Don Shula: At 90, NFL’s winningest coach still casts a long shadow

Credit: Brynn Anderson/AP

Credit: Brynn Anderson/AP

Don Shula celebrated his 90th birthday Saturday, and the winningest coach in National Football League history still has that presence: the granite jaw, the steady gaze.

And 17-0.

Shula remains the only coach to take an NFL team to an unbeaten, untied season, achieving it with the 1972 Miami Dolphins. The New England Patriots also were perfect, going 16-0 in the regular season in 2007, but were stunned 17-14 in Super Bowl XLII by the New York Giants to finish their season 18-1.

Now, at 90, Shula has slowed down, but the legend -- and intensity -- remains.

“If not immortal, he seemed indestructible,” Mark Ribowsky wrote in “Shula,” his 2019 biography.

Shula has won the most games in NFL history (347) coached the most games (526) and consecutive seasons (33). He coached in six Super Bowls, a mark topped only by Bill Belichick’s nine appearances in pro football’s championship game.

While Shula won Super Bowls VII and VIII with Miami, he also lost four times in the title game, tying Bud Grant, Marv Levy and Dan Reeves. He also suffered what remains arguably the biggest upset in Super Bowl history, as his Baltimore Colts, favored by more than 18 points, were shocked by the New York Jets 16-7 in Miami’s Orange Bowl, where ironically, Shula would carve out his greatest legacy.

Shula won with three Hall of Fame quarterbacks during his career (Johnny Unitas, Bob Griese and Dan Marino). He also won with backup quarterback Earl Morrall in two different seasons, and when Unitas and backup Gary Cuozzo were injured in 1965, he won with halfback Tom Matte, who called plays that were written on his wristband. Shula went to Super Bowl XVII with a scrambling David Woodley at quarterback and earned his NFL record-setting 325th victory with third-stringer Doug Pederson calling the signals.

“He can take his’n and beat your’n or take your’n and beat his’n.” Houston Oiler coach Bum Phillips once said about Shula’s coaching ability.

Shula has an expressway in Miami named for him, along with two restaurants and a game between Florida Atlantic and Florida International universities, the Sun-Sentinel reported. There is also a football field named for him and an endowed chair of philosophy at John Carroll University, his college alma mater, the newspaper reported.

During the 1960s in Baltimore, Shula lost heartbreaking games: the Colts were pummeled 27-0 by the Cleveland Browns in the 1964 NFL title game, lost a 1965 playoff game in Green Bay when a controversial field goal sent the game into overtime and the Packers prevailed with another field goal. Shula missed the 1967 NFL playoffs despite being 11-0-2 heading into the regular-season finale against the Los Angeles Rams. The Rams won, but only one 11-1-2 team could advance -- Los Angeles.

Then came the upset loss to the Jets in Super Bowl III, and Miami’s 24-3 loss to Dallas in Super Bowl VI.

Shula never wavered, putting together a 32-2 record and back-to-back Super Bowl victories after the 1972 and ’73 seasons.

“I played for six coaches, and Shula was the most prepared of them all,” placekicker Garo Yepremian wrote in his 2002 book, “Tales from the Miami Dolphins.”

Jack Gilden, author of the 2018 book, “Collision of Wills,” interviewed the aging Shula at his South Florida home.

"He was interesting. You could see what a crafty devil he was," Gilden told New Books Network in a October 2018 podcast. "He didn't necessarily want to give away all of his secrets.

“I found him to be an affable and intelligent guy. He seemed to be forthright, even when he wasn’t being forthright.”

Focused? Shula had tunnel vision. As he was being carried off the field after the Dolphins sewed up their perfect season, a fan stole his wristwatch, the Sun-Sentinel reported. Shula ran after the fan and got his watch back.

During the 1980s, Shula was introduced to actor Don Johnson, who was starring in the hit television show, “Miami Vice,” the newspaper reported.

Shula, thinking Johnson was a police officer, smiled and said, “You guys do a great job.”

“I’m fairly confident that if I died tomorrow, Don would find a way to preserve me until the season was over and he had time for a nice funeral,” Shula’s first wife, Dorothy, once said.

Dorothy Shula died in February 1991 -- during the offseason.

Shula, Mike Freedman wrote in his 2012 book, “Undefeated,” had “a face that projected authority and radiated uncompromising discipline.”

“I’m no miracle man,” Shula said in the summer of 1970 before his first regular season with the Dolphins. “I don’t have any magic formulas.”

Fifty years later, 347 wins, a perfect season, induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1997 and a member of the NFL’s attest to Shula’s magic.

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