A nice, long conversation with Don Shula the other day reminded me of the best, most memorable assignment I ever had in high school. We were to interview a grandparent and write their life story. The point is it’s good to read a history book, but it’s better still if you have a chance to speak with the person who made the history.
Shula, 83 now, rates as living NFL history in a way maybe nobody else does, with more career coaching victories in the league than anybody else (347) and of course those two Dolphins Super Bowl championships topped by the still-unequaled 1972 Perfect Season.
Shula is the deserving subject of a one-hour documentary, Shula 347, that premieres Saturday at 3 p.m. on CBS. He also happens to have coached in more Super Bowls, six, than anybody else, so this seemed like a good time to ask him about each.
“Lot of great memories, some not so great,” he began with a chuckle.
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His worst loss was his first one, while still with the Baltimore Colts, but that also was the loss that led him directly to the Dolphins. Shula found himself on the wrong end of Joe Namath’s famous “guarantee” that the heavy-underdog Jets would win. It was this time of year, 1969.
“His guarantee was the headline in the papers on game day. I had it pasted up in the lockerroom and used it in my pregame speech,,” Shula recalled. “The only problem was they won! My relationship with the owner, Carroll Rosenbloom, was never the same. That had a lot to do with me coming to Miami, and with my whole career.”
Shula was back in the Super Bowl in only his second year with Miami, facing the Cowboys. It was this time of year, 1972. It was not pretty. The Dolphins would lose by three touchdowns. But that feeling was the springboard to something special.
“I remember telling the team afterward, ‘I don’t ever want to feel this way again. We will NOT feel this way again!’” Shula said. “The thing we found out was, when you get to a Super Bowl both teams are treated the same, talked about in glowing terms. But when the game is over only the team that won matters.”
At that point Shula was 0-2 in Super Bowls. He carried that like an anvil.
“When you’re 0-2 in the Super Bowl they say unkind things about you,” he said with a small smile. “They say, ‘He can’t win the big one.’ And that’s the worst thing that can be said about you. The only way to get ‘em to stop is to win. And when we won, we won with an exclamation point.”
It was this time of year, 1973. Miami’s perfect record to that point would shatter into something meaningless unless the Dolphins beat the Redskins in the Super Bowl.
Shula is famously captured afterward rocking to his right in a buoyant victory ride off the field, the frozen moment in time when that anvil left his shoulders. The record “17-0” was embossed in sports history for all-time.
“That victory ride is always the best memory you can have. It’s a time where you’re completely fulfilled and happy. Such a relief,” he said. “The thing you don’t ever want said about you is, ‘He can’t win the big one.’ That’s a label you don’t want hung around your neck.”
Back-to-back was the next challenge. It was this time of year, 1974. And Miami steamrolled the Vikings to a degree pundits wondered if this team wasn’t even better than the 17-0 team.
“I answer that only one way. Why do they keep score? Why do they have records? When your record is undefeated, how can you say anything is better than undefeated?”
Shula would return to the Super Bowl after a long gap. It was this time of year, 1983. It was after a strike-shortened season. The quarterback was David Woodley, just a few months before Miami would draft Dan Marino.
“Losing a Super Bowl destroys all the good things that happened to get you there,” Shula said. “Woodley was an athlete we made into a quarterback. Marino was a quarterback playing quarterback.”
Back soon after with Marino, it felt like the first of many title shots Shula and Marino might have, but it would be their only one, and it ended in a loss to the 49ers. It was this time of year, 1985.
“We all felt there’d be a lot more Super Bowls for us,” Shula said. “The fact we didn’t get back was one of the great regrets of my life.”
I smiled when noticing the cover of the latest ESPN The Magazine. It is their Super Bowl preview. They call it “The Perfect Issue.” There are features on the perfect quarterback, perfect matchups and perfect drive. There also is a long feature on Bill Walsh, who we may presume is thus the perfect coach.
In all, there are 19 pages of Super Bowl-related coverage in “The Perfect Issue,” with zero mention of the Perfect Season or of the coach who fashioned it.
I’m not raising the no-respect banner on Shula’s behalf here. That might be strange timing, on the very day CBS is premiering a documentary about him.
And yet there is the sense that Shula remains more a local treasure, revered in South Florida, than someone who gets the national and league-wide respect one might expect of the all-time winningest coach.
Vince Lombardi’s name is on the championship trophy. George Halas’ name is on the NFC trophy. Walsh gets lauded as the “genius.” Bill Belichick gets to be the modern genius. Tom Landry seems to be a larger figure nationally.
Shula’s name is attached to the NFL’s national high school coach of the year award.
There are awkward topics to broach with Shula.
One is his departure from the Dolphins. He was gently shown the door following the 1995 season in favor of an infatuation at the time with Jimmy Johnson. It didn’t sit right with Shula then and in some ways still does not. He has admitted that to me.
Another sensitive subject is whether Shula feels he gets the national respect he deserves, something alluded to in the documentary premiering today. I asked him. For an answer he went straight to the irrefutable bottom line.
“The 347 wins is the thing I’m most proud of,” he said. “Nobody’s even close to it.”
That might sound like bragging, if it weren’t so true.