Wednesday, May 6, 2020

Don Shula's Legacy of Winning With Integrity

Don Shula, the NFL's all-time leader in regular season coaching wins (328) and combined regular season/playoff wins (347), passed away on May 4 at the age of 90. Shula is best known for leading the 1972 Miami Dolphins to a 17-0 record and the Super Bowl title, the only perfect season in NFL history (three other teams--the 1934 Chicago Bears, the 1942 Chicago Bears, and the 2007 New England Patriots--enjoyed undefeated regular seasons but did not win the NFL Championship or Super Bowl). The Dolphins repeated as Super Bowl champions in 1973, posting a 15-2 overall record. From 1971-73, the Dolphins went 44-6-1 overall with three straight Super Bowl appearances and two Super Bowl titles.

Before he became a coach, Shula had 21 interceptions while playing for three teams during his seven season (1951-57) NFL career. Shula spent two seasons as a college assistant coach before becoming an assistant coach for the Detroit Lions in 1960. He then served two seasons as the Lions' defensive coordinator (1961-62) before becoming the Baltimore Colts' head coach in 1963. At that time, Shula was the youngest head coach in NFL history. The Colts went 7-7 in 1962 (the season before Shula arrived), and by 1964 they were a 12-2 team that advanced to the NFL Championship Game before losing 27-0 to the Cleveland Browns. 

During his 33 year NFL head coaching career, Shula made 19 playoff appearances, won 16 division titles (including four straight from 1971-74, and five straight from 1981-85), won five AFC titles (1971-73, 1982, 1984), led Baltimore to the 1968 NFL title (the Colts lost Super Bowl III to the AFL champion New York Jets), and posted a 2-4 record in the Super Bowl. Only Bill Belichick (nine) has been a head coach in more Super Bowls than Shula. Shula is one of 13 coaches who have won at least two Super Bowl titles, and only Belichick (six), Chuck Noll (four), Bill Walsh (three), and Joe Gibbs (three) have won more Super Bowls than Shula. Shula is the only four-time winner (1964, 1967, 1968, 1972) of the AP NFL Coach of the Year award, an honor that has been presented since 1957. Only four NFL coaches amassed at least 250 regular season wins: Shula, George Halas (318), Bill Belichick (273), and Tom Landry (250).

Shula long ago established his position in the NFL coaching pantheon, but during the first portion of his coaching career he battled the stigma that he could not win the big game. He did not win a playoff game until his sixth season in Baltimore, when he took the Colts to the 1968 NFL title, but much of the luster of that accomplishment was wiped away by the Colts' loss to the Jets in Super Bowl III. Shula lasted just one more season in Baltimore before moving to Miami to coach the Dolphins, a 1966 AFL expansion team entering its first season as an NFL team. The Dolphins had not won more than five games in a season prior to Shula's arrival, but they went 10-4 in his first season, dominated the league for the next three seasons, and only posted two losing records during Shula's 1970-95 tenure with the franchise. By the time he retired, Shula--much like former UCLA coach John Wooden--had conclusively overcome the stigma/perception/narrative that he could not win the big game.

Former NFL coach Bum Phillips once said of Shula, "Don Shula can take his'n and beat you'n, and he could take you'n and beat his'n." Shula's record speaks for itself, but Shula was most proud of how he compiled that record: "If I'm remembered for anything, I hope it's for playing within the rules. I also hope it will be said that my teams showed class and dignity in victory or defeat."

In addition to integrity and sustained excellence, Shula's coaching career is also distinguished by the adaptability that he displayed. His early Dolphin teams were characterized by a tremendous running attack plus a stout defense, but in the 1980s Shula opened up his offense to take full advantage of Dan Marino's passing ability. The Dolphins advanced to one Super Bowl with Marino, and they were a perennial playoff team during the early to mid 1980s before having a few subpar seasons in the second half of that decade. Shula led the Dolphins to four playoff appearances in the first six years of the 1990s--including a trip to the AFC Championship Game after the 1992 season--before he retired.

Shula left big footprints to fill. The Dolphins have made just two playoff appearances since 2001, and they have not advanced to the AFC Championship Game since the 1992 season. Hall of Fame Coach Jimmy Johnson inherited a 9-7 team from Shula, and went 8-8, 9-7, 10-6, and 9-7 in his four seasons with the Dolphins.

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