Legendary Miami Dolphins head coach Don Shula dies at 90

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MIAMI — Don Shula, the steel-jawed son of Hungarian immigrants who rose from tiny Painesville, Ohio, to carve his name in professional football’s record books and become both a national figure and a South Florida icon, passed away Monday morning.

The cause of death was not immediately known, but a source has confirmed it is not related to the coronavirus pandemic.

Shula, an NFL head coach for 33 years and coach of the Miami Dolphins for 26 of those seasons, was 90 years old. He is the winningest coach in NFL history with a regular-season record of 328-156-6 and a postseason record of 19-17.

Shula was a father.

A grandfather.

A husband.

And while his family remembers him as a success at all three, Shula was recently asked what legacy he wanted to leave once he was gone. The man who always fiercely protected stood up for his children and players and records didn’t mention any of those.

His answer was all about integrity.

“I want them to say that he won within the rules,” Shula said. “That he had players that took a lot of pride in playing within the rules. And that his teams played an exciting brand of football, wide open football, that made it exciting for the fans.

“I want them to say that his players loved it, the coaches loved it, the fans loved it and I loved it — when we won. I want them to say that we did it all the right way. Always the right way.”

Shula began his coaching career in 1963 as the NFL’s youngest coach. By the time he retired after the 1995 season, he was the league’s winningest coach.

He is in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

He was a pitchman for Ford cars, NutriSystem diet foods and the name behind an expanding Shula’s Steakhouse empire. State Road 874, a seven-mile road in South Miami-Dade, is named after him. He even once appeared in a government campaign asking Americans to sign up for Medicare Part D.

But despite his national prominence, Shula adopted South Florida in 1970 when he was “traded” from the Colts to the Dolphins as the head coach and never left. He lived in Miami Lakes in the 1970s and ‘80s with his first wife Dorothy and his family. After Dorothy died, Shula moved to Indian Creek on Miami Beach with his second wife Mary Anne.

“This is a great place to live and raise a family,” said Shula, who later in life nonetheless spent part of the summers in North Carolina and California.

“The people down here adopted me when I became the Dolphins coach. This place, the Dolphins, the fans … it’s all just part of me. Always will be.”

Shula grew up in Painesville, a small and unremarkable Lake Erie fishing village where work ethic and family values were simply more important than sports. Shula’s father, Dan, was born in Hungary and immigrated to the United States at age six. He changed his surname from Sule to Shula while in school to better fit the American pronunciation.

Dan and Mary Shula had twins Joe and Josephine in 1922, Irene in 1926, Don in 1930, and triplets in 1936.

Shula’s first job was baby sitting — a practice he joked became useful later in life as a coach when he had to deal with a petulant player or reporter.

“I had to make sure they got to school on time and got home on time and did the things they should be doing for school,” Shula said. “It’s kind of like dealing with some wide receivers.”

Shula’s first job outside the home came at age 12 at the same rose bush nursery where his father worked. He made about $1 per day performing odd jobs. He later worked at his grandparent’s grocery store, stocking shelves and carrying supplies. And he also worked at Kishman’s and Grow Brothers fisheries while he was in high school.

Yes, Don Shula learned about work ethic early.

“You learn pretty quickly that nothing is handed to you,” Shula said. “You learn that if you want honest results you have to put in an honest day’s work. That time taught me there were no shortcuts. You believe in God, you work hard and that gets results. What they said back then was true, there were no free lunches.”

Football was always important for Shula but at age 11 when he suffered a gash on his face — “because I led with my head,” Shula joked — his parents responded by forbidding him from playing the sport.

The hiatus didn’t last very long at all.

Shula was fascinated by football and learned how to play it from Joe Jenkins, who was the head coach of the team at St. Mary’s middle school when Shula was in fifth and sixth grade. The lessons Shula learned from Jenkins apparently stuck because 56 years later, in August 1997 when he was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, Shula spoke fondly of Jenkins.

Shula had invited his teacher to attend the induction and asked Jenkins to stand and be recognized during his speech.

“An honor of a lifetime,” Jenkins said then.

Shula’s budding athletic career earned him 11 varsity letters at Harvey High School in Painesville. His high school classmates dubbed him “best body” in the 1947 yearbook.

“A distinction I carried throughout my life even to this day,” Shula joked in 1995. “Can’t you tell?”

Shula played collegiate football at John Carroll University in Ohio. At 5-10 and 185 pounds, the future coach was sometimes a halfback, sometimes a defensive back, sometimes a starter, and sometimes a reserve.

But he was seemingly always a coach-in-the-making.

“Don was a fun-loving guy,” teammate and friend Lenny Soder once told the Cleveland Plain Dealer. “He was always honest, always had a lot of integrity, he was a gentleman.

“Don was always the leader of the group. Even on the field he always had suggestions for the coaches, especially the defensive coaches. We always called him ‘The Coach’ in a kidding way.”

His time at the Jesuit university made a profound impact on Shula in other ways.

