Super Bowl

Who’s the greatest — Belichick or Shula? Super Bowl 51 could end the debate

Fins at 50: Miami Dolphins coach Don Shula reflects on ‘perfection’

Former Miami Dolphins head coach and Hall of Famer Don Shula speaks with Miami Herald sports columnist Greg Cote about the 1972 perfect season, Dan Marino and being replaced by Jimmy Johnson. Video by Jose A. Iglesias and Jessica Bal / Miami Heral
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Former Miami Dolphins head coach and Hall of Famer Don Shula speaks with Miami Herald sports columnist Greg Cote about the 1972 perfect season, Dan Marino and being replaced by Jimmy Johnson. Video by Jose A. Iglesias and Jessica Bal / Miami Heral

Don Shula’s players carried him off the field and into immortality.

The date was Nov. 14, 1993. Shula had just won his 325th career game, passing George Halas for most in NFL history.

He went on to win 22 more before retiring as the most decorated coach.

That record will likely never fall.

But the argument for Shula as the best coach of all time? That could end on Sunday.

Because Bill Belichick is on the verge of making history all his own.

With a win against the Falcons on Sunday in Super Bowl 51, Belichick will have five Super Bowl rings. No one else has done that.

Not the great Vince Lombardi.

Not the innovator Bill Walsh.

Not Pittsburgh’s Chuck Noll.

And no, not Don Shula.

The Dolphins might have put together the league’s only perfect season, but they also have just two Super Bowl trophies in their display case.

Belichick, meanwhile, has put together the greatest 16-year stretch the NFL has ever seen, reaching the Super Bowl for an absurd seventh time since the turn of the century.

“Well, obviously, he’s right up there, as the best coach that ever coached,” said Jim Kiick, a star running back on that 17-0 1972 Dolphins team. “He’s right up there with Shula, for sure. The only positive thing is they still haven’t gone undefeated. That does mean a lot to us. But obviously, what the Patriots have done, he deserves all the honors he gets.”

Yes, he’s broken rules along the way. The league has punished the Patriots twice in the past decade, first for illegally videotaping an opponent’s signals, and more recently, for doctoring footballs to gain an advantage.

That hasn’t gone unnoticed by Miami’s legendary coach, who turned 87 last month.

Among the shots Shula has taken publicly: calling Belichick “Beli-cheat” and expressing pride that “we didn’t deflate any balls” during the perfect season.

But will that still matter 10, 15, 20 years from now, when the view of Belichick’s unmatched dominance isn’t as polluted by the emotions of the present?

Kiick says no.

So does Willie McGinest, the former Patriots linebacker who played six years for and won three Super Bowls with the soon-to-be 65-year-old Belichick.

“You can make whatever excuse you want for what the Patriots have done for what, over a decade,” McGinest said. “You tend to kind of run out of excuses. Every time you say, ‘They can’t do this, they can’t do that,’ they go out and prove you wrong, despite the criticism.”

McGinest added: “People are tired of the consistency of the Patriots and all the other things. I always say — find a way to stop it.”

No one has — at least since 2001.

Well, obviously, (Bill Belichick is) right up there, as the best coach that ever coached. He's right up there with Shula, for sure. The only positive thing is they still haven't gone undefeated. That does mean a lot to us. But obviously, what the Patriots have done, he deserves all the honors he gets.

Jim Kiick, Former Dolphins RB about Bill Belichick and Don Shula

Belichick’s first attempt as a head coach was a failure. Cleveland hired the Bill Parcells disciple in 1991, but he went just 36-44 in five forgettable seasons.

After spending the next four years as an assistant, Belichick got another chance in 2000, when the Patriots lured him away from the Jets. But for the first year-plus of Belichick’s time in New England, his results were no different than in Cleveland. He lost 13 of his first 18 games, and when franchise quarterback Drew Bledsoe suffered a significant injury in Week 2 of the 2001 season, some wondered if Belichick would ever figure it out.

But a little-known backup named Tom Brady stepped in and changed history — not to mention Belichick’s legacy.

The Patriots have compiled an absurd 196-58 record since that baton was passed.

“I think they’re already the best [tandem in NFL history],” McGinest said. “The only person that I think compares is Walsh and [Joe] Montana.”

Belichick, whose record is now 262-125 including a 25-10 playoff record, never got into this business to make friends. People from his time in Cleveland recall how he used to lock doors to certain hallways to make sure non-football employees didn’t have access to coaches’ offices.

“Bill’s way of doing things [is] a dictatorship, if you will,” said Falcons assistant Bryan Cox, who has rare insight having played for both Belichick and Shula. “Strict. All business.”

Cox was part of that 2001 Patriots team that shocked the Rams in Super Bowl 36. Even before the outside world recognized Belichick’s genius, Cox saw it.

“He didn’t need to have the titles to know how intelligent he was and how good he was,” Cox said. “The titles are just the continuance of seeing his process from beginning to end. It doesn’t change. It’s the same process. It’s proven. He doesn’t change it. I can probably tell you damn near to the word what he’s saying in the meetings.”

Belichick’s consistency is legendary — both with his team and with the media. Like everything else he does, Belichick’s curt, mumbling answers to reporters’ questions serve a purpose: to keep the focus on the task at hand.

And so anyone hoping to extract any meaningful insight on the moment from the coach has left disappointed.

“There will certainly be a time to reflect on that at some point,” Belichick said. “Right now, I’m really just trying to put all my energy in preparing our team as well as I possibly can for the Falcons. … At some point I’ll take a look back. It’s certainly an honor to be in this game.”

Adam H. Beasley: 305-376-3565, @AdamHBeasley

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