Don Shula, a masterly coach with a square jaw who won more National Football League games than anyone else and guided the Miami Dolphins to two Super Bowl titles and the only perfect season in league history, died on Monday at 90.
Shula, whose NFL coaching prowess with the Dolphins and the Baltimore Colts from 1963 to 1995 made him one of the most famous sports figures in America, died peacefully at his home, the Dolphins said in a statement.
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said Shula will be remembered as one of the greatest coaches and contributors in the history of American football.
“He was a remarkable teacher and mentor who for decades inspired excellence and exemplified integrity,” said Goodell. “His iconic legacy will endure through his family and continue to inspire generations to come.”
The 1972 Miami Dolphins team that Shula guided stands as the only team in NFL history to post a perfect record – 17-0 – as they marched to a Super Bowl victory over the Washington Redskins. The next season, Shula led them to a second straight victory in the Super Bowl, America’s biggest sporting event.
His coaching record in 33 NFL seasons, including regular season and playoff games, was 347 wins, 173 losses and six ties. No coach won more NFL games. Only one other coach, Chicago Bears stalwart George Halas, exceeded 300 wins, with 324. Shula took six teams to the Super Bowl, winning twice.
“I want to count my blessings. I’ve been able to do something for a lifetime that I have enjoyed doing,” Shula, with sunglasses, combed-back white hair and his trademark jutting jaw, said in 1997 as he was enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio. “I’ve had good health and I’ve met a lot of great people along the way.”
In 2013, he wore the cream-colored jacket given to members of the Hall of Fame to the White House when President Barack Obama invited Shula and the rest of the 1972 Dolphins for a special tribute. Obama lauded Shula, who at age 83 sat in a motorized scooter, as a legendary coach.
Shula was such an enduring figure in professional football that one of his former players, fearsome defensive lineman Bubba Smith, once joked: “If a nuclear bomb dropped, the only things I’m certain would survive are AstroTurf and Don Shula.”
Fellow Hall of Fame coach John Madden in 1997 told the Miami Herald: “Nobody else has done it in so many ways, in so many different eras, with so many different kinds of players.”
Donald Francis Shula was born on Jan. 4, 1930, in Grand River, Ohio, the son of Hungarian parents. He played college football at John Carroll University in Ohio before spending seven seasons as a defensive back with the Cleveland Browns, Baltimore Colts and Washington Redskins of the NFL. He retired after the 1957 season before working as a college football assistant coach at the University of Virginia.
He came back to the NFL in 1960 when the Detroit Lions made him their defensive coordinator. In 1963, the Baltimore Colts hired Shula as head coach. At age 33, Shula was the youngest head coach ever in the NFL at the time.
‘A PUNCH IN THE MOUTH’
Shula once called his coaching style “as subtle as a punch in the mouth,” and his players knew he was firmly in charge. But he also knew human psychology enough to understand that different players needed to be motivated according to their own individual personalities – with a tongue-lashing for some, a calm explanation for some and humor for others.
Shula did experience some noteworthy failures. On Jan. 12, 1969, his Colts were heavily favored to beat the New York Jets in Super Bowl III in Miami. But Joe Namath, the brash Jets quarterback, guaranteed his team would win.
At the time, the Super Bowl pitted the champion of the venerable NFL against the champion of the upstart American Football League. The two leagues had already revealed plans to merge (they did so in 1970) but NFL teams had thrashed the AFL’s champions in the first two Super Bowls.
In one of the biggest upsets in the annals of American sports, the underdog Jets shocked Shula’s Colts, 16-7. Shula coached the Colts one more season before going to the Dolphins, a former AFL team struggling to make it in the merged league.
He coached the Dolphins from 1970 until 1995, taking them to the Super Bowl five times. The first time they reached the Super Bowl – following the 1971 season – they were flattened by unflappable coach Tom Landry’s Dallas Cowboys, 24-3.
The 1972 Dolphins were a team on a mission. Shula guided them to victories in all 14 regular season games and their first two playoff games to earn a spot in Super Bowl VII.
The team was led by quarterback Bob Griese, back from a broken leg, with additional offensive firepower from running backs Larry Csonka and Mercury Morris and wide receiver Paul Warfield. Miami’s sturdy “No-Name Defense” featured the likes of linebacker Nick Buoniconti and safety Jake Scott.
Miami beat Washington, 14-7, in the Super Bowl on Jan. 15, 1973, in Los Angeles to finish the season 17-0. Shula’s players carried him off the field on their shoulders as he punched his right fist skyward in triumph.
He led the Dolphins to a third consecutive Super Bowl berth the next season – and a second straight victory – as they walloped quarterback Fran Tarkenton’s Minnesota Vikings, 24-7.
Shula never again won a Super Bowl. He took the Dolphins to the title game after the 1982 season, losing to the Redskins, and after the 1984 season, falling to the San Francisco 49ers.
During the 1980s and 1990s, Shula coached quarterback Dan Marino, one of the most prolific passers in NFL history, but the two were unable to win a Super Bowl together. Shula said his biggest career regret was failing to win another Super Bowl.
“Coach Shula – you will truly be missed! You embody the definition of ‘greatness.’ You brought that winning attitude with you every day and made everyone around you better,” Marino wrote on Twitter.
“Thank you for always believing in me. You made me a better player and person. My thoughts & prayers are with the entire Shula family. Love you Coach!”
Shula was married twice and had five children.
Reporting by Will Dunham in Washington and Peter Szekely in New York; Additional reporting by Frank Pingue; Editing by Bill Trott, Chizu Nomiyama and Jonathan Oatis