Don Shula in his 26 years as Dolphins coach forged a record that put him into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, made lasting NFL history and elevated him to beloved icon status in South Florida. Now, as the team embarks on its 50th season, Shula takes his throne as No. 1 atop the Miami Herald’ list of the all-time Top 50 greatest figures in franchise history.
1. 17 and 0 — Think about it. Of all of the coaches in the history of professional sports, only one is associated with perfection. “I like that,” Shula says, smiling. “It sounds good.” The NFL has existed 95 years. No team had won a championship with an unblemished record in the league’s first 52 seasons before Shula’s Dolphins finished 17-0 in 1972. And no team has done it in the 42 seasons since. It is an accomplishment that can never be topped, only tied. But nobody has even done that. This unique distinction is the flag flying highest above Shula’s legacy. The Perfect Season.
2. 347 — Shula ended his career with more combined regular-season and playoff victories than anybody else, and two decades later he remains unthreatened as the winningest coach in NFL history. It is an accomplishment that demands both longevity and excellence, and that number, 347, looks like a record built to last, as unassailable as Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak. Consider: The nearest active coach to Shula, New England’s Bill Belichick, has 233 victories, fourth all time. At his current career pace Belichick would need to coach 11 more seasons, until age 74, to surpass Shula.
3. 13 at 27 — Dolphins history catapulted into one of enduring excitement and offensive fireworks when Shula drafted Pitt quarterback Dan Marino, No. 13, with the 27th overall pick in the 1983 NFL Draft. It was luck that Marino fell to Miami, but it was not a given the Dolphins would take him. He kept dropping, remember, because of drug rumors that no one yet knew were unfounded. And defensive coordinator Bill Arnsparger, Shula’s respected right-hand man, was in the head coach’s ear in the team’s draft “war room,” pleading to make Syracuse defensive tackle Mike Charles the pick instead. “The pressure was on me to take the defensive lineman,” Shula recalls. Dolphins history changed when Shula, on the clock, stood in the draft room as the room fell silent and announced his final decision with a single emphatic word: “Marino!”
4. 1-13-74 — The Perfect Season title get disproportionate credit, as perhaps it should, but it was the Fins’ second consecutive Super Bowl championship the next year, 24-7 over Minnesota on Jan. 13, 1974, that cemented that team’s claim to “best ever.” Miami had fashioned a two-season record of 32-2, unparalleled in league history. Shula remains one of only six coaches to lead a team to consecutive Super Bowl wins, along with Vince Lombardi, Chuck Noll, Jimmy Johnson, Mike Shanahan and Belichick.
5. 11-14-93 — George Halas’ NFL record of 324 coaching victories had stood, seemingly impenetrable, since 1967. That was until Nov. 14, 1993, when the Dolphins, down to third-string quarterback Doug Pederson because of injuries to Marino and Scott Mitchell, beat the host Eagles, 19-14. Even Philadelphia fans, known to boo Santa Claus, cheered respectfully as Shula won his historic 325th game and was carried off the field by his players. “Last time I was up there was in the 17-0 season,” Shula, then 63, said after that game. “Been a long time since I was up on anybody’s shoulders.”
6. 26 — That is how many consecutive seasons Shula coached the Dolphins and patrolled the sidelines of first the Orange Bowl and then Joe Robbie Stadium in a span from 1970 through 1995. His reliable presence became part of the South Florida timeline for generations. (As a personal aside, I was 15 and trying to navigate high school when Shula arrived here, and a 41-year-old father of two when he left). Only two head coaches in NFL history have served one city, uninterrupted, longer than Shula: Curly Lambeau’s 29 years in Green Bay (1921-49) and Tom Landry’s 29 in Dallas (1960-88). Halas coached the Bears 40 total years, but, oddly, never more than 10 in a row. Shula would surpass them all for most wins.
7. 2 — Two. That number is the hallmark of the consistent competitiveness of Shula teams. He had only two losing regular seasons in 33 years as a head coach, in 1976 and 1988. That’s it. Two of 33 is 6.1 percent on losing seasons. To put that in perspective: There have been 42 coaches in NFL history with at least 100 career victories, and the combined percentage of losing seasons by the other 41 is 28.3 (202 of 715) — nearly five times that of Shula. Of the top 20 winningest coaches after Shula, the best losing-season percent is Marty Schottenheimer’s 9.5 (2 of 21), but Schottenheimer infamously had a 5-13 record in the postseason.
8. 223 — Shula made receiver Mark Clayton the 223rd player chosen overall in the eighth round ’83 draft, the same one that produced Marino. After drafting Mark Duper the previous year, Clayton — arguably the greatest low-round draft steal in franchise history — completed the “Marks Brothers” tandem that would catch 1,061 passes for 17,512 yards and 140 touchdowns, helping make Marino a Hall of Famer and Shula the winningest coach ever. That also marked an evolution in adaptability by Shula, who won championships behind Larry Csonka’s brute-running but now was going all Star Wars with Marino.
9. 16-7 — It might be the most famous Super Bowl score of them all. It was the New York Jets’ victory that Joe Namath “guaranteed,” on Jan. 12, 1969 — in Miami at the Orange Bowl, of all places. It also was the result that tipped the first domino that led Shula to Miami. Shula’s Colts were on the wrong side of Namath’s guarantee, and that loss caused a fast-deteriorating estrangement between Colts owner Carroll Rosenbloom and Shula. One year later Dolphins owner Joe Robbie was going to fire George Wilson and set his sights on Shula, altering NFL history. Had those ’68 Colts beaten the Jets and shut up Namath like everybody figured they would, chances are Shula would have remained in Baltimore indefinitely and likely never come to Miami.
10. 85 — Shula mostly gets around with help from a motorized scooter nowadays on account of back ailments, but his feisty wit remains in play, at age 85, and he avidly still follows the club he helped build and put on the national stage. Shula was born and raised in northeastern Ohio and made his NFL name in Baltimore in his first seven seasons as a head coach. He is ours now, though. He is Miami’s. Shula led the Dolphins from 1970 to 1995, and his presence still towers undiminished atop the franchise, where it shall remain.