering that game, but I did watch them on film and I thought, ‘They are not gonna change for us.’ After I said what I said, the next day at practice, Coach Ewbank was pretty mad. He told me, ‘We had ‘em right where we wanted ‘em! And you say that! Coach Shula is gonna use that with his team! He’ll use those press clippings to motivate his team!’ “

Jets 16, Colts 7. “I really was devastated,” Shula told writer Ian O’Connor years later. “I just told my players . . . ‘The most important thing is what we do from here on out, how we atone for it.’ “

“I remember one of the first things coach Bear Bryant told us when I started at Alabama, ‘We’re gonna win a lot of games here, a lot of games. But I can tell you—you’ll remember the ones we lost.’ Damn if he wasn’t absolutely right. When I think of my college career, I think of the four games we lost. Some memory comes up, years later, a memory I won’t tell anyone about, and I think of one of those losses. I’m sure it was the same with Coach Shula. A flash comes up one day, something you might not even be thinking of, and he thinks of one of his setbacks. Maybe that [Super Bowl]. It had to bother him. But he went on. And man, did he win a lot of games.

“What a man he was. Years later, I’m working in TV, and it’s the week before that big game in 1985, when the undefeated Bears are going into Miami. The week of the game, I brought my dad to practice, and Coach Shula was so kind to my father. I introduced my dad to him, and Coach Shula starts talking Hungarian to him. [Shula and Janos Namath were both of Hungarian descent.] And they walk off together, talking Hungarian, deep in conversation! I will never forget that.”

Later in life, Shula and Namath, both living in south Florida, would share a suite with family members at some Super Bowls. Flying home after one of the games, Shula taught Jessica Namath, one of Joe’s daughters, how to play rummy.

“I hadn’t thought about that for a long time. Coach Shula actually played cards with [Jessica] on the way home, and he won the card game. He said, ‘Well, at least I beat one Namath!’

“A respectful, righteous man. Such a good man. I just marvel at how he endured. It was his life, man.

“I am thankful you called.”

1972: The P Word

Six months after losing 24-3 to Dallas in Super Bowl VI, safety Dick Anderson and his Dolphins mates gathered for training camp to prepare for a season in an increasingly competitive AFC. The Raiders and Steelers were burgeoning powers; the aging Chiefs and pesky Browns were tough.

Dick Anderson:

“In our first meeting that summer, the first words out of Coach Shula’s mouth were, ‘I just want you to remember: Nobody ever remembers who finished second in the Super Bowl.’ The focus was on only one thing—the game that week. I do not remember one time any conversation with the guys about being undefeated. That wasn’t the goal. The goal was winning the Super Bowl, so being undefeated was immaterial. We didn’t lose a game in the regular season, but no one talked about that, because we still had three games left. That’s a tribute to Coach Shula.

“I honestly don’t remember thinking anything about a perfect season until 1985, when Miami beat Chicago to give the Bears their first loss. I don’t think we talked about it for those 13 years.”

1972: The Guts

Back in the day, playoff home field was determined by rotation, not record, and so the 15-0 Dolphins flew to Pittsburgh to play the 12-3 Steelers for the AFC Championship on Christmas Eve 1972. The son of Miami owner Joe Robbie, Tim Robbie, was a high school senior at the time, and appointed by Shula to chart plays and formations during games on the sidelines. So he was on the sideline that fateful day at Three Rivers Stadium, as the Earl Morrall-led Miami offense sputtered into halftime, tied 7-7. Morrall played most of the season, after starter Bob Griese went down with a broken leg in week five.

Tim Robbie:

“I was a very lucky kid, charting plays as a high school senior on the sidelines for the only undefeated season ever. When they show the pictures of Coach Shula from the games that season, [offensive assistant] Monte Clark is behind him, and next to him, the kid with the long hair and clipboard is me.

