Fins at 50: Miami Dolphins coach Don Shula reflects on ‘perfection’
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To get to Donald Francis Shula these days one ventures by invitation only to Sufrside, crosses a small bridge, passes the scrutiny of a single, heavily guarded entrance and drives into super-exclusive Indian Creek Village, a tiny, private island where the average home value is some $22 million.
Thirty-five mansions make up this paradise, the homes forming a curving boulevard with gated front yards facing members-only Indian Creek Country Club and Biscayne Bay providing the back view. A village police force patrols 24 hours a day by boat, Jeep and jet-ski.
Shula and wife Mary Anne count among their neighbors Julio Iglesias, Norman Braman, Elle MacPherson, Carl Icahn and, in the offseason, Louisville basketball coach Rick Pitino. Jay-Z and Beyonce lived there before selling in 2010.
Life is good for Shula.
Retirement, at age 85, is good.
The Miami Dolphins coaching legend has earned it.
“Nice shack,” I tell Shula, looking around at the opulence, as we shake hands.
His face lights in a grin that for a moment makes him seem 20 years younger.
We have walked past an open, high-ceiling marble foyer and taken a sharp left into the dark wood of Shula’s den, where NFL history lives. Shelves on every wall are filled with mementos. It’s as if you have stepped into the southernmost wing of the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Two Vince Lombardi Trophies, won in the 1972- and ’73-season Super Bowls, stand a silver sentry high on the middle shelf, on top of everything.
“The only two exact replicas they’ve ever let be made,” Shula notes.
Evidently there are perks that come with winning 347 games, more than any NFL coach, ever. Seventeen of those victories came in the Perfect Season, of course — the only one in league history, before or since.
Not bad for the son of Hungarian immigrants, raised in northeast Ohio to a father who made $9 a week working in a rose nursery, later toiling in the fishing industry and then in rayon plant — instilling work ethic in young Don.
As if any of us need a reminder how time flies, the Dolphins now are preparing to play their 20th season since Shula’s last in 1995. He retired as — and remains — the single most important figure in franchise history as the club marks its 50th season.
Shula mostly gets around in a motorized scooter these days because of back ailments, but his wit still is sharp.
“Seems like only yesterday that people were yelling at me,” he said of the 20 years that disappeared, “getting mad, saying. ‘Why’d he do this? Why’d he do that?’”
Most know Shula spent 26 years leading the Dolphins after seven with the Baltimore Colts. Less known is his start in NFL coaching — and it was nothing that suggested he was headed for future greatness.
Shula cast his memory back to 1960. After a career playing defensive back at John Carroll University and in the NFL, he got his break in pro coaching with the Detroit Lions under the tutelage of George Wilson, who would go on to be the Dolphins’ first expansion coach in 1966. This was six years earlier. The country hadn’t heard of Beatlemania in 1960.
“That first day at the job I wanted to get to the office first and get everything set up,” Shula recalled.
At 11 that morning there was a knock on his door.
“We’re going to lunch!” announced Wilson.
The staff drove 15 miles to an Italian joint, where “Wilson and everybody are ordering Manhattans and martinis.” To be polite, Shula nursed a beer.
The staff, feeling rosy, returned to the office about 2.
“Staff meeting!” boomed Wilson, then, turning to Shula, said, “You play gin?”
A card game ensued, until a knock on the door sent the coaches scrambling like roaches when the lights come on. Wilson thought it was the general manager, so he swept the cards off the table “and starts throwing X’s and O’s on the board,” Shula recalled, chuckling. It turned out to be the equipment manager knocking.
“You son of a [bleep],” crowed Wilson. “Now I gotta remember all the hands!”
Suffice to say the work ethic Shula learned from his father was not augmented by the teachings of George Wilson. Instead Shula thrived and became a hot coaching commodity despite cocktails and card games as his introductory.
