Don Shula holds some of the most hallowed records in the history of N.F.L.: the most coach wins, the most games won, the only perfect season for the team.
He was proud of how his players played for all the wins and accolades — Shula was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1997. They were consistently among the least disciplined in the league which he considered to be a sign of the discipline and training of his players.
Don Shula told in 2016, “I always said there was no such thing as a small mistake or insignificant error; if it happened in a critical part of the game, it could be part of the outcome of the game.”
His strategy succeeded, as can be seen from two Super Bowl titles and all those wins.
Don Shula, who died at 90 on Monday, took over the Baltimore Colts while John F. Kennedy was president, and retired during the Bill Clinton administration from the Miami Dolphins. In his 33 seasons he was the same persistent taskmaster as a head coach, an innovator who sought ways to compete with stars and unsung stalwarts, such as the so-called early 1970s No-Name Shield. In action, he has pushed his players hard and requested that they train so intensely that they can adjust to any scenario during games.
There were also the heat and humidity workouts in South Florida that any Shula-coached Dolphin would recall. Shula will make the players run a 12-minute drill around two football fields at the team’s training camp at St. Thomas University, among his other ways of inflicting pain on a generation of Dolphins. They raced past coaches and scouts holding stop watches, yelling splits out. There were one set of targets for the wide receivers and defensive backs, the linebackers and the running backs were another. The drill was absolute torture for the Linemen, the bunch’s bulkiest.
“It was an annual ritual and if you didn’t make the target time, he’d call out your times in front of all your peers; he was tough, but you see the camaraderie with the guys who played in the ’70s and ’80s. He was the same guy, it seemed like,” said Richmond Webb, an offensive tackle who broke in with Shula’s Dolphins in 1990.
As an N.F.L. coach, Shula accumulated a record 347 wins and guided the 1972 Dolphins to the only perfect season in the league. The squad, voted the best in N.F.L. history this year, led the league both in offense and defence.
Over decades Shula’s teams were competitive; he had only two losing seasons in his 33 years as head coach, a dozen years apart. His teams have made it to the playoffs 19 times, including six appearances in Super Bowl.
Any of his records may be broken — Bill Belichick’s New England Patriots is the nearest active coach in wins, 43 behind Shula’s mark. But Shula’s openness to change, his ability to trust talented assistant coaches, irrespective of their age, and his impact on modern game rules may be just as significant as his stats.
Shula has won with a number of quarterbacks. He was coaching the great Johnny Unitas in Baltimore, and the steady yet unflashy Earl Morrall. His Super Bowl-bound teams in Miami were guided by two more quarterbacks in the Hall of Fame, Bob Griese and Dan Marino, but also by the inexperienced David Woodley, and again by Morrall throughout that magical season in 1972.
In an age when teams were riding one main running back, Shula relied on a trio of them — Larry Csonka, Mercury Morris, and Jim Kiick — who rotated to the situation-based game. Shula’s defensive linemen would line up as linebackers to confuse defenses, and the linebackers would align as linemen.
“He won with the running game, he won with the passing game; if you put aside the records, he would go against the grain. He was willing to change because he could see the effects on the game,” said Upton Bell, who was the director of player personnel with the Colts during Shula’s tenure in Baltimore.
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