Fins at 50: Miami Dolphins coach Don Shula reflects on ‘perfection’
It was the stuff of legend and lore. It could not have really happened. It had to have been embellished over time. But it did happen, and it happened 45 years ago today, on Jan. 13, 1974, in Super Bowl VIII in Houston.
That was the day Bob Kuechenberg did the impossible.
The Miami Dolphins would win that Super Bowl 24-7 largely because Kuechenberg, the stalwart guard, utterly dominated the Minnesota Vikings’ All-Pro defensive tackle Alan Page. Oh and by the way: It was later learned “Kooch” had played that entire game with a broken arm.
Robert John Kuechenberg, all-time Dolphins great, passed away Saturday night at age 71, the club announced Sunday.
Kuechenberg’s 1970-84 Miami timeline spanned most of Bob Griese’s career and the start of Dan Marino’s. He would play in 196 games, the most in franchise history after Marino and Jason Taylor. Penalty flags against Kuechenberg were almost literally an annual occurrence; he was called for holding only 15 times in his long career.
Kuechenberg was a six-time Pro Bowl selection who stands in the select company of the greatest players in franchise history to not make the Pro Football hall of Fame. He was a finalist eight straight years (2002-09), but failed every time to make the cut to the final round — much to the chagrin of his coach, who championed his cause.
“He gave you everything he had every single snap,” Don Shula, now 89, recalled Kuechenberg on Sunday. “I’ve coached a lot of Hall of Fame players, including a number of offensive linemen, and Kooch was as good as any of them. I hope one day he gets that ultimate recognition.”
The eight Hall of Famers Shula coached included center Jim Langer, guard Larry Little and and center Dwight Stephenson. Langer matched Kuechenberg’s six Pro Bowls. Little and Stephenson had five apiece.
Kuechenberg’s post-football life had its challenges and controversies. He’d been arrested in 2011 for driving while impaired, and was among 4,500 former players who sued the NFL over the incidence of brain disease among ex-players. He skipped a 2013 White House visit honoring the 1972 Perfect Season team over political odds with President Barack Obama. Kuechenberg also drew the ire of some latter-day Dolphins over his frequent criticism of the state of the current teams. Taylor once called him “grumpy.”
Kuechenberg felt he’d earned a place in Canton and was embittered by the Hall of Fame’s repeated snubs.
Rising above the controversies, though, was the epic story of a kid from Gary, Indiana, who beat the odds and enjoyed a long, successful NFL career as a two-time Super Bowl champion.
He was not considered a future pro star coming out of Notre Dame, drafted only in the fourth round in 1969 and then cut by the Philadelphia Eagles. Kooch was playing for a semipro team called the Chicago Owls when the Dolphins signed him as a free agent in 1970.
Within a few years, he was a fixture on the 17-0 champions of 1972, and the next year on the repeat-champs who beat the Vikings thanks to the guard who dominated Alan Page despite a broken arm.
Kuechenberg was inducted onto the Miami Dolphins Honor Roll in 1995, the eighth individual player so honored — and the first not already in Canton.
If you start an all-time great team of NFL players who had terrific long careers for their teams but never got the respect they deserved from Canton, make sure the Dolphins on that team start with Zach Thomas and Bob Kuechenberg.