MIAMI (AP) — Measuring Don Shula by wins and losses, no NFL coach had a better year. Or career.
He looked the part, thanks to a jutting jaw and glare that would intimidate 150-pound sports writers and 300-pound linemen alike. He led the Miami Dolphins to the only perfect season in NFL history, set a league record with 347 victories and coached in six Super Bowls.
Near the end of his career, Shula’s biography in the Dolphins’ media guide began with a quote from former NFL coach Bum Phillips: “Don Shula can take his’n and beat you’n, and he could take you’n and beat his’n.”
Shula died Monday at his home across Biscayne Bay from downtown Miami, the team said. He was 90.
“If there were a Mount Rushmore for the NFL, Don Shula certainly would be chiseled into the granite,” Dolphins owner Stephen Ross said in a statement.
Shula surpassed George Halas’ league-record 324 victories in 1993 and retired following the 1995 season, his 33rd as an NFL head coach. He entered the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1997, and the induction ceremony took place at Canton, Ohio, 70 miles from his native Grand River.
Shula became the only coach to guide an NFL team through a perfect season when the Dolphins went 17-0 in 1972. They also won the Super Bowl the following season, finishing 15-2.
The 2007 Patriots flirted with matching the perfection of the ’72 Dolphins but lost to the Giants in the Super Bowl and finished 18-1.
When asked in 1997 if he was the greatest coach in NFL history, Shula said he didn’t know how to measure that, but added, “I always thought that’s why they keep statistics and wins and losses.”
Shula reached the playoffs in four decades and coached three Hall of Fame quarterbacks: Johnny Unitas, Bob Griese and Dan Marino. During his 26 seasons in Miami he became an institution, and his name adorns an expressway, an athletic club and a steakhouse chain.
“There was no better man or coach in the history of the profession than coach Don Shula,” Miami Heat president Pat Riley said in a statement. “He was tough, courageous and an authentic leader with great integrity in his pursuit of perfection, which he achieved!”
But because the Dolphins last reached the Super Bowl after the 1984 season, Shula came under increasing criticism from fans and the media. He was replaced in January 1996 by Jimmy Johnson, and Shula later said the adjustment to retirement was difficult.
“There’s such a letdown,” he said in 2010. “There’s no way you can fill the time you spent as a coach. Life is great after football, but you don’t have those emotional ups and downs you had on game day.”
Shula’s active retirement included plenty of travel and social events. In January 2010, the Dolphins threw him an 80th birthday party at their stadium, and guests included NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, former U.S. Sen. Bob Graham and former NFL coaches Marty Schottenheimer and Dan Reeves.
Hall of Fame fullback Larry Csonka was among the ’72 Dolphins who threw a surprise party for Shula in December to celebrate his 90th birthday.
“It was the first time in the entire time I’m known him where he was genuinely surprised,” Csonka said. “I think he was very happy.”
Shula always enjoyed talking about the 17-0 team, and he and his 1972 players drew criticism for the way they savored their unique status each season.
“People think we’re a bunch of angry old guys who can’t wait for that last undefeated team to get beat,” Shula said in 2010. “We’re very proud of our record, and if somebody breaks it, I’m going to call that coach and congratulate them. Until they do, it’s our record, and we’re proud of it.”
As for regrets, Shula put not winning a Super Bowl with Marino at the top of the list. They were together for 13 years, and Marino became the most prolific passer in NFL history, but he played on only one AFC championship team — in 1984, his second season.
Shula was born Jan. 4, 1930, and raised in Painesville, Ohio. He played running back at John Carroll University in Cleveland and cornerback in the pros for seven seasons with Cleveland, Baltimore and Washington. He entered coaching as an assistant at Virginia in 1958.
Before his 1970s triumphs with Miami, Shula had a reputation as a coach who thrived during the regular season but couldn’t win the big game.
Shula became the youngest head coach in NFL history when the Baltimore Colts hired him in 1963 at age 33. The Colts finished 12-2 the following season and were widely seen as the league’s dominant team.
But they lost 27-0 to Cleveland in the title game, and for the next few years continued to come up short.
The humiliation was greatest in the Super Bowl to end the 1968 season. The Colts steamrolled through the NFL, finishing 13-1 and outscoring opponents by a nearly 3-1 margin. After crushing the Browns 34-0 in the title game, they were overwhelming favorites to defeat the Jets of the upstart AFL, which had lost the first two Super Bowls.
But the Colts lost 16-7, blowing numerous scoring opportunities and allowing Jets quarterback Joe Namath to control the game.
The result is still regarded by many as the biggest upset in pro football history, and it contributed to Shula’s departure after the 1969 season. In 1970, after the NFL-AFL merger, Shula joined the Dolphins, a fourth-year AFL expansion team that had gone 3-10-1 the previous year.
Miami improved to 10-4 in his first season and made the playoffs for the first time, and the 1971 Dolphins reached the Super Bowl before losing to Dallas. The following season, when Miami took a 16-0 record into the Super Bowl against Washington, Shula considered his legacy on the line.
“If we had won 16 games in a row and lost the Super Bowl, it would have been a disaster, especially for me,” he said in a 2007 interview. “That would have been my third Super Bowl loss. I was 0-2 in Super Bowls and people always seemed to bring that up: ‘You can’t win the big one.’”
The Dolphins beat the Redskins 14-7, then repeated as champions the following year by beating Minnesota in the title game.
