Don Shula, the NFL’s all-time leader in coaching wins, dies at 90

Don Shula is carried off the field after earning his 325th victory on Nov. 14, 1993, in Philadelphia. <span class="copyright">(George Widman / Associated Press)</span>
Don Shula is carried off the field after earning his 325th victory on Nov. 14, 1993, in Philadelphia. (George Widman / Associated Press)

A homespun NFL coach once gave a simple summation of the tactical and inspirational excellence of Don Shula.

“Don Shula can take his’n and beat your’n,” Bum Phillips said, “or he can take your’n and beat his’n.”

Point being, Shula won. A lot. In fact, he was the NFL’s winningest coach, leading the Miami Dolphins to the league’s only undefeated season.

Shula died “peacefully at home,” the franchise said Monday. He was 90.

“If there were a Mt. Rushmore for the NFL, Don Shula certainly would be chiseled into the granite,” Dolphins owner Stephen Ross said. “He won more games than any coach in the NFL, and his 1972 ‘Perfect Season’ team stands alone in the 100-year history of the league.”

Shula’s cause of death was not immediately known, but a source told the Miami Herald it was not related to the novel coronavirus.

“He made an extraordinary impact on so many lives,” said NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, who called Shula “a remarkable teacher and mentor who for decades inspired excellence and exemplified integrity.”

Shula, who was only 33 when he stepped into his first head coaching job, coached the Baltimore Colts and the Dolphins, ending his career in 1995 with a 347-173-6 record. He coached the Colts to one Super Bowl and the Dolphins to five, winning Lombardi Trophies in 1972 and ’73.

In his 33 seasons as a head coach — no one has coached as many consecutive NFL seasons — only two of his teams finished with losing records.

Shula was inducted in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1997. He joins George Halas and Bill Belichick as the only NFL coaches to win more than 300 games.

“I was fortunate to grow up in Maryland as a fan of the Baltimore Colts, who, under Coach Shula, were one of the outstanding teams of that era,” Belichick said. “My first connection to Coach Shula was through my father, whose friendship with Coach Shula went back to their days in northeast Ohio. I extend my deepest condolences to the Shula family and the Dolphins organization.”

In a 2005 interview with The Times, Shula said as rewarding as the three decades of coaching were, they came at a cost.

“It’s demanding,” he said. “It totally takes over your life. It consumes you. That’s all you think about, morning, noon and night. June used to be our family vacation month. I’d try to get to know the kids and my wife in the month of June, just cram it all into that little period of time. But once the season starts, that’s all. It just takes over your life.

“You might try to think of something else, but it starts creeping in there. Next thing you know you’re getting up in the middle of the night thinking about what you should do, what you didn’t do, what you’d like to do. That hasn’t changed.”

Shula’s sons, David and Mike, both went on to become NFL coaches. David, currently an assistant coach at Dartmouth, was head coach of the Cincinnati Bengals from 1992-96. Mike, who has been an offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach with several NFL teams, is in his first season as quarterbacks coach of the Denver Broncos.

For all of his winning, though, Shula also is remembered for a career-changing loss in Super Bowl III. It was January 1969 and although the merger of the upstart American Football League into the longstanding NFL had been announced two years earlier, it wasn’t scheduled to happen until the 1970 season. Thus, Super Bowl III was still a championship meeting of teams from rival leagues: Shula’s Colts of the NFL and the New York Jets of the AFL.

Vince Lombardi’s Green Bay Packers had upheld the prestige of the NFL with convincing victories over the AFL’s Kansas City Chiefs and Oakland Raiders in the first two championship games, and Shula’s one-loss Colts, despite the absence of premier quarterback Johnny Unitas — who missed most of the season with an injury — were three-touchdown favorites over the Jets, an 11-3 regular-season team.

Most of the sporting world considered the game a mere formality, but Jets quarterback Joe Namath had other ideas.

The high-living, big-talking “Broadway Joe” sneered at the odds and not only predicted victory for the Jets but also guaranteed it, then backed up his boast with a most-valuable-player performance. The Jets won, 16-7, and Shula became the first NFL coach to lose a Super Bowl to an AFL team.

