Spotlight Game Week 11 - Don Shula

01/01/2005

(EDITOR'S NOTE: This is an edited version of an article taken from the official game program for Super Bowl XXX between the Dallas Cowboys and Pittsburgh Steelers, which was played on January 28, 1996 in Tempe, Arizona.)

Legendary Exit
Don Shula Calls It a Coaching Career After 33 Storied Seasons in Charge in Miami and Baltimore

By NFL Insider

Don ShulaJohn F. Kennedy was in the White House the year Don Shula became an NFL head coach. Y. A. Tittle was the league's leading passer. America would have to wait six more years before man set foot on the moon.

So, when the NFL's all-time winningest coach announced his retirement on January 5, 1996, it marked more than the end of a career. It signaled the close of a unique chapter in NFL history.

The Shula era, first in Baltimore and then in Miami, touched four decades, 33 seasons, and 526 games. It produced 347 victories, 19 playoff teams, and three league champions.

But of all the numbing statistics that document his record-setting career, none is more remarkable than this: Across 33 years in pro football-seven with the Colts and 26 with the Dolphins-Shula teams experienced only two losing seasons. He was a man who knew how to win.

Shula's jut-jawed profile glared out across football fields during some of the most memorable moments in history. As coach of the Colts in 1968, he grimaced on the losing sideline as Joe Namath stunned Baltimore and the football world in Super Bowl III. As coach of the 1972 Dolphins, Shula was given a victory ride after Super Bowl VII as Miami defeated the Redskins to cap the NFL's only unbeaten, untied season (17?0).

Shula coached Miami to victory in the NFL's longest game-27-24 over Kansas City, in double overtime, in the 1971 AFC playoffs. Shula coached Miami in one of pro football's most dramatic struggles-a 41-38 overtime loss to the San Diego Chargers in the 1981 AFC playoffs.

He coached in a record-setting six Super Bowls and 36 playoff games. He set records for both regular-season victories (328) and victories all-time (347). He carved out a career winning percentage of .665 and averaged 10 victories per season.

Shula cast such a large shadow for so many years that he can't be discussed as a whole. You have to break him down into his component parts, the pieces of this piece-of-work. For as long as anyone can remember, he was the pièce de résistance of coaches.

THE GLARE

"The Glare?" Shula said in mock surprise, when he was asked about the look that froze coffee and players' hearts.

"It's a nice, friendly smile."

Don Shula 1972
Shula discusses a play with an official in 1972. The Dolphins would go undefeated that year, including a 14-7 victory against the Washingtn Redskins in Super Bowl VII. Shula was later named the AP NFL Coach of the Year.

It was none of the three. It was Shula's wrath on a laser beam. It contained elements of confrontation, intimidation, humiliation, and scorn. It eliminated a lot of guesswork.

"I let my emotions out," Shula said. "I don't mask 'em, I just let 'em go. People can read me very easily. It's part of my personality, I don't spend time trying to figure out how to manipulate. I think any time you have to do anything that's contrived, the players sense it, and it's not very effective."

Players went to great lengths to be spared the Glare.

"Shula was a thug," Bubba Smith said. "He was tough, he had a drive to win, and if you didn't have that same drive, he didn't deal with you."

Shula was a "Napoleonic figure," in the opinion of Dan Henning, the former Shula assistant who later coached the Chargers. But sometimes Shula lacked Napoleon's charm.

The only Dolphins who really kidded around with Shula were on the Larry Csonka-Jim Kiick-Mercury Morris team that went 17-0 in 1972, the only perfect season in NFL history. Csonka and Kiick once turned loose a live alligator in Shula's private shower. Everyone (except the alligator) had a good laugh, and maybe the lesson was: You can joke around with the coach as long as you win every week.

THE JAW

The Shula Jaw is functional. It is shaped like the cowcatcher on an old locomotive, and it pushes aside life's debris, clearing the track for the Shula Express. The Jaw swept away critics, whiners, slackers, bluffers, glad-handers, chit-chatters, time-wasters, psyche-probers, and an occasional movie star.

Shula has been introduced to actors Kevin Costner and to Don Johnson, and he didn't have the faintest idea who either man was.

Shula was recapping a trip to England once when this exchange took place:
Shula: "We visited the home of that old writer, what's his name?"

Sportswriter: "Shakespeare?"

Shula: "Yeah."

He is a man of routine, a creature of habit. He keeps his appointment with God each morning at early Mass, and then the world goes on Shula time.

In the Monday team meeting, Shula would outline the week's schedule in detail, even though it never changed. Each subsequent morning he would go over that day's schedule, as the players' eyes glazed over.

And yet it would be wrong to categorize Shula as inflexible. In judging attitudes, he differentiated between players who were harmful to the team, and players who were a thorn in his side but could get the job done. The former would go; the latter would stay.

Don Shula with the Colts
Shula celebrates with the Baltimore Colts after winning the NFL Western Division title in 1964.

Bubba Smith, who was a Colts' rookie in Shula's fifth season in Baltimore, didn't break into the starting lineup until after he copped an attitude and got in Shula's face.

"My first year, I was Joe College, Peter Prep," Smith said. "He had me at tackle, and my legs were too long to play there, so most of the time I was on the bench. He was so strong willed, he wasn't going to move me to end.

