Don Shula, N.F.L.’s Winningest Head Coach, Dies at 90

Shula, who was enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1997, was the only coach to lead a team, the Dolphins, to a perfect season.

Credit…Associated Press

Don Shula, the winningest head coach in National Football League history and the only one to lead a team to a perfect season, died on Monday at his home in Indian Creek, Fla., a village near Miami Beach. He was 90.

His death was announced by the Miami Dolphins on Twitter.

Shula, who was enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1997, was a tactician and taskmaster who built some of the most fearsome defenses and explosive offenses in league history. He took his teams to six Super Bowls, winning two, capping the 1972 and 1973 seasons.

The 1972 campaign was historic: The Dolphins won all 14 regular-season games despite losing Bob Griese, their starting quarterback, to an injury in the fifth game. With the top-ranked offense and defense, they then won all three playoff games and captured Super Bowl VII, completing what remains the league’s only perfect season.

With a jutting jaw and stiff spine, Shula had a fierce look whether pacing the practice field or exhorting his teams from the sidelines, driving them to victory after victory. Few coaches in any sport could match his success.

In his 33 years as a head coach, seven with the Baltimore Colts (1963-69) and 26 with the Dolphins (1970-95), his teams won 328 regular-season games — still an N.F.L. record — lost 156 and tied 6. He still holds the N.F.L. records for games coached (526) and total victories (347 — 23 more than the legendary George Halas of the Chicago Bears). His teams won 10 or more games in a season 21 times and reached the playoffs 19 times.

Marv Levy, who coached the Buffalo Bills to four Super Bowls, called Shula “the greatest coach in professional football history.”

Shula was also a longtime member of the N.F.L.’s influential competition committee, which, among other things, pushed to tighten rules against a defense’s holding wide receivers; with receivers freer to maneuver, the rule change tilted the advantage to the offense, ushering in an era of more risk-taking and high-scoring contests dominated by the passing game.

Shula coached three Hall of Fame quarterbacks: Johnny Unitas at Baltimore and Bob Griese and Dan Marino at Miami. He fathered two coaches: His son Dave was head coach of the Cincinnati Bengals for parts of five seasons, and his son Mike was head coach at the University of Alabama and position coach with several N.F.L. teams; since 2013 he has been the offensive coordinator for the Carolina Panthers.

Don Shula became a head coach at 33, Dave at 32 and Mike at 37.

Shula was famous for working players hard during training camp, holding four workouts a day in South Florida’s steamy summers. During his early years on the sideline, he was known to be short-tempered and quick to blame players when things went badly.

“As a younger coach, I was very intense,” he told the columnist Dave Anderson of The New York Times in 1983. “Sometimes I was less than understanding. I hope I have been able to balance it out a little, but I also hope that I never give up being intense.”

By the Dolphins’ unbeaten season in 1972, Shula’s players had found a way to ease the tension.

About a week before the Super Bowl, defensive linemen Bill Stanfill and Manny Fernandez, both fun-loving characters, went fishing and caught and captured a three-foot alligator. After practice the next day, running back Larry Csonka distracted Shula’s secretary so that Fernandez could leave the alligator in Shula’s private shower. When the coach stepped in, he found the alligator, screamed and ran into the locker room to confront his players.

“I said, ‘I don’t think that’s very funny,’” Shula said, recounting the story in an interview with The New York Times in 2016. “They said, ‘Coach, can’t you take a joke?,’ and I said, ‘A joke? A live alligator?’ They said, ‘We took a vote and you only passed by one vote on whether we should tape up the mouth of the alligator.’”

Linebacker Nick Buoniconti said Shula started laughing and the team soon joined in. “It really loosened everybody up,” Buoniconti said.

The Dolphins went on to beat the Washington Redskins, 14-7, to win their first Super Bowl and finish the season 17-0.

“You were now the coach that won the big one, and that changed everything in my coaching career,” Shula said.

