Don Shula rarely does interviews or public appearances any more. He is mostly heard from these days when he issues a statement of regret through the Miami Dolphins when another of his glory-days players has passed away. Four months shy now of his 90th birthday, Shula has become the isolated king. His accomplishments speak for him.
Shula and I sat down for a lengthy interview in the trophy room den of his Miami home a few years ago, a career-retrospective chat related to the franchise’s 50th anniversary. I asked the Hall of Fame coach what besides the two Super Bowl rings and the 1972 Perfect Season he is most proud of.
He answered before I’d finished the question.
“Winning the most games,” he said.
That long-held and deeply embraced record of his — Shula surpassed what had been George Halas’ NFL record on a wintry late-season day in Philadelphia in 1993 — is now under siege. It a methodical assault happening one Sunday at a time.
Bill Belichick is closing.
Shula’s records are frozen in time, and in history: Most regular-season victories, 328, and most total wins including the postseason, 347.
Belichick’s totals grow relentlessly, as relentlessly as his New England Patriots walloped Pittsburgh 33-3 to open their season Sunday night as defending Super Bowl champions.
Belichick now has 262 regular-season wins and 293 including playoffs. That he will someday surpass Shula has begun to seem inevitable — presuming the Pats continue to win as consistently as they have since 2001, when the coach won his first of six Super Bowls.
At his current pace Belichick, who at 67 shows no signs of quitting, would pass Shula for regular-season wins during the 2024 season and for total wins even sooner, in 2023.
This is the historical subtext as the Dolphins and Patriots prepare this week to meet again Sunday in Miami.
From a micro view the matchup is about Fins coach Brian Flores facing his former team, about how bad the rebuilding Dolphins are after losing their opener to Baltimore 59-10 and about this season’s impact on the 2020 draft.
But the emotional heft of Dolphins-Patriots is in the broader view.
The only way for Miami to protect Shula’s wins record and legacy now will be to see this arduous rebuild flourish and finally end the Patriots’ reign. Not Sunday. But someday. And soon. The Dolphins must find their long-elusive quarterback and start to win again, and the Patriots must stop being so damned good (perhaps when Tom Brady at last retires?)
That is all that can stop Belichick.
Shula made the Dolphins matter as a franchise, now the Dolphins must rise up to defend their living legend’s hallowed record.
Dan Marino saw his most cherished personal records trampled. His record 48 touchdown passes in 1984 now stands fifth. His record 5,084 passing yards in ‘84 now is in ninth place.
Career achievements mean more to Shula than anything in one season, which is why the career-victories mark is special in some ways even beyond the Perfect Season can’t match.
Shula’s two Super Bowl wins are tied for fifth, behind Belichick’s six, Chuck Noll’s four and Joe Gibbs and Bill Walsh’s three each.
That is why Shula doesn’t come out on top in a lot of those greatest-coach-ever polls (just as his ‘72 Perfectos typically get snubbed in most greatest-team-ever polls).
But Shula’s towering distinction — “winning the most games” — seemed impenetrable and eternal for a long, long time, until Belichick bore in like a headset-wearing Darth Vader.
Shula’s once-amicable relationship with Belichick turned frosty over time, another element to all of this.
In 2007 Shula openly criticized the Patriots and Belichick over their “Spygate” controversy, saying it had “diminished what they’ve accomplished.” Later that season, as a guest in the “Monday Night Football” booth, Shula openly rooted for the Ravens to beat the then 12-0 Patriots.
In 2015, around the time of the Pats’ “Deflategate” controversy, Shula referred to Belichick as “Beli-cheat” in an interview, later saying, “We always tried to live by the rules. We always did things the right way. We didn’t deflate any balls.”
I should say that Shula, like many older folks, tends to speak his mind over any concerns of political correctness. It isn’t just with Belichick. I once asked Shula about being replaced after the 1995 season by Jimmy Johnson. “Jimmy Who?” he said. “I wasn’t very happy about that. Jimmy Who wasn’t a big favorite of mine.”
Being nudged into retirement before he was ready because then-owner Wayne Huizenga was enamored of Johnson — yeah, Shula took that personally.
Belichick gunning for his wins record? That’s personal, too.
That is why the latter-day Dolphins’ steep climb to be good again (at the Patriots’ expense) is for more than themselves or their fans.
It is for NFL history. It is to help defend what belongs to Don Shula.