“In Pittsburgh that day, we were struggling in the first half. We came into the locker room at halftime, and I remember Coach Shula telling the team he was making a change. The way he sold it, in a very calm voice, was reassuring. He told them how great Earl had been for us all season . . . we’d never be here without him. But he was going with [Bob Griese] to start the second half. I’m sitting there thinking, Wow!!! He’s benching Earl! If this backfires, he’s REALLY going to be second-guessed. But the team really believed in him. If Coach Shula said it was the right thing to do, if he believed it, then it must be the right thing.

“We go out for the third quarter, and I remember still being a state of shock . . . until Bob took the field. He was always confident. I watched him throw. Sharp, confident, like always. He hit Paul Warfield on a slant early on, and it was like he never left. We went on to win. I’ll never forget that decision.”

1973: The Game Plan

The season after the perfect season, Miami was 1-0 and a road trip to Oakland was on the schedule. Fullback Larry Csonka was a key piece of the Miami offense.

Larry Csonka:

“We went into Oakland on a Friday and we were gonna practice there on Saturday. But because of construction in the stadium, we had to use their training room. They had practiced earlier in the day, they cleared out, and we used their locker room. I picked [defensive lineman] Art Thoms’ locker, because I’d played with him in college at Syracuse. I was gonna leave him a note in his locker—dead fish or something, mess with him a little bit. So I’m sitting in his locker, going through it to find something to write on. I find the Oakland Raiders game plan. Now that can be construed a couple of different ways. Knowing what they’re going to do . . . it’s their fault for leaving it there. Is it the right thing to do? Unquestionably it’s not the right thing to do. Was it cheating? I don’t know. It’s a fine line. I went and handed that report, quite quietly, to [offensive line coach and Shula confidant] Monte Clark. He said, ‘What’s this?’ I said, ‘I don’t know. I’ve never seen it before.’ I walked away.

“Here’s the bottom line: We lost the game. Even with the game report, we lost the game. After the game, I’m riding on the bus. Monte Clark sits down next to me on the bus. I said, ‘Monte, what the hell did you do with the game report?’ He said, ‘I took it to Shula and when he asked what it was, I told him. He said, ‘Tear it up. If we can’t beat ‘em straight up, we shouldn’t beat ‘em.’ ”

“You can’t find a guy more sincere about winning, but only winning within the rules.”

Late ‘70s: The Influence

In the years after the Super Bowl victory—pre-Heat, pre-Marlins, pre-Panthers, pre-powerhouse-Hurricanes, even pre-Miami Vice—the Dolphins were everything in south Florida. They, and their coach, became major life influencers to many, including a powerful future pen and voice in sports media. His family joined a wave of exiles from Cuba to the U.S. a few years earlier.

Dan Le Batard:

“I was starved for sports in the late seventies. But I had no access to sports, really. My dad worked as a plant manager at a factory in Hialeah, and occasionally he’d get two tickets to a Dolphins game. Nobody ever wanted Bills tickets, so he got two of those one year. He really wanted to see O.J. Simpson play. He took me to the Orange Bowl. It’s the first place I remember having any real connection to sports. I really didn’t know what sports were. We walked into the Orange Bowl that day, my tiny hand in his big hand, and we sat near the top of the stadium, watching that Dolphins team, hearing that big stadium noise for the first time.

“That noise is what I spent the rest of my life chasing. That noise was all because of Don Shula and what he brought to south Florida.

“Later in life, I become the Miami Herald sports columnist. I’m young, in my twenties. The Dolphins just lost a playoff game to San Diego [in the 1994 season], and I wrote [Miami Hurricanes coach] Jimmy Johnson would be a good replacement for Shula, and Jimmy was available. Shula asks to see me. So I go into his office, say hello, stick my hand across his desk . . . and he just stares at my hand. I asked him, ‘Is this what you brought me in here to do?’ What I remember specifically is, he was trying to make me feel small, and he succeeded. To him, what I wrote was profound disrespect.

“I learned to have a gentler voice later in life. We had no issues the last 20 years of his life. He was much softer when out of the job that when in it. He aged gracefully and warmly. He learned how to love later in life more deeply.

“When he died, selfishly, the first thing I thought of was my own mortality. It was a piece of my childhood, a vital piece, literally dying.” 

