SI Vault
Paul Zimmerman
December 20, 1993
SI salutes the most successful NFL coach in history, a man whose mastery of the game spans four decades
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December 20, 1993

Don Shula

SI salutes the most successful NFL coach in history, a man whose mastery of the game spans four decades

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Another piece, written three days earlier, describes him as a "pugnacious lad with an appetite for schoolyard scraps."

"I don't think I ever started a fight," Shula says. "But I had a short fuse."

Then there are the stories—legends, actually—that march through the file like soldiers, following him through the years: didn't allow water on the practice field when he started coaching; forbade his players to have sex after Tuesday during game week. That one was a little much. For Shula, too.

"Oh, hell," he says. "No water during practice was one of those outdated ideas. Everyone believed it. It was supposed to give you cramps or something, just like weightlifting supposedly made you muscle-bound. So many strange things in those days. Remember that exercise everyone had to do, the duck waddle, walking around with your knees bent? Later it turned out it was absolutely the worst thing for your legs.

"The no-sex-after-Tuesday thing was just something to kid about. When I played for Cleveland, Paul Brown used to talk about it in the meetings, and everyone would laugh and tell jokes. I mean, how would they check?"

The first time I saw Shula close up, during the 1969 Super Bowl week, as his Colts prepared to meet the New York Jets, his reputation had preceded him and given all of the writers material for midweek stories. The contrast between the two teams was a convenient angle: the circus atmosphere surrounding Weeb Ewbank's Jets versus Shula's buttoned-up and businesslike Colts, the players a mirror of the rather ferocious character who coached them. His first press conference set that right.

Someone asked him about the near fight early in the week between Joe Namath and Shula's kicker and former defensive end, Lou Michaels, in a Fort Lauderdale restaurant. I turned to the guy next to me and said, "Oh, boy, now we're in for it," fully expecting some tirade about confining our inquiries to football.

"Joe's the 837th guy Louis has threatened to death," Shula said, laughing, "and if he'd punched him, he'd have been the 30th guy he'd decked."

I didn't know it at the time, but when Shula was a defensive back with the Colts from 1953 to '56, he was hardly a goody-goody. He hung around with the rougher elements on the team—Gino Marchetti, Artie Donovan, Don Joyce, Bill Pellington—and choirboys didn't survive in that company. "We'd be drinking in Baltimore, and we'd have to drive back to camp, in Westminster, Maryland, to beat the curfew," Shula says. "One night I said, 'C'mon, I'll drive us back,' because I was the one who was sober. One guy grabbed the keys out of my hand and said, 'We ain't going anywhere.' And we weren't—until they were good and ready. When I finally got us back, we'd missed bed check by five minutes, and the whole bunch of us got fined.

"Some rough guys there, but you know, you could learn a lot from some of those old players," Shula continues. "Gino Marchetti revolutionized defensive-end play. Most of them were bull rushers in those days, but Gino was a grabber and thrower, a guy with moves who'd blow by the tackle so fast sometimes that he'd never touch him. There were guys who'd play against Gino and say, 'Joyce is much tougher. Look, my uniform isn't even dirty.' But Gino got a lot of quarterbacks and running backs dirty."

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