The success seemed improbable in February 1970, when the Dolphins lured Shula away from the Colts, where he had been voted N.F.L. coach of the year three times. Shula was under contract when the Dolphins’ owner, Joe Robbie, signed him, so the Colts filed a tampering charge with the N.F.L. The Dolphins were forced to give up their first-round draft pick in 1971 as compensation. (The Colts picked the University of North Carolina running back Don McCauley, who played 11 seasons with them.)

After entering the old American Football League in 1966, the Dolphins had won just 15 games in their first four seasons, and just three games the year before Shula arrived.

“Then things changed drastically for the better,” Csonka once told an interviewer.

In his first year in Miami, Shula used an offensive line stocked with future Hall of Fame players like Larry Little and Jim Langer to block for Csonka and his fellow running backs Jim Kiick and Mercury Morris. Wide receiver Paul Warfield and tight end Marv Fleming, who had won league championships elsewhere, also arrived, giving Griese fresh targets. The core of what became known as the “No Name Defense” began to shut down opposing offenses.

The team’s success turned Shula into a hero in Miami. In the early 1980s, a sign in the Orange Bowl, then the Dolphins’ home field, read: “Shula is god.” The Times sportswriter Larry Dorman wrote “About the only argument it ever generated around town concerned whether the letter ‘g’ should be upper or lowercase.”

A road in Miami is named Don Shula Expressway. At John Carroll University in Cleveland, his alma mater, football is played in the Don Shula Stadium, and other sports events are held at the Don Shula Sports Center.

Donald Francis Shula was born on Jan. 4, 1930, in Grand River, Ohio, about 40 miles east of Cleveland. He was a running back at John Carroll and earned a bachelor’s degree in sociology there with a minor in mathematics in 1951. He received a master’s in physical education at Western Reserve (now Case Western Reserve) in 1954.

In 1951, the Cleveland Browns drafted him in the ninth round and gave him a $5,000 salary. From 1951 to 1957 he played defensive back for the Browns, under the longtime coach Paul Brown, as well as the Colts and the Redskins. He ended his career with 21 interceptions.

Shula was an assistant coach at Virginia in 1958, an assistant at Kentucky in 1959 and defensive coordinator of the Detroit Lions from 1960 to 1962 before taking over in Baltimore. Despite their success under Shula, the Colts lost Super Bowl III to the New York Jets, who were heavy underdogs, 16-7.

His move to Miami was sweetened by a 10 percent share of ownership, which he sold back to the team a few years later.

Shula’s run of three straight Super Bowls ended in 1974, when Csonka, Kiick and Warfield left for the upstart World Football League. The Dolphins returned to playoffs regularly afterward, and appeared in two Super Bowls in the 1980s, although they lost both. Despite Marino and one of the league’s most prolific offenses, the dynamic success of those early years never returned.

By 1995 Shula’s Dolphins had a leaky defense and barely made the playoffs that year, with a 9-7 record; they were eliminated in the first round when they lost a wild-card game. Players openly criticized coaches. One pro coach, Mike Ditka, called the Dolphins “a team without heart”; another, Ron Meyer, said, “Shula has lost control of his team.”

Shula resigned after that season, the day after he turned 66.

“I’m sad that he was driven out by all the criticism, a lot of it totally uncalled for,” Fernandez, his former defensive tackle, told The Times. “But I’m happy for him that it’s over. He doesn’t have to put up with all this anymore.”

After football, Shula played golf, owned a hotel and golf club, ran a chain of steakhouses bearing his name and made speaking and charity appearances.

His first wife, the former Dorothy Bartish, died in 1991 after 32 years of marriage. He married Mary Anne Stephens in 1993, and she survives him along with along with eight children, 16 grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.

Shula was not happy to stop coaching. “The toughest part will be in September,” he said after retiring, “when that ball is kicked off, and for the first time in 43 years I won’t be on the sidelines. That is what I will miss most.”

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