"My second year, I came back and really challenged Shula. I came to camp looking like Rap Brown-big Afro and love beads. The sportswriters said, 'Is Shula going to make you cut your hair?' I said, 'Is he my barber or my coach?'"

It was a daily glare-off at 20 paces, but Bubba could play, so Shula moved him to end, and Smith became a star. Not long after that, Shula was one of the first coaches to stock the team shower room with black hair-care products.

"The fact that my wife and I raised five kids helped me as a coach to understand the changing problems of young people," Shula said. "When Dave was nineteen, Mike was thirteen. We had five teenagers at once. I had to learn how to deal with their problems. That helped me deal with young players."

THE HEART

It was the summer of 1958. Don and Dorothy Shula were on their honeymoon at Ocean City, New Jersey. They were strolling along the seashore when Don stopped and asked Dorothy to backpedal. You know, run backwards in the soft beach sand.

"Why?" she asked, appropriately.

"I want to see how agile you are," he explained. "Football players have to be agile, and I want to see if our offspring have a chance to be players." What if Dorothy had been clumsy?

"I would've been stuck," Shula says with a smile.

He smiles often when he talks about Dorothy, whom he met in a bowling alley in their hometown of Painesville, Ohio. They were a mutual admiration and inspiration society for more than 32 years. They had five children, and the two boys inherited enough backpedaling dexterity to become NFL players.

Dorothy died of breast cancer in 1991, after a terrible four-year illness. The first time Don Shula's kids ever saw him cry was at her funeral.

He was devastated. For weeks he wandered around their home, feeling Dorothy's presence, sinking into despair and loneliness.

"I'd always know that Dorothy would be there when I walked out of the locker room," Shula has said. "She'd always had an answer for whatever happened that day. She'd gotten me to think about things other than football…and she'd always found a way to make me laugh."

What saved Shula was his family. He had always had a coach-player relationship with his kids, but with Dorothy gone, he knew he had to do what she had begged him to do-let down the emotional walls.

"He was never the kind of father who could tell you he loved you, who would hold you or kiss you," said Donna, the oldest Shula daughter. "It was real awkward for him. It's funny some of the things that you can talk to him about, things like your personal relationships, things you would never dream of telling him before. He tells us he loves us a lot more, too."

THE BELLY

Due south of the Chin is the Shula Belly. It is well known for its stubborn refusal to shrink, despite Shula's relentless jogging and dieting. But the Belly is even more famous as home office of the Shula Fire.

"I was born with it," Shula says, referring to the fire, not the belly.

Don Shula at the HallHe was raised in little Painesville, Ohio, and was the boss of the local playground, even though he was the smallest and youngest kid in the neighborhood. Legend has it that when his grandparents beat him at a card game, little Don threw the cards and called them cheaters. True story?

"Oh yeah," Shula says.

He was a hard-nosed running back at little John Carroll University, then he faced a career decision.

"I had a teaching minor in math," Shula says, "and I wanted to coach and teach in high school. When I graduated from college, I had a job offer in Canton, Ohio, at Lincoln High School, for $3,700. I was drafted by the Browns, and they offered me a contract for $5,000. I decided to shoot for the moon."

He was simply taking a more roundabout route to Canton, now home of the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He played seven seasons at defensive back for the Browns, Colts, and Redskins, then went into coaching as an assistant at Virginia. Five seasons and two jobs later, he was hired as head coach of the Baltimore Colts at age 33.

Shula is so driven that he had missed only one full day of work in 33 seasons, and that was because of Dorothy's illness. His energy was legendary. Bucking the NFL trend, he did the work of two men-coach and general manager.

On the sideline on Sundays, Shula was a maniac, all chin and glare and bark, the fire seemingly raging out of control. Yet he ran the ship with a steady hand, and later had uncanny recall of every play.

THE RECORD

Don Shula gets win 325
Shula is carried off the field after his record-breaking 325th coaching victory in 1993.

Shula was too busy coaching to wallow around in his numbers and records, but he is aware of whom he passed to become football's winningest coach.

"To me," he says, "the two most important people in the NFL were George Halas and Paul Brown."

Shula played under Brown in Cleveland, then coached under Brown disciple Blanton Collier at the University of Kentucky. Shula also coached under George Wilson, a Halas disciple, and then, as a head coach, went head-to-head with Halas. In their nine meetings, Colts versus Bears, Shula came out with a 5-4 edge.

"Their two styles were in direct contrast, and I learned from both," Shula says. "From Halas I learned the handling of men and the toughness and competitiveness of the game. From Paul I got the teacher-pupil relationship. Paul put the classroom into pro football."

THE EMPIRE

Just northwest of Miami is the town of Miami Lakes, which really should be named Shulaville. Bearing the name and signature of Don Shula are two hotels, a steak house, a sports bar/restaurant, an executive golf course, and a huge athletic club.

At the plush Don Shula Steak House, the menu is inscribed on a real football. The biggest cut is a 48-ounce porterhouse, bigger than your menu, and if you eat the entire steak, your name is engraved on a small gold plaque and bolted to the wall. Management assumes no responsibility for any fire that might start in your belly.

That 48-ounce porterhouse is the perfect Shula touch: To be rewarded, you must push yourself beyond sane limitations, eliminate all distractions, dig in, and go to work.

No excuses. Somehow, some way, you've got to get the job done.


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