SUBSCRIBE NOW
99¢ for the first month
SUBSCRIBE NOW
99¢ for the first month

BREAKING: Legendary Miami Dolphins coach Don Shula dead at age 90

Staff Writer
Walton Sun
Walton Sun

Two words, simply scrawled on a blackboard in the corner of a locker room. Amid all the celebrating and champagne and cameras, the message easily could have gone unnoticed, or faded from memory, if not so perfect.

BEST EVER.

An equipment man had written that in honor of the 1973 Miami Dolphins, who had just won their second consecutive Super Bowl. And although a wide smile managed to pierce the stern jaw of Don Shula when he saw it while walking out to pick up the trophy, years would pass before anyone, Shula included, could fully appreciate them.

BEST EVER. That's Donald Francis Shula, who died Monday at age 90.

Shula was the greatest coach in the 100-year history of the National Football League as measured by his record 347 victories, that beacon of a bottom line he so treasured.

How strange that this morning, his legacy shines even brighter through the prism of the greatest loss that could ever be associated with him — the loss of the man himself.

Gone is an icon, a man who could stand alongside Henry Flagler for the sculpting of a Mount Rushmore for Florida. It's not simply because he won some football games, or even all of them in that glorious 17-0 season of 1972.

It’s the manner in which he did so: stressing a work ethic, respect and integrity in a way that grabbed Larry Csonka and Dan Marino by the collar just as surely as it did the brick layer in Hialeah and the landscaper in Lantana.

Don Shula made us feel better about calling ourselves South Floridians.

Shula arrived on Feb. 18, 1970, a reasonably successful 40-year-old coach joining a laughably unsuccessful 4-year-old expansion franchise nestled in the "Sun and Fun Capital of the World."

Longtime South Floridians tell stories of an evening less than three years later, Jan. 14, 1973. Thousands of fans of all colors and all languages clogged Miami's streets following the Dolphins' 14-7 Super Bowl victory over Washington to complete The Perfect Season, capital letters required. This was an era in which all self-respecting Dolfans brought white handkerchiefs to the Orange Bowl to form a shimmering, white-capped sea after every score. Now, after a championship? They stepped onto balconies and waved white bedsheets.

Miami was wrestling with the melting pot it was fast becoming, but on this night, with Shula at the wheel, the only colors that mattered were aqua and orange.

In the beginning

South Florida grew up under Don Shula's watch. Similar championship celebrations have followed for upstart franchises called the Heat and Marlins and nearly the Panthers, but none came wrapped in the knowledge that history — lasting history — was unfolding as surely as those bedsheets were. The Dolphins had the best football team of that year and any year, according to Shula, forever puzzled there was even a debate.

"How can anyone be better than perfect?" he reminded us.

Who else but Don Shula could have channeled the tunnel vision necessary to complete the only perfect season in the history of America's four major professional team sports?

"The greatest coach ever," is what the greatest Dolphin ever, Dan Marino, called Shula the day Marino's bust joined Shula's in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Then and always, respect tailed Shula like a shadow. In 1957, then a defensive back, Shula was presented a ball from the Colts for a game in which he did not play. He had been waived days earlier, yet the Colts could not let him walk away empty handed.

He was promptly offered an assistant's job at the University of Virginia, the only issue being finding his new workplace since he'd never even visited for an interview that surely would have been brief. He had no coaching experience. Yet just like that, there went his original inclination — joining the priesthood.

Which is not to suggest Shula was squeaky clean. His record shows one unpardonable blemish over his 90 years, and it's one football fans can be most thankful for.

"No more football," Don's mother, Mary, said the day her son, then about 13, came home with a nose sliced open from making a tackle.

That might well have been the end of this story. In this Hungarian household where Dad made $15 a week as a foreman in a nursery, the only things feared almost as much as God were Mom and Dad. The standing rule was as soon as the street lights came on, the kids had to be home. Once, during a power failure, Don pressed his luck. Once.

But Don wasn't about to give up on football that easily, so the next season, he forged his parents’ signature on the permission card.

"I loved the game too much to give it up," he wrote in his 1974 autobiography, “The Winning Edge.”

