A Pro Football Coaching Quartet
“Shula, you know what your problem is? You’re uncoachable.”
Wow, it’s hard to believe that anyone would ever say that to the game’s winningest coach, but by Don Shula’s own recollection, it’s true. What makes the remark even more unbelievable is that those tough words were uttered by Cleveland Browns Hall of Fame Coach Paul Brown.
The occasion at which Brown offered his harsh critique was not when both were burning up the sidelines as NFL coaches, but rather when one – Brown – was a coach, and the other – Shula – was the student.
The year was 1951, and Shula, a halfback out of John Carroll University, was attending his rookie training camp as a ninth-round draft pick of the Browns.
It was a grueling training camp that the longshot rookie doubted he’d survive. But the perceptive Brown saw something in Shula as well as in another rookie named Carl Toseff, a 22nd round pick also from John Carroll. Shula and Taseff were the only rookies on the Browns 1951 squad.
Remember the name Taseff. I’ll get back to him.
Now, in addition to joining a squad led by a future Hall of Fame head coach, Shula’s teammates included seven future Hall of Fame players, including Len Ford, Frank Gatski, Otto Graham, Lou Groza, Dante Lavelli, Marion Motley, and Bill Willis. Talk about mentors.
But there’s more. The sleeper in this story is an assistant coach and longtime Brown disciple and future Hall of Fame coach, Weeb Ewbank.
Okay, so where am I going with all this? Well, these four men, Brown, Shula, Ewbank and Taseff – I told you I’d get back to him -- were all members of the Browns at the same time, but for just the 1951 season. Yet the quartet is forever connected in pro football history.
Let’s start with Brown. Obviously, he is the most important link. After all, he provided the other three their first pro football opportunities. Ewbank actually coached for Paul at the Great Lakes Naval Station during World War II before joining him in Cleveland in 1949.
But while Brown did draft and sign both Shula and Taseff, he also traded both to the Baltimore Colts two years later. The John Carroll friends and eight other players were sent packing to Baltimore in exchange for five Colts including future Hall of Fame tackle Mike McCormack. Now, our story could end right here with that massive trade; but it doesn’t.
The following year, Ewbank rejoined the Shula-Taseff duet as the new Colts head coach of the Colts. However, the reunited trio lasts just three seasons, as Shula is released following the 1956 season. Taseff stayed in Baltimore through 1961 and Weeb, after leading the Colts to two NFL Championships (1958, 1959) was fired following the 1962 season. Ironically, it was also following the 1962 season that Paul Brown was unceremoniously fired by the Browns.
So, that’s it, right? The end of the Paul Brown, Don Shula, Weeb Ewbank, and Carl Taseff connection. Well, not so fast. We’ve got more.
In 1963, Shula was named head coach of the Colts, replacing Ewbank. At 33, he was the then-youngest head coach in NFL history. "He was hailed as a brainy type who was destined for a bright future as a grid tutor," the team's press release read. "Now, perhaps earlier than he had ever anticipated, he gets a shot at the top job." The young coach didn't disappoint. Under Shula the Colts enjoyed seven consecutive winning seasons and the team reached the NFL title game in 1964 and 1968.
As the 1968 NFL Champions, Shula’s Colts advanced to Super Bowl III. His opponent was the American Football League’s Champion New York Jets. And the Jets coach, you guessed it, Weeb Ewbank. I know, this is getting more complicated than a Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young reunion, but there’s still more.
As many of you no doubt know, Ewbank went on to defeat Shula and the Colts in Super Bowl III. The win gave the fledgling AFL the credibility it sought and for Ewbank redemption.
Again, the story could stop here, but it doesn’t.
Ewbank, the only head to win titles in both the AFL and NFL, hung up his coach’s cap after five more seasons with the Jets. Shula, well he left the Colts following the 1969 season to take over a struggling Miami Dolphins team that had won just three games the previous season.
Shula wasted little time in transforming the struggling Dolphins into a winning franchise. In his first year he posted a 10-4 record, followed by 10-3-1 in 1971. In 1972, he made NFL history going 17-0 in regular- and post season play, the only coach to do so. Well, I should clarify…the only NFL coach ever to do so. Paul Brown, Shula's mentor, also recorded an undefeated season. He led his Cleveland Browns to a perfect season in 1948, but that was as members of the NFL’s rival league, the All-America Football Conference of which the Browns were members from 1946 until the 1949 when the two rival leagues merged.
And oh, by the way, joining Shula in Miami as an assistant coach in 1970 was Carl Taseff. Taseff spent the next 24 years with Shula and the Dolphins before retiring in 1993.
As for Shula, well he finally retired after the 1995 season as the winningest coach of all time. His 347 career regular- and post-season wins may be pro football’s only unbreakable record. Not too bad for someone deemed “uncoachable.”
So, as the late, great veteran radio commentator Paul Harvey used to say, “Now you know the rest of the story.”
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