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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It sits there like a fortress, a massive pile of khaki folders. The Shula File. Storm it if you dare. Hundreds of pages of clippings, in-depth features, throwaways, you name it. Armies of writers trying to capture on the printed page the 30-year coaching career of Don Shula, the most successful run anyone has ever had in the National Football League—the more ambitious trying to capture the man himself.

So you find a sturdy chair and light a cigar and open a window and sit down to read the Shula File. In its entirety. You spread 64 years of a man's life in front of you—the relentless drive of a kid from Grand River, Ohio, to be the best in the world at what he always wanted to do—and the experience is rather numbing. When you finish, you are left with a "yes...but" feeling.

Yes, it's all there—the achievement, the unwavering dedication, the accolades, even the occasional rips from people whose agendas couldn't keep pace with Shula's hard, rough drive to success. But is this really the man you've known for 25 years, the guy who once stuck his finger in your chest and blistered you because you had taken a mindless shot at his quarterback, the man who bit your head off because you once hinted that his team had lost its direction but who was always straight with you?

Hard to say. This you know, though: For nearly 31 years, first as coach of the Baltimore Colts and for the last 24 years at the helm of the Miami Dolphins, Shula has thrived in a world of pressure so intense that it has burned out even those who have succeeded at the highest level, or close to it. Joe Gibbs, 12 years and out. Health reasons, family reasons. Bill Walsh, 10 years. Trapped at the top, crushed by the pressure to stay there. Dick Vermeil, haunted by the vision of what he had become, a robot consumed and almost destroyed by the game. John Robinson, Don Coryell, John Madden—the list is long. Even Lou Holtz. He needed only 13 games to find out that the NFL was too tough a course, yet he has achieved great success at the college level.

Through it all, year after year, watching them burn out and drop out all around him, Shula marches on. On Nov. 14, when the Dolphins beat the Philadelphia Eagles 19-14, he got career win number 325 to pass George Halas as the winningest coach in pro football history. It is for this unparalleled success and pursuit of excellence that SI has chosen Shula as Sportsman of the Year.

Even now Shula's Dolphins are Super Bowl contenders despite being on their fourth quarterback of the season. Dan Marino goes down, plug in Scott Mitchell. Mitchell goes down, plug in Doug Pederson, a third-stringer in the World League, and Pederson becomes the pitcher of record in the historic victory over the Eagles. Afterward Shula announces in that flat, matter-of-fact voice, "We'll start getting Steve DeBerg ready."

The oldest player in the league at 39, discarded by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, DeBerg, with the Miami formations and terminology still fuzzy in his brain, led the Dolphins on that blood-and-guts final drive that beat the Dallas Cowboys in the sleet and snow on Thanksgiving Day. So what's the big deal? Didn't Shula rescue 34-year-old Earl Morrall from the junk heap 25 years ago and give him nine more years of NFL life? Didn't he once create a quarterback out of a halfback, sending in Tom Matte, with eight plays written on his wristband, to call signals? And didn't Matte beat the Los Angeles Rams and almost beat the Green Bay Packers in the playoffs? That was 28 years ago, and I can hear Shula now: "We'll have Matte ready to go Sunday. He's a competitor. He'll be O.K."

You get the feeling that when it comes to football, Shula does not become haunted by the terrors of the night, and if he ever did, he would keep his feelings well hidden. The coaching miseries that have unhinged so many haven't found room on his crowded schedule.

"I never even heard the term burnout until Dick Vermeil left," says Shula. "Dick was so high-strung, so sensitive; he put so much into it that it just ate him up. Not that other people don't put a lot into it, or me either, for that matter. I just don't carry things away with me like others might. You can't let it influence the way you live your life."

One can't help but feel that perhaps there's too much in the Shula File, too much explanation, too much analysis, that the real path to understanding this man and his remarkable achievements lies in economy, stripping things down, paring away the extraneous and reducing the matter to the man's most elemental concerns: Is what I am doing helping or hurting us? Is there a better way to do things? Does it matter that a guy wears a beard or an earring or that he does a dance after scoring a touchdown, as long as he is willing to work hard enough to get there in the first place? Does the personality of the coach really mean a damn thing when you tally up the won-lost at the end—as long as he's consistent and straight with people?

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