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Until her last breath Dorothy encouraged her husband to stay focused on winning football games, and he has done just that. Last season the Dolphins went all the way to the AFC Championship Game. While Don's private life has been transformed by his wife's death, on the football field he seems hardly different at all. He is as tough and intimidating as ever. Indeed, he still likes to say that he's as subtle as a punch in the mouth. "I've changed some over the years," says Shula. "I'm a little more willing to listen. I'm not as apt to plunge straight ahead and say, 'This is the only way.' But there are things that will never change: You'll always need discipline, and there can only be one boss, and that's me.
"Honesty is at the heart of my success. I don't play games with players. Everything is based on years of solid facts. Sometimes it's not very flashy, and it's not exciting, but I look at the bottom line—winning—and that's all that I'm interested in."
On the threshold of his 31st season as an NFL coach and his 24th with the Dolphins, Shula, 63, is seven victories from passing George Halas as the winningest coach in pro football history. Halas got his 324 victories in 40 years as coach of the Chicago Bears. Shula's career record is 318-151-6, which averages out to a remarkable 10 wins a season. His accomplishments fill 13 pages of the Dolphin press guide. But the feats that stand out the most are these: He is the only head coach to have appeared in six Super Bowls, and his 1972 Dolphins had the only unbeaten season in NFL history.
"The closer he gets to the career record, the harder the achievement is to comprehend," says Cincinnati Bengal coach Dave Shula, 34, who was only three when his father got his first head-coaching job, in 1963, with the Baltimore Colts. "When I became a head coach last year, I was 306 wins away from him, and now I'm 313."
Even with his closest friends, Shula doesn't say much about his pursuit of Halas's mark. Instead, he claims he's really aiming at the Super Bowl, so that he can become the only coach to have made it to Super Bowls in four decades. He did, however, casually mention the record to his daughter Sharon, 31, when she was in charge of designing a piece of jewelry for a family memento of his 300th victory, which occurred on Sept. 22, 1991. According to Sharon, "He said, 'I don't want to do anything too fancy, because I want to wait until I break the record. That's the time when you can do something really special.' "
"I don't talk about it unless someone brings it up," says Shula, shaking his head, covering his ears and waving off any mention of the record, as if talk might jinx it. "There's no pressure. The numbers are going to be there. I'll be proud when it happens, and I'll reflect on it much later.
"I never set out to get this record. How could you ever set out to do what I've done in my career? It comes down to doing your best every day, every week, every year. I never worried about the win totals. They just crept up on me. Afterward you find out you won your 100th game, then somebody hands you a plaque for winning the 200th. I don't think of these things as milestones. They're by-products of hard work."
To work as hard as he does, Shula has to check out of the real world for large chunks of time. No one would ever accuse him of being on the cutting edge of late-20th-century life. He still can't operate the VCRs in his home, and zapping food in the microwave is a chore that utterly befuddles him. "I'm shocked that he can dial a phone," says Sharon. Teases his oldest daughter, Donna Jannach, 32, "I'm surprised he has figured out how to leave messages on my answering machine."
Not surprisingly, Shula missed the Pepsi generation and has no clue about the MTV generation. "All I've ever heard him hum is hymns," says Sharon. His taste in television is confined to news shows and live sports events. When Miami Vice was one of the hottest programs on TV—and all the rage in South Florida—actor Don Johnson sometimes showed up on the Dolphin sideline for games. Once, he was introduced to Shula in the locker room.
"Don Johnson, Miami Vice," he said to the coach.