Hall of Fame coach Don Shula, who died Monday at 90, is best remembered as the architect of the Miami Dolphins and their undefeated 1972 season—still the only perfect year in NFL history.
But before Shula won in Miami, he’d burnished a legacy in Baltimore.
The Colts went 71-23-4 in their seven years under Shula. In their 1967 and 1968 campaigns, they lost just a single game each of those regular seasons. The Colts, however, did lose 27-0 to the Cleveland Browns in the 1964 NFL championship. And, of course, they were upset by the New York Jets in the 1969 Super Bowl after winning the NFL title, a game that ultimately forced the merger of the AFL and NFL, as well as Shula’s departure to Miami.
While no cause of death has been announced, the Miami Herald reports that a close associate said Shula was not ill at the time of his passing.
An Ohio native, Shula played seven years as a slow, but smart and hard-nosed defensive back in the NFL, including four for the Colts between 1953-1956 before beginning his coaching career. He was offered the Colts top coaching job at just 33 years old, becoming the youngest head coach in pro football. His reference? None other than Hall of Fame defensive end Gino Marchetti.
From Collision of Wills, Baltimore writer Jack Gilden’s 2018 book on the relationship between Shula and quarterback Johnny Unitas:
In 1963, Gino Marchetti, close to Colts owner Carroll Rosenbloom, recommended that head coach Weeb Ewbank be fired from his post and that Don Shula be hired to replace him. Rosenbloom barely remembered Shula even though the granite-jawed young man played for the Colts himself for four seasons, calling all of the team’s defensive signals.
“You mean that guy who played here that wasn’t very good?” Rosenbloom asked Marchetti.
While his relationship with the veteran Unitas was often challenging, Shula was ready for the post. He won The Sporting News Coach of the Year honors in the 1964, his second season. He won it again in 1968 with the Colts. (In a twist of fate, it was Ewbank who directed the Jets to their upset of the Colts.)
“His two most memorable moments in football were losing to Joe Namath and the Jets in Super Bowl III, a painful and colossal upset, and beating the Redskins in Super Bowl VII to cap the undefeated season,” Gilden wrote on his Facebook page yesterday. “Those two games sum him up perfectly. He endured a great deal of humiliation to achieve the most storied accomplishments in his sport. Don Shula was one of the greatest men in the history of the game.”
In Miami, after his relationship with Colts owner Carroll Rosenbloom soured following the loss to the Jets, Shula won back-to-back Super Bowls and eventually 347 games, the most in pro football history. The Dolphins offered Shula part ownership of the four-year-old franchise.
“After Super Bowl III, my relationship with Rosenbloom was not very pleasant,” Shula told The Sun in a 2008 interview. “I loved Baltimore—the people, the fans and everything that Colts football stood for. But Rosenbloom’s New York buddies never let him forget [the heavily favored Colts’ loss], and he never let me forget it.
“If we had won that game, and continued to win, I certainly wouldn’t have gone. I’d still be in Baltimore, eating crab cakes.”
Don Shula with Art Donovan during their playing days in Baltimore. (Courtesy of Debbie Donovan)