The history of the NFL simply cannot be told without mentioning Donald Francis Shula. The winningest coach in NFL history passed away on Monday at the age of 90.
Don Shula’s accomplishments are vast but one particular achievement stands alone. Shula is the only coach in NFL history to lead his to an undefeated season during the Super Bowl era. His 1972 Miami Dolphins finished 17-0 and capped the achievement with a 14-7 win over the Washington Redskins.
Shula was many things as a head coach: taskmaster, enforcer, teacher…but above all else, he was a winner. No coach in league history has more wins than Shula’s 347.
He coached legendary quarterbacks Johnny Unitas and Dan Marino. Yet, perhaps his finest work was with the early 70s Dolphins when backup quarterback Earl Morrall (who Shula previously coached in Baltimore) replaced injured starter Bob Griese. Undeterred, Shula’s team rode a strong running game, the No-Name Defense, and Morrall’s (and eventually Griese’s) play into the history books.
Then, one year later, the Dolphins were back in the winner’s circle again after crushing the Minnesota Vikings in Super Bowl VIII.
The 1993 Sports Illustrated Sportsperson of the Year led the Dolphins and the Baltimore Colts, his previous charge, to six Super Bowl appearances.
Even though Shula’s final Super Bowl appearance (a 38-16 drubbing at the hands of the league’s new superpower San Francisco 49ers) and his retirement were separated by over a decade, Shula’s success still remains a gold standard in the NFL.
Hours after his death began to circulate around media outlets and social media, I decided to pop on a game from his final Super Bowl season with the Dolphins. It was the 1984 regular season finale on Monday Night Football between Shula’s Dolphins and another Hall of Fame bound head coach – Tom Landry and his Dallas Cowboys.
A win would put Dallas in the playoffs. Meanwhile, a loss to Shula’s Dolphins would end nine straight years of postseason appearances for the Cowboys that included three Super Bowl appearances and a win in Super Bowl XII.
In front of a sold-out Orange Bowl, everything that made Shula great was on display. He would be cool as a cucumber on the sideline but other times running hot at why his team wasn’t playing at a higher level. In the end, Shula’s Dolphins took home a victory while Landry and company simply headed home.
It was classic Shula. The Cowboys didn’t have enough to outdo the Hall of Fame combo of Marino and Shula. Few teams were tougher in their home building than Shula’s Dolphins in the Orange Bowl. Just ask the 1985 Chicago Bears, who would their potential run at a perfect season go up in smoke in that same building a year later.
It wasn’t all perfect for Shula. His NFL-stamped Colts losing to the upstart New York Jets of the American Football League in Super Bowl III is arguably the biggest upset in Super Bowl history.
He had maddening playoff losses at home in the AFC Championship to the New England Patriots during the ’85 postseason and then to the division rival Buffalo Bills in the ’92 playoffs. Somehow, he and the rest of Miami’s brass couldn’t find the right mix of talent to surround Marino to get him back to another Super Bowl.
Overall though, Shula’s run of 31 out of 33 seasons as a coach with a winning record is something we may never see again. Even New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick, who has won six Super Bowls since beginning his days as a head coach in 1991, can’t make that claim.
The four-time Associated Press NFL Coach of the Year achieved success that very few have come close to achieving.
From an NFL title with the Colts to six Super Bowl appearances including five with the Dolphins, Shula’s legacy is one that will not be forgotten.