The tough taskmaster

Safe to say that at one time or another, most Dolphins wished Shula had quit then and there. Legendary at "Camp Shula" were four-a-day practices and 12-minute runs in the blistering summer sun. Even after the sun packed up for the day, the Dolphins would not.

"A couple of times we had the cars in the parking lot shine their lights out on the field so we could see," Shula said.

Former Colt Norm Bulaich, a Dolphins fullback from 1975-79, had two messages for Shula when he retired: "I wished I'd been coached all 10 years by him. But then my second statement was I probably wouldn't have made it 10 years."

Miami sportswriters quickly learned that second-guessing Shula after games was done at the inquisitor’s risk. Why, even Shula's "boss" watched his step. Dolphins owner Joe Robbie once made the mistake of yelling at Shula in front of dozens at the team's annual awards banquet.

"If you ever shout at me again, I'll knock you on your ass," Shula said.

It wasn't as if Shula hadn't warned everybody. "I'm as subtle as a punch in the face," Shula had said during his introductory 1970 news conference at The Jockey Club in Miami.

Shula absorbed some jabs, but not many. The granddaddy: One day in the '70s, a few Dolphins stuffed a small alligator in his shower.

"A fun thing at the time," Shula practically howled during a 2005 reunion of retired Dolphins. "I was riding them pretty tough and they wanted to show me I was a little uptight. I said, ‘That's pretty serious, putting a live alligator in the shower.’ ”

Not as serious as some conspirators wished.

"I heard a scream like no one's heard before," running back Jim Kiick said. "I was in the doghouse. He thought I was the instigator for the whole thing. He approached me screaming and yelling. I said, ‘Coach Shula, my only involvement was taking a vote whether we should tape his mouth shut. I voted against. Fortunately for you, I lost.’ ”

In the '70s, it was Kiick and Csonka riding horseback up Ocean Drive in Miami Beach, playing up their "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid" national personas. In the '80s, The Marks Brothers kept things lively for Shula, especially the time receiver Mark Clayton referred to him as "the fat man" in a newspaper interview.

"WHAT DO YOU MEAN, FAT?" Shula said.

As uncomfortable perches go, the chair in front of Don Shula's desk produced sweaty palms by the bucketload. Clayton eventually caught on there was just one escape route from that hotseat: "You're right, coach."

Nothing mellow about him

Most of the time, Shula was right and he knew it. Most of the time. Not long after moving to Florida, he and wife Dorothy went to the hot spot at the time, a jai-alai fronton, to absorb some South Florida culture.

"Chula! Chula!" came the chants. Shula stood and waved.

"No, Don, there weren't cheering for you," Dorothy said, pulling his arm down. It's a jai-alai term for an outstanding shot.

Even the supposedly mellower Don Shula had his feisty moments. With Marino about to enter the Hall of Fame in 2005, Shula was asked how much the quarterback benefited from having only two head coaches in the NFL. Marino's other coach was Jimmy Johnson, who had a frosty relationship with Shula and Marino.

"You mean he had one coach," Shula said. "Look at the numbers. They speak for themselves."

No other Dolphins coach has come close to measuring up to Shula. Ever protective of the franchise, Shula, as vice chairman of the club, was particularly critical in January 2007, when Nick Saban told "blatant lies," Shula said, before abruptly quitting for the Alabama job.

"That's the thing I don't respect about his whole time here," Shula said. "He came here to do a job and after two years, and 15-17, he didn't get it done. Making the decision to leave probably had a lot to do with the fact that he didn't have the belief he would get it done."

Always, Shula meant what he said and said what he meant. Would you buy a used car from Don Shula? Folks did in his hometown of Painesville, Ohio. That's how Shula supplemented his income during two off-seasons as a young defensive back for the Baltimore Colts. In Don we trusted: In the ’80s, a steakhouse that put Shula's name on it saw profits soar by $3 million the first year. Now, there are Shula's Steak Houses throughout the country. But only South Florida also boasts the Shula name on a highway, a hotel, a golf course and a charitable foundation.

"If Shula declared tomorrow as Christmas, most South Floridians would have their stocking up by sunlight," legendary Miami Herald columnist Edwin Pope wrote in September 1980, 11 years after his suggestion to Robbie that he hire Shula changed NFL history. Robbie then took it to another Herald staffer, reporter Bill Braucher, a classmate of Shula’s at John Carroll University who acted as the go-between.