Although they never spoke to each other at length about that game, Shula and Namath maintained a cordial relationship over the years. One encounter was particularly memorable for Namath, and it came in 1985 when the Hall of Fame quarterback was part of ABC’s “Monday Night Football” broadcast team. The Dolphins were preparing to play the 12-0 Chicago Bears on the national stage.

Miami Dolphins coach Don Shula is carried off the field after defeating the Washington Redskins in Super Bowl VII at the Coliseum in January 1973 to complete a 17-0 season. <span class="copyright">(Vernon Biever / Getty Images)</span>
Miami Dolphins coach Don Shula is carried off the field after defeating the Washington Redskins in Super Bowl VII at the Coliseum in January 1973 to complete a 17-0 season. (Vernon Biever / Getty Images)

“I took my dad to Dolphins practice, and I had heard that coach Shula was of Hungarian descent,” Namath told The Times on Monday. “Well, my dad comes from Hungary. He’s first-generation here. And when we were on the field, I introduced my dad to coach Shula. It was right before practice, and I know coach Shula had a lot of things on his mind. But he came over and I said, ‘coach Shula this is my dad.’ Right away, coach Shula started talking in Hungarian to him and they had a conversation. It really thrilled my dad.”

Born Donald Francis Shula in Grand River, Ohio, on Jan. 4, 1930, he was the son of a Hungarian immigrant father — the family name was originally Sule — and a Hungarian-American mother. As a youth, Don helped his father on a fishing boat even though he consistently got seasick, and organized neighborhood athletic activities.

He was 11 when he suffered a severely cut nose playing football and his parents forbade him from playing. When he got to high school, at nearby Painesville, Shula forged a permission slip and went out for the team, finally telling his parents only after he’d become a starter. He returned a punt 75 yards for a touchdown in the first game they saw him play.

He was good enough in high school to earn a scholarship to John Carroll University in Cleveland, and he played well enough there to be drafted as a defensive back by the Cleveland Browns, then coached by the legendary Paul Brown, whose teachings Shula adopted when he began coaching. Shula played seven seasons in the NFL, two with the Browns, four with the Colts and one with the Washington Redskins, spent two seasons as a college assistant at Virginia and Kentucky, and two more seasons as an assistant with the Detroit Lions. Then, at 33, only three years older than Unitas, he took over the Colts, immediately establishing himself as a tough, no-nonsense, we’ll-do-it-my-way coach.

Even Unitas, by then a ranking NFL star, was not spared, during one argument throwing the ball to Shula, saying, “You want to be the quarterback? Here, do it!”

As dedicated as he was to football, Shula early on ventured into business and expanded his interests until he had a national chain of steakhouses as well as a hotel-golf club resort and an athletic club in the Miami area. He also was active in numerous charities and set up the Don Shula Foundation to raise money for breast cancer research and helped finance a $1-million chair in the Philosophy Department at his alma mater, John Carroll.

The picture of Miami cool in his impeccable hair and smoked sunglasses, Shula had fame that transcended football, even when he was out of step with pop culture. He had a cameo in the comedy “Ace Ventura: Pet Detective,” but years later acknowledged that he never saw the movie.

And in 1985, at the height of “Miami Vice,” one of the stars of that TV series dropped by the Dolphins locker room after a victory. The celebrity was introduced to the coach as “Don Johnson of ‘Miami Vice.’ ”

Former Miami Dolphins quarterback Dan Marino, left, speaks with Don Shula before a game between the Baltimore Ravens and Miami Dolphins in 2014. <span class="copyright">(Chris Trotman / Getty Images)</span>
Former Miami Dolphins quarterback Dan Marino, left, speaks with Don Shula before a game between the Baltimore Ravens and Miami Dolphins in 2014. (Chris Trotman / Getty Images)

Stu Weinstein, the team’s longtime security chief, recalled in an interview with the Associated Press: “Coach Shula says, ‘Yeah, Don, you guys do a great job. Keep up the good work.’ ”

In a testament to the all-consuming world of the NFL, Shula thought Johnson was an actual Miami police officer.

Shula is survived by his wife, Mary Anne, eight children, 16 grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.

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