1982: The Father

Against the odds in 1981, free-agent wide receiver Dave Shula, from Dartmouth, made the Baltimore Colts roster as a return man and receiver after a great preseason. But the Colts had better receivers/returns in the 1982 camp, and Shula was on the bubble. Near the end of camp, first-year GM Ernie Accorsi of the Colts made a tough call.

Ernie Accorsi:

“In ’81, we had six preseason games, and in one of them—the Saints, I think—Dave had a long return, a spectacular catch. I don’t think he dropped a pass all summer. He made our team, justifiably. But the next year we added some talent there, and he wasn’t going to make it. I told the coach, ‘Before we tell Dave, let me call Don first.’ I thought we owed him that respect.

“I called Don down in Miami and I told him I was sorry, this was a tough phone call, but we have to let Dave go. There was a long pause. Don broke down. It was pretty emotional. He just said, ‘Thank you for telling me,’ and he got off the phone. Then I called Dave in and told him.

“For Don, a pure football guy, it was just heartbreaking.”

1982: The Rules

Two memorable events happened in the strike-shortened 1982 season that linger to this day. In a December snowstorm in New England, Pats coach Ron Meyer waved a snowplow operator and his machine on the field before a fourth-quarter New England field-goal try in a 0-0 game to clean a spot for his kicker. Ever after, Shula referred to Meyer as “that coach up north.” And in the AFC title game in Miami six weeks later, a morning deluge left the field a muddy mess; to this day, Jets fans blame their 14-0 loss on Shula purposely negating New York’s team speed by keeping the field uncovered and making the game a mud bowl. Miami linebacker/defensive end Kim Bokamper played in both games.

Kim Bokamper:

“I remember that snowy day vividly. I was a California kid, and I remember waking up that morning in our hotel in Boston seeing more snow that I’d ever seen other than on a ski slope. As the game went on, that snowplow would come on the field during timeouts to clean off the yard markers. I don’t remember anyone getting close to a touchdown the whole day; we didn’t have those long cleats in those days, just the short nub-type cleat. Nobody got traction. So the Patriots get in position for a field goal late in the game. Here comes the plow again. I’m on that side of the field. I don’t think anything of it. But the guy made a hard left instead of staying on the yard stripe, and the plow goes right over the spot where their kicker is going to kick. I look over at our sideline, and Coach Shula is livid. He’s on the field, pointing to the plow and screaming at the ref. I mean, you could see the veins on the side of his neck. Livid! They made the field goal from the clean spot, and we lost 3-0. He really pressed the league on that for days. He’d rather get beat 45-0 by somebody than feel he was cheated and lose 3-0.”

Regarding the AFC Championship Game:

“We didn’t have a tarp at that [Orange Bowl] field. In all my years playing for the Dolphins, there never was a tarp on that field. We never covered the field. It had the kind of turf with an excellent drainage system. I meet Jets fans to this day who complain we flooded the field, and I can’t reason with them. I just say, ‘We beat you three times that season. If you were a great team, couldn’t you have beaten us just once?

A postscript on Saturday, from a league official at that 1982 title game: “Don Shula had nothing to do with the condition of the field that day. The league always controlled the stadium and the playing surface the week of championship games. They had a system at the old Orange Bowl that sucked the water from the field from underneath, but that was the worst rain I’d ever seen in my life. The system got overwhelmed.”

“Talk about Coach Shula and the rules . . . [In 1981] we came in one day and saw terrycloth robes in our lockers. He told us we were going to start allowing women reporters in the locker room after games. He told us, ‘When you come off the field after a game, get undressed, put the robe on, go to the shower, take your shower, get dry, put the robe back on, go to your locker, put your underwear on, then you take the robe off and get dressed.’ He even coached us on how to use that robe!”

