I remember covering the 1973 Super Bowl for the New York Post, when Shula's unbeaten Dolphins were playing George Allen's Washington Redskins (who were favored, incidentally), and I had this idea for a midweek piece. I would ask both coaches to capsule themselves in one paragraph, how they would like to be remembered. I thought they might tell me to take a hike—can't be bothered with this kind of foolishness—but, no, they took my request seriously.
"Put down," Allen said, "that I wanted to win so badly that I'd give a year of my life to be a winner."
There was a pause. "You mean in this game or overall?" I asked him.
"I mean just to be a winner," Allen said.
Shula's response was equally blunt. "Didn't lie to anyone," he said, "didn't screw anybody, traveled first-class."
I've thought about that. The first two were self-explanatory. The last one was a bit puzzling. Glitter—wealth, ostentation, the things commonly associated with first-class travel—was never his style. It took a while to figure out that by first-class he meant the rejection of the tawdry and banal and mean-spirited, all the things that conspire to lower a person.
Harvey Greene, the Dolphins' media-relations director, says one of the things Shula takes the most pride in is that he has been part of the overall development of the game, through his 18 years as a member of the NFL Competition Committee. At times, though, the young Shula was an official's nightmare on the sidelines. ESPN's Beano Cook, who was once the Dolphins' publicist, remembers Shula in front of the bench, livid, fists clenched, screaming at an official, "You're ruining my life! You're ruining my life!" It was during an exhibition game.
For years writers have been trying to present a new Shula, more mellow, more toned down. Sport magazine did a piece called "Shula Pride," with a subhead that read "Once a hot-tempered dictator, Don Shula of the Miami Dolphins has mellowed in becoming the NFL's winningest coach." The story appeared 15 years ago.
"Mellow? Mellow?" says Stu Weinstein, the Dolphins' director of security. "I've been here nine years, and I've yet to see the mellow. Consistent, yes, but mellow is not the adjective I'd use."
Going through that Mount Rushmore of a clipping file, you are struck by the occasional inconsistencies. One story quotes his brother, Jim, describing young Don as a playground Sir Galahad: "Don was always strong. He was the one stopping lights. He was the realist."