When I first heard that Don Shula was retiring after 33 seasons as a head coach in the NFL, I was struck by a couple of unfathomable facts. The first one was that in more than three decades of coaching, there were only two seasons in which a Don Shula-coached team finished below .500. Now, that's consistency.
The other was the number of Shula victories—347—a mark that may never be surpassed. Do you know that that is the equivalent of more than 20 undefeated seasons? Over his 33-year career at the helm of the Baltimore Colts and the Miami Dolphins, he has averaged more than 10 victories per season.
I am going to miss Don Shula. I like him and I admire him. I'm going to miss looking those 53 yards across the field and thinking, There is a coaching legend. I remember when I was a special teams coach with the Redskins in 1972. We played the Dolphins in Super Bowl VII in the Los Angeles Coliseum. I was just an assistant, but I felt a real sense of pride being on the same field with Shula. Whenever I think of baseball, the first name that comes to mind is Babe Ruth. What the Babe was to baseball, Shula is to football coaching. There are certain figures in sports who are larger than the games they play or coach, and Don Shula is one of those.
Over the years we became friendly rivals, but I never stopped admiring him. People sometimes ask me to name the greatest coach in NFL history. George Halas may have set the standard, but Don Shula has won more games than anyone, and he has done it in the most competitive era. He had an incomparable ability to evaluate players, to motivate them and to teach them the game of football. Above all else, he was honest. His teams played clean, hard, by-the-rules football. He was the keenest of competitors from the day he entered the league until the day he retired, and he respected those who competed so hard against him.
He probably doesn't remember, but I once called him when I was out of work. It was 1983, and he was scouting at the East-West Shrine game and he must have had a hundred messages from guys like me who were looking for jobs. I didn't expect to hear from him, but he returned my call. We just talked about coaching for a few minutes. He didn't have a job for me, but he certainly left an impression. This was a man who didn't just like coaching; he liked coaches. He never got too big for the other guys in the game.
When I announced this fall that I was entering the hospital for prostate cancer surgery, Don was one of the first people to call my office and wish me well. The next day, after the surgery, I received a get-well telegram at the hospital from him.
I knew this day was coming, but I was still sad to hear Shula say goodbye. He seemed at peace with the decision and with his life, yet I couldn't help but feel a sense of loss for the game of football. There has recently been loud, angry criticism directed at a man who deserves so much better. As coaches, we learn to accept criticism for our decisions. If a writer says you shouldn't have gone for it on fourth-and-one, we understand that's part of the job. We expect it. But I think a mentality prevails today that thrives on accentuating the negative. Most of the time, it's completely unfair. Just look at this season in Miami: The Dolphins went 9-7 and made the playoffs. A lot of teams and towns would have settled for that.
I don't think we'll see the likes of Don Shula again, in this era or perhaps ever.
I have to admit being bothered by the notion that Shula was suddenly too old to coach. Maybe I feel this way because I'm even older than he is: I'm 70 and he's 66. Gee, the three oldest coaches in the league—Ted Marchibroda, Don and me—all had our teams in the playoffs this season. Don may have a little more gray hair than he had a few years ago, but he's as tough and as sharp as ever. I looked this up the other night: His record in the last 10 years is 89-70, and his last losing season was seven years ago.
Someone asked me how it felt to coach against Don Shula in I his final game. Obviously I didn't realize when we were on the field that it was his final game. It felt like every other game I coached against him. It was special because he is special.