1989: The Competitor

Shula loved coaching against former players and coaches on other staffs. It brought out the competitor in him. Early in the ’89 season, Miami traveled to New England to play the Patriots, coached by Raymond Berry. Shula had great respect for Berry, the Hall of Fame Colts receiver who Shula coached years earlier in Baltimore. But now Berry, as Patriots coach, had won seven straight matchups against Shula. One Wednesday evening at Dolphins camp, Shula stopped into special-teams coach Mike Westhoff’s office.

Mike Westhoff:

“Coach Shula was a schedule person. Every Wednesday night that I coached with him, at exactly 6:30, he’d come into my office. I had a great big easy chair in my office, and Coach Shula was the only one who ever sat in it. He’d walk in and say, ‘Okay. Whadda we got?’ He’d be in there exactly 45 minutes, then be off to his next meeting at exactly 7:15. Every week. In my 32 years as a coach, he’s the only guy I knew who could coach every position, who could draw the plays for every position. He called the plays for that high-powered Marino offense—no script. Just did it from memory. So when he came into my office, I knew I better have my ‘A’ game, every week.

“On this Wednesday night, he comes in and says, ‘What can we do that the Patriots haven’t seen? Can we get them on a punt block?’ He loved Raymond Berry, but he really loved beating him too. Reminds me of ‘The Last Dance,’ with Michael Jordan. You can see how much he admires Magic, but he loves beating him too. Brings out the best in him. Coach Shula loved Berry, but now Berry was in his arena.

“I got up on the board, a chalk board. The chalk dust is flying, we’re putting a few ideas together. On our [punt-return] team, we’d have eight in the box, two guys wide across from their punt-team gunners, or flyers as we called ‘em, and the returner. We thought, what if we brought our guy in from the right and just left the wide flyer alone, try to bait them into running or throwing it over there? It’s a split-second call. What would they do? Coach Shula liked it. He said, ‘Let’s go for it.’

“So we get into the game, and on their first punt, we bring our defender in from the right tight to the formation. Their guy’s alone.”

New England punter Jeff Feagles, seeing the opportunity, rushed a throw to his left. Incomplete. Miami took over at the New England 20 and drove for a quick touchdown to take a 14-0 lead. On the ensuing series, the Patriots went three-and-out.

“I go to Coach Shula and I say, ‘Coach, I wanna run it again.’ He said, ‘Do it.’ He was such a competitor!”

Feagles dropped the snap, recovered it, and threw a hurried incompletion. On another short field, Miami drove for a field goal to go up 17-0, on the way to a 24-10 win.

“All he said after was, ‘Pretty good, Mike,’ or something like that. He never gloated. Never. For him, it was always onto the next game.”

1989: The Defender

NFL Films czar Steve Sabol fed statistics of the best single-season teams of all time into a computer, with the idea to play a computerized game and match the results to video. Twenty teams were cut down to two in the simulated tournament. The last teams standing: the ’72 Dolphins and the ’78 Steelers. Before the “Dream Bowl” aired, Sabol called veteran Miami PR chief Harvey Greene with the result of the “game:” Pittsburgh 21, Miami 20.

Harvey Greene:

“Shula relished the accomplishment of the perfect team not only for what it represented, but also how it was achieved—through hard work, determination, intelligence and unselfishness. Traits that defined his life and what he meant by ‘The Winning Edge.’ That’s why he inscribed that mantra into the team’s Super Bowl rings that year.

“Sabol told me the winner was the Steelers. And when I passed that on to Shula, I got the reaction I expected. He went nuts. ‘How the [expletive] could Sabol do that?’ he yelled. ‘What kind of stats did he look at? And what the hell were you doing when you found out he was holding that tournament? Did you even call him to remind him that besides going undefeated, we were one of the very few teams ever to lead the league in both offense and defense the same season? Get him on the goddamned phone!’

“Sabol knew what was coming and braced for it, but it was too late. As soon as I put Shula on, he yelled at Sabol so loudly that you could hear it throughout the entire building.

“ ‘How the hell did the Steelers beat us? No one else ever did. There is no way a computer could do something that was never accomplished on the field. Garbage in, garbage out!’

“And then he slammed the phone down.

