I'm a lifelong Buffalo Bills, so I'm not exactly the kind of guy you'd expect to be writing a Don Shula tribute. But here we are.
I grew up in the '90s. The Bills' biggest rival during that decade? The Miami Dolphins. And in the first half of the decade, the rivalry was fierce. The Bills and Dolphins played twice during the regular season and, on two occasions during Buffalo's four Super Bowl runs, in the playoffs. (The Bills won both games.)
"Squish the Fish" became a permanent part of western New York's lexicon. And while there may have been players (ahem, Bryan Cox) that we didn't like, there was one person you admired: Don Shula.
The longtime Dolphins head coach embodied leadership. Whether it was his stint with the then-Baltimore Colts or coaching the Dolphins in the '70s, '80s and half of the '90s, he led contenders.
After Shula died on Monday, the rapid reaction was the he won more games than any other NFL coach. That's true. But it's actually not the most impressive Shula-related statistic.
In 33 years as a head coach, Shula had two losing seasons. Two. Sure, he had Hall of Fame quarterbacks in Johnny Unitas, Bob Griese and Dan Marino. But he also won with signal-callers like Earl Morrall, who quarterbacked the '72 Dolphins for most of their undefeated season, and David Woodley.
Dolphins' teams were disciplined and that was a key part of their success. That speaks to Shula's ability to connect with players across multiple generations. Whether he was a young coaching mind or part of the NFL's old guard, he was respected by his players.
I don't remember a large chunk of Shula's career because I wasn't alive for it. I do remember those Bills-Dolphins clashes. When you watched the Bills and Dolphins of the '90s, you witnessed a great talent pool in action. You also saw the product of two of the greatest coaches in NFL history, Shula and Marv Levy. It was largely a great rivalry because of the coaches involved. They brought out the best in their players, and the carried over to the field of play.
You can debate Shula's place in NFL history. With Bill Belichick's success and Super Bowl wins, there are those who will argue the New England Patriots head coach is the greatest sideline general in history. (I tend to agree.) Vince Lombardi, Bill Walsh, Chuck Noll, among others, are in that conversation, too.
But that stat I mentioned earlier is hard to overlook. Two losing seasons out of 33. Longevity can help you set a wins record, but longevity doesn't always equal success. Thirty-one winning seasons out of 33, though, is success.
Shula's teams were contenders. He led the Colts or Dolphins to division titles in four different decades. His clubs made 19 playoff appearances, including two Super Bowls — the back-to-back wins by the Dolphins in '72 and '73. He coached in six Super Bowls, which was a record until Belichick's run with the Patriots.
The thing I appreciate most about Shula, though, is that he was a decent man. He was a rival. He coached the team we loved to hate. But he was the opposing coach we hated to love. He was a respected figure in the NFL and belongs on a Mount Rushmore of coaches. He made many contributions to the game and coached several Hall of Famers. He did so without controversy. There weren't camera or ball scandals with Shula. Hell, he didn't even wear a headset.
As a 7-year-old, I remember watching Shula set the wins mark. My feeling that day is the same I had today, the day of his passing: An appreciation for having witnessed history and respect for one of the best coaches in history.
Don Shula equals success. That's how I'll remember him.
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