Beloved coach

Shula spent 26 years with the Dolphins, unlikely to be matched in today's NFL, and commanded fatherly respect of his players long after they were his players.

"I miss you guys," Shula told Clayton and Mark Duper during a conference call from his North Carolina vacation home in 2003. "They made going to work exciting."

The occasion was The Marks Brothers joining the Dolphins Honor Roll at the stadium, which Shula had been named to in 1996. Shula's highest honor came a year later when sons David and Mike presented him for induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

"Larry Csonka said it best for all of us," David and Mike said in unison that day. "Some days we love to love him. Some days we love to hate him, but we always, always love him.''

Shula was a family man to the end, his face glistening at the mere mention of more than a dozen grandchildren. Yet Shula suffered his greatest loss in 1991, when his first wife, Dorothy, died of breast cancer. Dorothy was Don's rock during 32 years of marriage. Clearly, theirs was a match made to be, for she accepted his proposal even though it arrived in a letter.

"Now that I look back, it does seem sort of strange," Don wrote in his 1974 book.

After kicker Garo Yepremian attempted that all-time-blooper of a pass that the Redskins returned for a touchdown in the 1973 Super Bowl, he received a heartfelt letter saying he was forgiven. It took awhile before either Garo or Don figured out it was Dorothy who wrote it, on Don's behalf.

Following Dorothy's death, he began the Don Shula Foundation for breast cancer research. He remarried, to the former Mary Anne Stephens. On the field, he became the NFL's all-time winningest coach. And he mellowed. Seeing former guard Bob Kuechenberg at a dinner, Shula hugged him and told him he loved him.

"When he walked away, I said to my wife, 'Did you just hear what I think I heard?’ ” Kuechenberg told Sports Illustrated in 1993, when Shula was named the magazine's sportsman of the year. "It's something he never would have said in the old days. The Lombardi in him wouldn't have let him. Now he can say something like that. He isn't afraid to show that kind of emotion."

Not even having to use a motorized wheelchair could dampen his spirit. At the Dolphins’ 50th anniversary gala in Hollywood in December 2015, Shula was overjoyed seeing all the familiar faces, each bringing back “great” memories. In those faces, and in every hand he made sure he shook, the message was the same: Thank you, Coach. Thank you.

Stern but fair

Shula’s players knew as stern as the man could be, he still was fair.

"The thing about Don was you could get right back in his face and argue with him," defensive tackle Manny Fernandez said.

Larry Seiple, a punter on the '72 team who later served as a Shula assistant coach, had a heated argument with Shula on the field one morning. During lunch, Seiple apologized.

“I don’t even know what you’re talking about,” Shula said, already focused on the day’s next task.

Marino, Kuechenberg and Csonka ranked among Shula's favorites — he even named his dog "Zonk" — but having been an average player himself, Shula appreciated hard work by all. Philadelphia coach Doug Pederson was a backup in 1993 when a series of injuries to others made him the quarterback of record on Nov. 14, 1993, the day Shula won his 325th game against the Eagles to surpass Chicago's George Halas as the winningest coach.

Eight years later, Shula saw Pederson on a golf course. Shula didn't mention the Eagles game specifically but didn't have to. "He made it known to me he was very appreciative," said Pederson, who went on to coach a Super Bowl winner himself, in 2017-18.

So Shula won with Doug Pederson. In Baltimore, Shula won with running back Tom Matte filling in at quarterback, calling plays off a wristband that ended up in the Hall of Fame. Shula went to Super Bowls with brainy Bob Griese utilizing three outstanding running backs, with Marino throwing 48 touchdown passes in 1984, and with David Woodley and Don Strock morphed into "Woodstrock" in 1982. Before the 1972 season, Shula signed veteran Earl Morrall as a pricey insurance policy in case Griese got hurt. Then, Griese got hurt. Shula achieved perfection anyway, thanks to Morrall.

Throughout all these styles, two constants:

Don Shula.

Winning.