“Their friendship survived that, but Shula never forgot it. And the league didn’t make the same mistake again. When the NFL picked the greatest team in its 100-year history, this time they chose the perfect season team. When I talked to Shula about it, he was proud that his ’72 team finally was officially recognized as the best there ever was.

“Then he said to me, ‘We still should have won that damn game Sabol put together.’ ”

1994: The Father-Son Bowl

The Bengals, in 1992, tried to make Shula history repeat. They hired Dave Shula, and he coached his first season in Cincinnati at 33. By year three, son was struggling to turn around the Bengals, and dad was on his way to a division title. Miami played at Cincinnati on a Sunday night early in 1994.

Dave Shula:

“I think it’s still the only time a dad coached against his son—and we did it the next year too. In ’94, we weren’t very good, and we were just trying to get a win. All week, I was immersed in the game-planning, but it was a pretty big deal, obviously, me coaching against my father. I tried to make it all about the game. But I remember standing on the sideline during the anthem, and I looked over at their sideline, and I saw him, and I thought, ‘Wow. That’s right. There he is.’ This was Dad’s team. How much I really would have loved to beat him. Having grown up around the team, being a gym rat every summer being a ballboy in camp, watching him deal with equipment managers, players, coaches, the media, everything. It’s how I learned to be a coach.”

Miami 23, Cincinnati 7.

“I don’t think my Dad knew this, but everybody in the family was rooting for me. But, you know, my Dad had Dan Marino. After the game, we met in a private room at the stadium. [Miami owner] Wayne Huizenga was there, my dad, [wife] Mary Anne, my wife Leslie. All night, I was fine. I was fine during the game, I was fine with the media. Nobody knows this story, but there we were in the room, and I guess it all just hit me, the emotion of the week. I just broke down. I’m thinking, ‘Wow, Mr. Huizenga must think I’m an emotionally unstable person.’ My dad put his arm around me, said a couple of things. He knew. He knew what it must have been like for me.

“They beat us again the next year, so I was 0-2 against him. I don’t think I’m the only coach who went ‘ofer’ against him, I’ll tell you that. Actually, when I played for the Colts, we lost both games against him that year. And as an assistant coach, my teams lost to him twice. So I was 0-6 against him. I really learned how to be a competitor from watching him, from being around him. And I did have one thing over him. In Cincinnati, I had a winning record against the Raiders—2-1. He had a losing record against the Raiders. So I had that one thing, and I loved reminding him of it.”

2017: The Twilight

Shula late in life agreed to send his football archive—playbooks, game plans, personal notes—to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Hall VP Joe Horrigan spent a day going through the treasure trove in Shula’s home with Don, Mary Anne Shula and Saleem Choudhry of the Hall.

Joe Horrigan:

“His office in his home was his mancave, if you will, with his office desk, game balls, mementos from his life in football. His archive was meticulously maintained, and Mary Anne had done such a wonderful job of organizing it all. I thought what I might find was just boxes of all this old stuff, but Mary Anne had every little piece catalogued. We were going through his game-plan notebooks. They were in the spiral binders, with loose-leaf pages . . . looked like they were out of the Miami Dolphins team shop. At one point I said to Don, ‘I’m glad you went to Catholic school. Your penmanship is excellent.’ He even had personal hand-written notes for his pregame speeches to the team. All of it hand-written. Just a wealth of information.

“This was such a memorable day. Don took teams that needed to be rebuilt, where he not only had to find the right players but coach them up; no free agency in those days. Never fired in 33 years. Two losing seasons in 33 years. What’s a coach supposed to do? Win. No one won more. On this day, you could tell he absolutely loved looking back at these things. Three or four times that day, he said to Mary Anne, ‘Where have you been hiding this?’ We were talking about this game and that game, and it was such a good feeling, seeing this man get to appreciate these games and to relive them a bit. At one point, he was looking at a particular notebook from a game long ago, and he just said, ‘I haven’t thought about this game for so long.’ And I looked over at him, and there was a tear rolling down his cheek.”

Read more from Peter King’s Football Morning in America column here.