Ten years later, Wilson was falling out of favor in Miami about the same time Colts owner Carroll Rosenbloom and Shula had a falling out after Baltimore found itself on the wrong side of Joe Namath’s famous Super Bowl “guarantee.”
That’s when Miami Herald icons Edwin Pope and Bill Braucher played their part in helping shape Dolphins history. These were the earliest days of 1970. ESPN hadn’t been invented and sports-talk radio wasn’t yet big. The newspaper still was king.
Dolphins owner Joe Robbie was discussing his coaching situation with Pope, the Herald’s sports editor/columnist, and Braucher, who covered the team as a full-time beat.
“Robbie was looking for a new coach, and they were going over names and my name came up,” Shula tells the story. “Robbie said, ‘That’s the guy! That’s the guy!’”
Pope’s mention of Shula set wheels in motion. And it so happened Shula and Braucher both were John Carroll graduates and knew each other.
“People who couldn’t get into John Carroll ended up going to Harvard, Yale and Dartmouth,” said Shula, fighting a sly grin. “Braucher somehow got in and graduated.”
With Pope the conduit, Braucher contacted Shula to gauge his interest in Miami, and Robbie soon after called Shula. Baltimore cried foul and was awarded the Dolphins’ 1971 first-round draft pick as compensation for losing Shula.
But Miami had its man, and the next quarter century-plus would turn Shula into an NFL legend and a beloved South Florida icon.
Robbie hiring Shula was the most fortuitous and best decision in club history, but, if so, then Shula drafting Dan Marino, in 1983, must rank second.
It almost didn’t happen, even as Marino unexpectedly fell into the Dolphins’ lap.
Miami had reached the Super Bowl the season before with David Woodley at quarterback, and defensive coordinator Bill Arnsparger was pushing — hard — for Miami to select a defender. With the Dolphins on the clock and Shula moments from a decision, Arnsparger was beseeching Shula to select Syracuse defensive tackle Mike Charles.
“The pressure was on me to take the defensive lineman,” Shula recalled.
Instead he selected the quarterback he calls “the best pure passer that’s ever played the game.”
Like drafting Marino, like 1972, so much about Shula’s life has been perfect. He and Mary Anne together have eight children, 16 grandchildren and now two great-grandkids. They own a national chain of Shula’s steakhouses and restaurants.
Of course not everything has been perfect.
Shula’s first wife Dorothy passed away in 1991 after a long fight with breast cancer. He also admits the professional regret that, “Maybe I could have won another game we didn’t win.” Clearly, the Super Bowl ring Marino never won is that game to which Shula refers.
His Miami career also ended less than perfectly for Shula, after the 1995 season, when the coach was gently eased out because then-owner Wayne Huizenga had become enamored with hiring Jimmy Johnson.
“Jimmy who?” says Shula now. But the wisecrack can’t hide the hurt.
“I wasn’t very happy about that,” he admits, still. “Jimmy wasn’t a big favorite of mine. To go out with him coming in to take my place … those aren’t high spots in my career.”
So much overrides the smaller disappointments, though. Shula has learned to let the regrets go.
“You can’t let it linger. Can’t live that way,” he says. “Got to be positive and move ahead and focus on the good things. That’s how I’ve tried to live my life.”
Two years after his coaching days ended Shula was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1997, with sons Dave and Mike presenting him, the first time an inductee had been allowed co-presenters.
We think of Shula with the granite jaw. We think of gruffness, not emotion. But Shula’s voice wavered as he recalled that afternoon in Canton, Ohio, not so far from where he was raised along Lake Erie.
“One of the great days of my life,” he said. “I was pretty choked up.”
In football as in life, Shula resides on a small, exclusive island.
In life his neighbors are billionaires.
In football he has no peers.
No other coach has won as many games, and no other coach has had a Perfect Season. The ring that reads “17-0” is the exclamation point on his hand, and on his life.
Donald Francis Shula is the only coach in any sport, any time, whose name and “perfection” are inseparably linked.
“I like that association,” he deadpans, smiling. “I like that.”