"He can take his'n and beat your'n," former Houston Oilers coach Bum Phillips famously said. "Then he can take your'n and beat his'n."

Always out-thinking opposition

Some of the most talked-about plays of Shula's era came down to out-thinking opponents: the hook-and-lateral for a touchdown in the classic playoff loss to the Chargers ... the "clock play" in which Marino faked a spike and threw a winning touchdown pass against the Jets ... the intentional safety that preserved a victory against the Steelers and even humbled Howard Cosell ("Shula's ahead of us all," Cosell admitted on air).

Shula presided over two of the most-storied overtime playoff games ever, the 41-38 loss to the Chargers in 1982 and the 27-24 victory over the Chiefs on Christmas Day 1971, the longest game in NFL history at 82 minutes, 40 seconds.

"That was probably one of the great memories of my coaching career," Shula said of the raucous late-night airport reception, a first in Miami, after the Chiefs game.

(Not so great was what followed, when Don and David Shula got to their car, discovered a dead battery and hitchhiked home, asking their stunned Samaritans to enter the Shula home for a Christmas toast.)

In 1983, Shula spent a first-round draft choice on Marino after 26 others would not. In chronological order, he mined Jake Scott in the seventh round, Vern Den Herder in the ninth, Doug Betters in the sixth, Hall of Famer Dwight Stephenson in the second, Clayton in the eighth and Bryan Cox in the fifth. He yanked Jim Langer, another Hall of Famer, off the waiver wire.

There were disappointments, sure. He never won a Super Bowl with Marino. In Super Bowl III — in Miami no less — his Colts suffered the greatest upset in NFL history, which had been guaranteed by Jets quarterback "Broadway" Joe Namath.

"My relationship with (Colts owner) Carroll Rosenbloom was never quite the same after that," Shula said. "He had his office in New York and he took a lot of heat from his New York buddies. Then he would get on the phone and pass that heat on to me. I lasted another year, but it led to me listening to other offers and eventually going to Miami."

Few losses angered him as much as a December 1982 game at New England in which Mark Henderson, a prisoner on work-release, drove a snowplow onto the field to clear a spot for a field goal with 4:45 left, giving the Patriots a 3-0 victory. Why didn't Shula try to stop it? As a longtime member of the NFL's competition committee, he was dumbfounded that anyone would even think of such a thing.

"The key is having respect for the people you're competing against," is how Shula defined sportsmanship in 2002. "As the head coach, I always tried to convey to the people I was responsible for that winning certainly was the ultimate goal, but we always wanted to be a team that was known as being good sportsmen and winning within the rules and doing things the right way."

Great coach, greater traits

Shula therefore had no use for those who pushed the ethical envelope. “You mean Beli-cheat?” he said of Patriots coach Bill Belichick. Although Belichick won six rings with the Patriots, in the eyes of Shula (and likely many in South Florida), the cloud of suspicion hovering over him from “-gate” scandals disqualifies him from claims that he, not Shula, is the best ever.

Ted Hendricks, the Raiders Hall of Famer from the University of Miami, once called Shula "the most honest man in the U.S."

Honesty. That's one word often attached to Don Shula.

Perseverant. That's another.

"If a nuclear bomb is dropped, the only things I'm certain will survive are AstroTurf and Don Shula," defensive end Bubba Smith said.

Integrity. That's a third.

After victory No. 325, many wondered why Shula wasn't given a Gatorade bath. The answer can be traced to the 1973 Super Bowl, the one that would complete perfection. That's when Shula was asked how he'd want to be remembered.

"Didn't lie to anyone, didn't screw anybody, traveled first class," Shula told Pope.

Shula wasn't defining first class as the front of the aircraft. He meant with dignity. So after that win in Philadelphia, "We looked at the Gatorade and said, ‘You know, we need to do a classy thing,’ ” guard Keith Sims said.

Sims and two other linemen carried Shula across the field on their shoulders, replicating his Super Bowl victory ride in Los Angeles, which had produced what is likely the defining photograph of his career.

Old-school style, old-school perfect.

Even the Eagles fans gave Shula a standing ovation.

They had to.

Don Shula had become the best ever.

hhabib@pbpost.com

@gunnerhal

hhabib@pbpost.com

@gunnerhal