After Shula retired, he traveled extensively with his wife, Mary Anne. He would also wrestle with his grandchildren, lose to his wife at gin, read John Grisham novels and fall asleep watching late-night TV.
He supported many charities. The Don Shula Foundation, formed primarily to assist breast cancer research, was established as a tribute to his late wife, Dorothy. They were married for 32 years and raised five children before she died in 1991. Shula married Mary Anne Stephens during a bye week in 1993.
Shula’s oldest son, David, coached the Cincinnati Bengals from 1992-96. When Cincinnati played Miami in 1994, it marked the first time in professional sports that a father and son faced each other as head coaches.
Don won, 23-7. Another son, Mike, is a longtime NFL assistant coach and was head coach at Alabama in 2003-06.
Shula spent more than 20 years on the powerful NFL Competition Committee, which evaluates playing rules as well as regulations designed to improve safety.
“If I’m remembered for anything, I hope it’s for playing within the rules,” Shula once said. “I also hope it will be said that my teams showed class and dignity in victory or defeat.”
There were many more victories than defeats. His career record was 347-173-6.
Shula is survived by his second wife, two sons and three daughters.
Follow Steven Wine on Twitter: http://twitter.com/Steve_Wine
Column: Shula should be remembered for more than wins
Success for athletes and coaches usually is measured by numbers. That’s a too-limited way to encapsulate the impact of Don Shula on professional football.
Sure, the numbers are astounding:
— Most coaching victories in a career, 347, including playoffs and Super Bowls.
— Two losing records in 33 NFL seasons.
— Ten victories or more in 21 of those years.
— A record four Coach of the Year awards.
— And, of course, 17-0 in 1972 with a team that, talent-wise, probably didn’t measure up to the great Steel Curtain rosters or 49ers squads that never approached such a mark.
No, the numbers can’t and shouldn’t be ignored. They should be glorified, and Shula even mentioned that on more than one occasion when asked about his legacy.
But there was so much more to Shula, who died Monday at age 90.
Start with his adaptability. A defensive back for seven NFL seasons with three teams, Shula emphasized that side of the ball as a quickly rising assistant coach and later as the head man.
His Dolphins won two Super Bowls with a power running game and a “No- Name Defense” that perfectly executed his schemes.
“We’d win the toss, keep the ball seven or eight minutes, score a touchdown, hold them three-and-out, hold the ball seven or eight more minutes, score another touchdown, be ahead 14-0 and the first half’s near over,” Shula said with a grin. “That’s great coaching.”
Yet in 1983, when Dan Marino somehow slipped to the 27th spot in the first round of a quarterback-rich draft, Shula pounced. Then he retooled the offense to match the nonpareil passing skills and gamesmanship of Marino.
“There are two ways to look at having the opportunity to coach a great quarterback,” Shula once said — and he certainly knew, having worked with Hall of Famers Johnny Unitas, Bob Greise and Marino. “One is to fit him into what your team has always done and let him lead, which was how Bob fit in and became a great quarterback. The other is to fit your team’s playing style to what your quarterback does best, and that was how it was with Dan.”
Griese was at the helm for Shula’s two Super Bowl victories, though he passed a total of 18 times in those wins, instead engineering Shula’s run and defend game plan to the hilt.
Marino got to only one Super Bowl — Shula’s inability to build a champion around his quarterback was his biggest regret. But in his prime, Marino and Miami’s pass-first attack was the NFL’s most-feared offense.
Shula wasn’t the first coach to embrace the importance of special teams, but he was among the groundbreakers in that area. He made them such a priority that he gave Mike Westhoff — considered by some the Don Shula of special teams coordinators — tons of freedom.
Miami regularly was among the league leaders with its kick teams.
“Don Shula was the most thorough coach you could possibly work with,” Westhoff said.
Shula also was a stickler for fair play, an influential voice on the NFL’s powerful competition committee. He once succinctly noted that he had “one rule about the rules. Obey them.”
When the Patriots were caught spying on opponents’ sidelines in 2007, Shula loudly criticized New England’s coaching staff. Coincidentally, those Patriots were the strongest challenger to a perfect season before losing in the Super Bowl.
Indeed, Shula’s effect in that area was cited by current Commissioner Roger Goodell in his tribute to Shula on Monday.
“Don Shula will always be remembered as one of the greatest coaches and contributors in the history of our game,” Goodell said. “He made an extraordinarily positive impact on so many lives. The winningest coach in NFL history and the only one to lead a team to a perfect season, coach Shula lived an unparalleled football life. As a player, Hall of Fame coach, and long-time member and co-chair of the NFL Competition Committee, he was a remarkable teacher and mentor who for decades inspired excellence and exemplified integrity.”
He was a confidant of Goodell’s two predecessors, Pete Rozelle and Paul Tagliabue, both in the Hall of Fame with Shula. They used Shula as an adviser on key tenets of the game. There is no “Don Shula Law” on the books, but he was highly influential in the development of many rules.
“Don Shula represented the highest standards of excellence by virtually any measure,” Tagliabue said Monday. “His contributions to the NFL and the game of football extended far beyond his all-time record victory total. Don also was an all-time winner when it came to integrity, honesty and class. The NFL owes him a great deal for his tremendous loyalty and work on behalf of the league and football fans across America.”
AP Sports Writer Steven Wine in Miami contributed to this report.