Don Shula died Monday on his 90th birthday. Given 2020 marks 25 years since he last coached the Dolphins, it’s a tribute to his legendary legacy that everything he accomplished as an all-time great still resonates in the NFL today.
Shula spent 33 consecutive years leading a team, starting with the Colts from 1963-69 and ending with the Dolphins from 1970-95. He won an NFL championship in Baltimore, taking that team to Super Bowl 3, and went on to win two Super Bowls in Miami, sandwiched by two AFC championships.
Along with being a Pro Football Hall of Famer, Shula was named to both the NFL’s 1970s all-decade team and 100th anniversary all-time team. He was a four-time Associated Press coach of the year and one-time Sports Illustrated Man of the Year. Both of his sons, Dave and Mike Shula, have had long careers coaching football in some capacity.
There’s no doubt Don Shula will always be NFL royalty. These are a few of the amazing accomplishments that defined his greatness.
Don Shula won more games than anyone else — and didn’t lose much either
Shula has both the most regular-season wins (328) and most total wins (347) than any coach in NFL history. Bears legend George Halas is next with 318 and 324. Patriots coach Bill Belichick has 273 and 304. Belichick would need to coach five more successful seasons without Tom Brady to have any shot of breaking Shula’s record.
Shula posted a .677 winning percentage, which is incredible for that longevity. He had only two losing seasons, both with the Dolphins in 1976 (6-8) and 1988 (6-10) with his teams making the playoffs a whopping 18 times.
He was destined to be a teacher of football
Shula grew up just to the northeast of Cleveland in the Lake Erie town of Grand River, Ohio. He stayed local in playing football at John Carroll University, which is now home to the Don Shula Sports Center. After Shula, the program produced several NFL personnel of note, including London Fletcher, Josh McDaniels, Nick Caserio, Greg Roman, Tom Telesco and Dave Caldwell.
Shula was a good running back in college and got drafted by the hometown Browns as a defensive back in 1951. Shula, well versed in sociology and mathematics and initially pursued a career as a high coach and teacher first — after also considering Catholic priesthood — before getting his chance in the NFL.
Before getting to the Colts in 1955, Shula was in the Ohio National Guard for the Korean War and also added a master’s degree in physical education from Case Western Reserve. By the time he retired in 1957 and was making his transition to coaching, Shula, playing for fellow Hall of Famers Paul Brown and Weeb Ewbank, gained a lot of invaluable early experience with schemes, tactics and team chemistry.
He knew how to put together a dominant defense on every level
Shula’s first and only NFL coordinator gig was overseeing the Lions’ defense from 1960 to ’62. Detroit became very hard to score on and move the ball against because of him. From a ferocius front four led by Hall of Famer Alex Karras to a secondary led by Hall of Famer Dick “Night Train” Lane, the Lions could both disrupt the backfield and made big plays on the ball.
The Colts came calling in 1963 after they fired Ewbank, because Shula left a lasting impression of coaching intelligence when he played under him. Baltimore’s defense was another top unit and was more effective as a complementary unit with Shula’s former teammate Johnny Unitas as the starting QB.
During his seven seasons with the Colts as head coach, Shula’s scoring defenses were ranked No. 7, No. 1, No. 4, No. 3, No. 2, No. 1 and No. 6 in the league. Shula did it with limited Hall of Fame help, with Gino Marchetti early and Ted Hendricks late.
That was a buildup to Shula’s work with the Dolphins, stamped by the “No-Name Defense” led by Hall of Fame middle linebacker Nick Buonoconti, defensive tackle Manny Fernandez and safeties Jake Scott and Dick Anderson.
Shula’s genius was looking at how defenders could best complement each other to come up with a complete unit with several strengths and limited weaknesses. Many others, like Belichick, have also embraced knowing the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
He is responsible for the NFL’s lone perfect season
The 1972 Dolphins have had many challengers, but as teams such as Belichick’s 2007 Patriots have come close and failed, there’s a growing appreciation for Shula leading the Dolphins to an unblemished 17-0 mark.
Sweeping the 14-game regular season was hard enough, but then the Dolphins ground out three consecutive close playoff victories over the 10-4 Browns, 11-3 Steelers and 11-3 Redskins. The defense ultimately won the championship with a 14-7 win over Washington in Super Bowl 7.
Shula did have some all-time quarterbacks in his employ, starting with Unitas and ending with Dan Marino. But setting the tone for what Belichick does, Shula was highly adaptable to his personnel. When he had top passers and receivers, he threw often. In 1972, when he had mighty interior offensive linemen in Hall of Famers Larry Little and Jim Langer blocking for Hall of Fame fullback Larry Csonka, he could also go ball control to complement his defense.
He was the bridge from NFL coaching past to its present and future
Shula learned everywhere he went and understood what kind of personnel it took to win games consistently and at the highest level. He won with all kinds of teams and knew how important it was to attach himself long-term to steady quarterbacks, with Unitas, Earl Morrall, Marino, with another Hall of Famer, Bob Griese in between.
Shula got the Colts to Super Bowl 3 right before the official NFL-AFL merger and had the Dolphins rolling as successful organization soon after it. Shula, like the Cowboys’ Tom Landry and the Steelers’ Chuck Noll, with their long familiar tenures as contemporaries, where throwbacks to Halas and Curly Lambeau.
In the modern game, Belichick and the latest Super Bowl winner, Andy Reid, have proved to have the same blend of steadiness and adaptability as Shula. As they stand out now as two-decade plus sideline exceptions, there’s a better recognition that what Shula did so well for so many years is very difficult to do.
It’s easy to see that Shula’s big winning numbers were impressive. But the processes that got him to the all-time bottom line are what should really define how much he meant to the NFL.