When you are the greatest winner in the history of the National Football League, you live forever.
Don Shula may have passed from this Earth on Monday at the age of 90, but the times he stood on an NFL sideline and coached his team to victory — there were 347 of those, cumulatively — they will all live on in the record book.
Every time old-timers get together and argue about the best coach they’ve ever seen, Shula will be remembered.
When young football fans want to make the case for the supremacy of this year’s hot new offensive mind or the brilliance of the latest new defensive innovator, they’ll learn just how high those bars are set, thanks to Shula.
Debates about the greatest of all time are often the fuel that drives fandom — especially in the time of coronavirus, when there is no active competition to compel our interest. And arguing over the greatest NFL coach in history, like many of those debates, is complicated because of the number of worthy candidates.
If you boil it down to the Mount Rushmore question — which four faces go on the Mount Rushmore of NFL coaches — the list of possibilities arguably includes Vince Lombardi, Bill Walsh, George Halas, Joe Gibbs, Tom Landry, Bill Belichick, Paul Brown, Curly Lambeau, Chuck Noll, and, of course, Shula.
Who do you leave off? Noll, with four Super Bowls, turning around a Pittsburgh franchise that had just one playoff appearance since they were founded in 1933? Lambeau, who won six NFL championships with the Green Bay Packers, the coach who the most iconic stadium in football is named after? It’s a tough call.
But here is one name that doesn’t get left off — the winningest coach in NFL history, the two-time Super Bowl champion who coached the only undefeated team in league history, the 1972 Miami Dolphins. Don Shula doesn’t get left off.
Belichick — the modern day Shula — summed it up as well as any: “Don Shula is one of the all-time great coaching figures and the standard for consistency and leadership in the NFL,” Belichick said. “I was fortunate to grow up in Maryland as a fan of the Baltimore Colts who, under Coach Shula, were one of the outstanding teams of that era.”
It is noteworthy that Belichick went out of his way to mention Shula’s time with the then-Baltimore Colts.
Baltimore was where the Shula legacy was born — a great coach starting out at the age of 33 in 1963, taking over one of the most revered franchises in the league at the time. Shula would win 71 games in just seven seasons in Baltimore for a remarkable .755 winning percentage.
But one big loss wound up driving him out of town. Shula was done in by Joe Namath and the underdog New York Jets, who upset the heavily favored Colts in the 1969 Super Bowl.
A year later, the Miami Dolphins wooed Shula away with a lucrative deal, one that Colts owner Carroll Rosenbloom argued was tampering, and the Colts were awarded the Dolphins 1971 first-round pick.
If Shula hadn’t left Baltimore, who knows what the Colts might have accomplished? Baltimore still had a good run in the mid-‘70s under Ted Marchibroda, with three straight playoff appearances.
Would Shula’s presence have been enough to prevent the move to Indianapolis in 1984?
What about the franchise transfer of 1972 when Rosenbloom traded teams with new Los Angeles Rams owner Bob Irsay, who proved to be a disastrous owner for Baltimore.
Jack Gilden, author of the book, “Collision of Wills: Johnny Unitas, Don Shula, and the rise of the modern NFL,” thinks Irsay would have been too unpredictable for Shula. “In theory he would have saved them,” Gilden said. “With their defense and someone competent to replace (Johnny) Unitas, they might have won several more Super Bowls in the ‘70s. But Rosenbloom was greedy and his deal to get the Rams was too enticing financially to turn down.
“It’s hard to imagine a hothead like Shula and a nut like Irsay co-existing for very long,” he said.
Hear Thom Loverro on the Kevin Sheehan podcast Tuesdays and Thursdays.
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