Shula says he seriously considered joining the priesthood during a retreat at John Carroll. Ultimately, however, thoughts of a professional football career kept him out of the clergy. But he was bound to his Catholic faith the rest of his life.

Shula says he usually started his day, “everyday,” he said, by attending church even when the duties of coaching were competing for this time.

When Dorothy Shula, the coach’s first wife, became ill with breast cancer in the 1980s, the couple and 10 fellow parishioners of Our Lady of the Lakes Catholic Church in Miami Lakes trekked to Croatia hoping to find a cure for the disease by way of a miracle from God.

Like many great coaches, Shula was not a great player. But he was good enough to be the lone rookie in Hall of Fame coach Paul Brown’s lineup for the defending NFL champion Cleveland Browns in 1951.

Two years later, Shula was part of the largest trade in NFL history when he was one of 15 players the Browns and Baltimore Colts exchanged. He later played with the Washington Redskins and retired with 21 career interceptions in seven seasons.

Then lightning struck.

In 1958, Shula married Painesville native Dorothy Bartish. And he got his first coaching job at the University of Virginia. Shula would coach at Virginia, Kentucky, and with the Detroit Lions. Then he became the head coach of the Baltimore Colts in 1963.

He was only 33 years old and a handful of his players were older than the new, young coach. That didn’t stop Shula from winning 71 of 94 games (a .745 winning percentage) and advancing to two Super Bowls in seven years.

Throughout those years while Shula’s reputation as a coach grew, the Shula family grew as well.

Dave Shula was born in 1959, Donna Shula in 1961, Sharon Shula in 1962, Anne in 1964 and Mike in 1965.

It was a big family and although Shula credited Dorothy with raising the kids while he attended to coaching football teams, the family was a great joy for the coach.

“During those years I had two priorities and that was my family and winning football games and it wasn’t always in that order,” Shula said after his retirement. “Looking back, there are some things I might change. You have to make adjustments as a coach. But Dorothy did a great job with the kids and I benefited from that.”

Shula was a staunch defender of his children, particularly his sons. When Mike was fired as the Alabama coach in 2006, Shula went public to criticize the school for the decision. He also later had harsh words for the manner Nick Saban left the Dolphins that same season.

Saban left Miami to replace Mike Shula as the Alabama coach.

Shula also had tunnel vision of sorts for football. Even as the Dolphins’ fortunes ebbed and flowed in the 1980s and early 1990s, his attention to his work never waned.

Once, after a 1980s victory in the Orange Bowl, actor Don Johnson came by the Miami locker room to meet the coach and some players. It was the height of the Miami Vice television craze and the actor introduced himself as “Don Johnson, from Miami Vice.”

Shula shook Johnson’s hand and remarked about the “great job” Miami Vice was doing, thinking Johnson was actually a local vice cop.

But against that stereotype as a driven, yelling, player-and-referee-intimidating-robot, Shula often let his humanity show. In the early 1980s he was doing an interview with reporter Andy Cohen, who had covered the team a long time and continues to cover them now.

And Shula noticed Cohen seemed distracted so he asked if anything was wrong. Cohen told the coach his father was soon going in for open heart surgery and he was concerned about it.

“He asked me if my father was a Dolphins fan, which he was,” Cohen said. “So he asked what hospital he was in and immediately asked his secretary Anne to make the call. He talked to my father and told him he just wanted him to know Don Shula was thinking about him.

“My father used to tell the story of being the only person ever to go into an operating room with a smile on his face. It showed me a different side of Don Shula.”

Shula made football something of a family affair. Both David and then Mike were immersed in the family business by working with the Dolphins — as ballboys, keeping track of play-calls, helping with equipment, absorbing information and later following their father’s coaching footsteps.

David would become the Dolphins offensive coordinator and eventually the head coach of the Cincinnati Bengals. Mike spent time as the Dolphins quarterback coach, became the head coach at the University of Alabama, and today is the offensive coordinator for the Carolina Panthers.

Mike Shula even interviewed for the Dolphins head coach opening in 2007.

In retirement, Don Shula invested the precious time on his children and grandchildren he didn’t have during his coaching career.

He flew from California to Alabama to watch Mike’s first two games coaching the Crimson Tide. He attended St. Thomas High School games to watch grandson Chris Shula play. He bragged about grandson Danny’s exploits as a young quarterback at Dartmouth and another grandson Alex’s exploits as a pole vaulter at St. Thomas.

“When I left coaching I said I was going to get to know my kids and my grandkids and that’s what I tried to do,” Shula said. “I’ve been watching high school football, college football and the spectacle that it is, and the NFL. I enjoy it.”

After Dorothy Shula passed away in February 1991, Don Shula lost his biggest fan.

Shula has never shied from discussing his Super Bowl losses — he had two including the memorable (forgettable for Shula) upset loss to the New York Jets in 1969 that Joe Namath guaranteed for the Jets.

But discussing the loss of Dorothy this day in 2014 was not something he wanted to do.

