Don Shula — An Icon as a Coach, an Icon as a Man
The assignment CBS gave me would be an easy one to execute.
Or so I thought.
Working on features for our weekend sports news segment, I was asked to journey to Pittsburgh to interview
Steelers head coach Chuck Noll for his thoughts on what it was about Don Shula that made him the supreme
head coach of the time to be the first to capture back-to-back Super Bowl championships.
How easy this would be. It was in the cold of winter in 1972, right after the Miami Dolphins became the first NFL
team in history to have a perfect season, 17-0, and capture their first Super Bowl. They would win it all next year
as well, becoming the first team to win back-to-back Super Bowls.
Noll would know, of course. He was Shula’s defensive coordinator and secondary coach for three years in Baltimore,
ending with the shocking loss to Joe Namath and the New York Jets in Super Bowl 3.
I was confident I could get the normally reticent Steelers head man to open up and have revealing comments
about his former mentor. I had worked in Pittsburgh, met him the day he was hired, and established a good working relationship with him.
I was wrong.
Noll asked me to take a walk on the frozen surface of Three Rivers Stadium, where the team offices were located.
There, he explained he would have no words for our broadcast on Shula, whom he respected tremendously.
He told me that if his players saw glowing praise for Don Shula, it would be counter-productive to what he was
trying to establish in Pittsburgh. “We’re trying to build something here, and we’re getting there. I think if I do anything
to bring any other element, including boosting another team or another coach, it would have a negative effect”.
Noll had just completed his third year as head coach, finishing with a 6-8 record, their best in those three seasons.
The next year, the Steelers would go 11-3 and finish first in their division, and would win the first of four Super Bowl
titles three years later.
Noll knew what he was talking about. Don Shula would have done the same had the roles were reversed.
What was it, about Don Shula that made him so special? As with Bill Belichick, it’s not a simple task to pin-point
precise reasons for coaching brilliance. That goes for any sport.
Don Shula passed away this past week at the age of 90.
He was old-school in his coaching philosophy to say the least. I guess back then, most,
if not all the coaches were.
Shula was about discipline, precision, patience, adaptation and consistency.
His teams were smart. He insisted his players toe-the-line, he was tough, demanding.
But to a man, everyone who ever played for Don Shula have nothing but admiration, even love for the man.
His hard-nosed style was evident in their first Super Bowl,
Hall-of-Fame quarterback Bob Griese, completed 8 of only 11 attempts for 88 yards. That’s right.
Today, that might be first-quarter numbers.
But Larry Csonka rushed for 112 yards You get the idea.
How about the statistics in next season’s Super Bowl triumph.
Griese was 6-7 passing for 73 yards. Csonka gained 145 yards on the ground. Now, you really get the idea.
Don Shula leaves us as the winningest coach in NFL history, with 328 in the regular season, 347, including
post-season. He coached the only undefeated campaign including the playoffs.
He’ll be criticized for losing to the Jets in Super Bowl 3. The Colts were heavy favorites and were outplayed
by a Jets team, led by Namath, who put the American Football League on the map, and forced the ensuing
merger between the two leagues, which has worked out beautifully.
Loss to the Jets
Shula also lost three other Super Bowl games. One, with the Dolphins the year before their perfect season, and
two more, to the Redskins in 1983, and to the 49ers two years later.
Maybe, he should have won more of those Super Bowls. Even Shula, himself, has said, “if you get there
you have to win. No one remembers the losing team or the losing coach”.
But it’s still one game. It’s not a best of seven series as you have in baseball and in the NBA.
There, if you are truly the best, class will show. But even in baseball, if your pitching is sharp, you win.
If not, you lose.
But anything can happen in one game. Hey, Bud Grant lost four Super Bowls with the Vikings. Marv Levy
also dropped four with the Bills.
Does anyone doubt their greatness as head coaches? I don’t.
Winning championships is the ultimate barometer in every sport. In many respects, it should be.
But Eli Manning won two Super Bowls. His brother, Peyton, won one.
Does anyone say Eli was the better quarterback?
The fact that Don Shula took his teams to six Super Bowls speaks volumes.
Some say, you have to win the “big game”.
How about the game before the championship. Isn’t that a “big game”?
Hall of Fame
Okay, we’ve spent too much time on what Don Shula didn’t do.
But I wanted to offer my thoughts on the meaning of all that.
He was an icon as a coach, and an icon as a man.
He put the betterment of the league first, and his own personal benefit second.
He was a man of faith, and loyalty. And he played by the rules.
He put the city of Miami on the sports map, and never left town.
When you think of it, they don’t seem to make them like Don Shula anymore.