Honest, Hard-working and Undefeated: The Life of Don Shula

Updated: May 28, 2020

Sad news broke out of Florida on Monday that former Miami Dolphins head coach, Don Shula had passed away peacefully at his home aged 90.

Known for being hard-nosed and strait-laced, former player Shula worked tirelessly to put together one of the most heralded coaching careers that the league has seen, eventually being inducted to the Hall of Fame in 1997. The most renowned accomplishment came in 1972 when he led the team to the first-ever undefeated season with a 14-7 victory over the Washington Redskins in Superbowl VII.

Drafted by the Cleveland Browns in the ninth round of the draft, Shula managed just one solid season of professional football before he spent 11 months serving with the Ohio National Guard during the Korean War. He went on to spend a total of seven years as a defensive back for the Browns, Baltimore Colts and Washington Redskins before retiring in 1957 where he quickly headed for a coaching role at the University of Virginia.

His college roles pushed him rapidly into NFL coaching, where he led the Detroit Lions defensive backfield to being one of the best in the league for three years in a row. These achievements spiked the interest of the Baltimore Colts in 1963 who hired him as the head coach aged just 33, the youngest person to take on such a role in the league's history to that point.

In Shula’s Hall of Fame induction speech, he recounted being asked if he was ready for the role by then Colts owner, Carroll Rosenbloom, to which Shula replied in typically straightforward terms. “Carroll, the only way you’ll find that out is if you hire me and give me the opportunity.”

In what would become a largely successful time with the Colts, he registered a 71-23-4 record towards his eventual 347 record career wins and got his team to Super Bowl III where his huge favourite Colts would be defeated by Joe Namath’s incredible New York Jets. Shula’s reputation as a tough worker had started to grow in the league, despite the underdog loss to the Jets, and when the Miami Dolphins came calling at the end of the 1969 season, Shula was happy to move on to a new team and a new challenge. Acquiring their new head coach eventually cost the Dolphins their first-round pick for that year, as Carroll Rosenbloom suggested that they had done negotiations without his say so.

On the pitch, however, there are no doubts whatsoever about Shula as the Dolphins head coach. His usually calm demeanour totally altered on game day into another personality entirely. Running-back Mercury Morris recalled an instance to NFL films, in which Shula had shouted at star offensive guard, Ed Newman that “you must be twins because no one person can be that dumb” in what was one of many examples of Shula’s incredible, unwavering desire to get the best out of each and every player and coach. He arranged four training sessions a day, an infamous 12-minute run to finish each one and even banned water on the practice field as he attempted to outwork every single team just in case they couldn’t outplay them.

The memorable 1972 campaign, which would be forever known as the “perfect season”, was the encapsulation of everything that Shula stood for: hard-work, working hard and a bit more hard-work. A tough AFC Championship victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers punishing defence was just the practise they needed for what would be one of the lowest-scoring Super Bowls of all time. The 14-7 victory over the Washington Redskins, included a scoreless second-half display from the Dolphins offence, but it mattered little to Shula or indeed the Dolphins faithful. Shula had undone the damage of that Superbowl III shock.

Riding on the wave of success from the magical previous season, the Dolphins secured their second consecutive Lombardi Trophy as they thumped the Minnesota Vikings in Super Bowl VIII. The victory confirmed that Shula was indeed one of the great coaches, as he went on to embark on a 25-year span in control of the franchise. Registering a total of two losing seasons in all that time in his position, Shula would finish with 347 career victories and did so with incredible tactical flexibility.

Between the rough, short running game of the 1970s, then the incredible passing attack with Dan Marino in the 1980s, Shula’s willingness to change his philosophy to meet the demands of the times meant that he would keep an edge over the rest of the teams in the league, right until his last season in 1995.

A huge advocate of playing fair and square, Shula’s respect for the rules of the game made him beloved by large swathes of the NFL supporters. Leaving behind a wife and five children, his passing will almost certainly be marked by the league once it is able to get going again, as it loses one of its great coaches, patriarchs and examples. Easy to root for, Don Shula made it possible to think that with enough hard work and heart, anything was possible to imagine. As a result, his integrity and spirit will forever live in the very makeup of the sport itself.

“I have no magic formula. The only way I know to win is through hard work.”

-- Don Shula - January 4, 1930 – May 4, 2020 --

This article was written exclusively for golear.co.uk.