“Painful,” Shula said succinctly. “Let’s not bring that up.”

Shula denied that anything was different in his approach with football and his personal life after Dorothy’s death but those close to him noticed a change.

“He was never the kind of father who could tell you he loved you who would hold or kiss you,” Donna told Sports Illustrated in 1993. “It was real awkward for him. But these days he’s very connected. He tells us he loves us a lot more.”

Said then assistant coach and confidant Monte Clark at the time: “He’s still working the same hours. He’s still demanding. He still wants it. But he is more understanding, it seems to me. He has what he calls courage of conviction. But he’s more willing to think of options before he arrives at that conviction.

“Something’s definitely changed.”

There was no doubt about that. Shula hired a clothier to update and match his wardrobe. He met the former Mary Anne Stephens at a private 1992 New Year’s Day party. The two were introduced by golfer and friend Raymond Floyd.

The couple’s connection was unmistakable the remainder of Shula’s life.

It took Shula two months after they met to ask Mary Anne out. But it wasn’t long before Shula realized he had found “another love of my life,” as he put it and they were married.

“When I married Mary Anne, I married way out of my league,” Shula said. “When Bob Griese first met Mary Anne he said to me, ‘Coach, you outkicked your coverage.’”

Shula and Mary Anne spent a lot of his days after retirement traveling, enjoying life and each other.

“Somebody’s got to do it,” Shula would joke of his leisurely retirement.

Throughout his professional life filled with constant change both privately and publicly, one thing remained constant: Don Shula won football games.

A lot of them.

More than anyone ever had and perhaps more than anyone ever will, given today’s highly pressurized, win-now-or-else fire that owners light under coaches.

His 347 career victories is 136 victories ahead of Bill Belichick, who is the closest active coach to Shula’s victory mark with 211 wins.

So Belichick, 63, would need seven consecutive undefeated seasons to get close to but still not surpass Shula’s victory milestone.

Shula coached 33 years with the final 26 of those on the Dolphins sideline. His teams made the playoffs 20 times in 33 years in a league that didn’t expand the playoff field to the present day format until after Shula retired.

Don Shula’s team suffered a losing season only twice in 33 years. The Dolphins either won or shared their division title 15 times in 26 years.

“He was the best of all time, simple as that,” Hall of Fame quarterback Dan Marino said.

No, the Dolphins didn’t return to the Super Bowl in the 1990s under Shula’s hand. But they did play in the AFC Championship game in 1992-93 and Shula believed his 1994-95 team capable of going to the Super Bowl if only a 48-yard field goal in San Diego had been true instead of sailing wide.

Shula’s 1995 team included 19 former first round picks but had little chemistry and many of those former high picks were past their prime or not worthy of their draft status. The team made it to the playoffs anyway before exiting in the first round.

Shula would not coach again after that final playoff game loss to the Bills on December 30, 1995. He “stepped away” as he put it in January of 1996 and although multiple teams, including the Cleveland Browns, called him about returning to the sideline in the next couple of years, Shula resisted the temptation to go back.

“I missed the competition,” he said. “There’s nothing that replaces the feelings once the ball is kicked off in that three-hour period of time. You can play a lot of golf, go on a lot of great vacations, you can do all those things, but you can never replace the thrills, the excitement the emotional highs and lows that happen in those three hours.

“But I don’t miss the long days and endless nights and media critics. If you get back into it, it totally consumes you. It takes morning, noon, and night. It takes over your life. I wouldn’t want to get back to that. I had 33 years of coaching and accomplishments and things I’m very proud of. I’m happy about that and I’m happy about where I am in life right now.”

Shula was also happy to remain protective of his and his team’s legacy.

Shula often found himself in the position of defending the accomplishments of a team he argued needed no defense. The undefeated, untied Dolphins of 1972 to this day are the only team ever to enjoy a “perfect season.”

But to this day that team is often ignored in conversations ranking the greatest NFL teams of all time.

And that bugged Shula.

“We’ve been accused of saying we haven’t gotten enough recognition but we’ll stand by our record,” Shula said. “Nobody did it before 1972 and nobody’s done it since. We think it’s a pretty strong accomplishment.”

Shula often wore a honkin’ gold and diamond Super Bowl ring from that perfect season. He kept the Super Bowl VIII ring from the 15-2 season that followed somewhere else. That’s because the ‘72 ring had professional and personal significance.

“That was probably the most special moment in my coaching career because I was 0-2 in my previous Super Bowls and I didn’t want to be 0-3,” Shula said. “People start to say bad things about you like you can’t win the big game. And that’s not a nice thing to have people say about you. So it was great. It took me off the hook.”

And once he was off that proverbial hook, Shula was more than comfortable being judged by the score.

And his record.

And his actions.

“That’s why they have scoreboards,” he said. “That’s why they have standings. I was judged by the team on the field and the results that team got. I wanted to be the guy responsible.

“Same in life. I’m responsible for my actions, who I am, what I do. I’m happy with that.”


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