It is only fitting that as we top the list of top NFL personalities we recognize a head coach. Football is a unique game. Both teams are made up of athletes of vastly different skill sets, all asked to work in unison to either advance a ball or prevent the ball from moving altogether. Football is in some ways literal human chess. It is one of the few sports that is as much about the clash of coaching strategies as it is the execution of the athletes on the playing field. The coach generally gives the honor of the victory to his players and wears the brunt of defeat on their own shoulders. The history of the NFL has seen many coaches come and go. Each week it is a Head Coach’s job to prepare a team and outwit an opposing coach. With the evolution of the league, it is also difficult for many coaches to adjust and evolve with the times. That is what makes Don Shula’s thirty-three seasons as an NFL Head Coach so incredible.
Shula’s NFL career began with the Cleveland Browns. Selected in the ninth round of the 1951 NFL Draft, Shula put a teaching career on hold to join the World Champions. Shula’s playing career saw him become somewhat of a journeyman defensive back as he was traded to the Baltimore Colts and ended his six-year playing career with Washington Redskins. Shula usually played the role of spot starter, seeing the majority of his playing time when other players were injured.
Shula immediately pursued coaching, spending two years in the college ranks before becoming a defensive assistant with the Detroit Lions. In 1963 Shula caught a tremendous break. The Colts Head Coaching job became available and at just 33 years of age Shula was offered the position. In fact, Shula was so young that he was actually coaching some of his former teammates. The Colts management remembered how despite not being a standout on the field, Shula was a student of the game off of the field. They had no idea how well this risk would pay off for them.
Shula coached for eight seasons in Baltimore. In his tenure as coach the Colts never finished with a losing record. The team won the 1968 NFL Championship, before losing to the AFL’s New York Jets in a shocking upset at Super Bowl III. Shula compiled an impressive 71-23-4 record as coach of the Colts, but postseason losses plagued his tenure there as well. Shula’s run with the team ended after the 1969 season. The Miami Dolphins poached the coach from the Colts in a controversial move that ended up costing the Dolphins their first-round draft pick the following season.
In 1970 the Miami Dolphins were part of the AFL/NFL merger and were desperate to earn respect within the NFL. The team was just in its fifth season and hadn’t had much success within the AFL. With Shula in charge, they didn’t have to wait long. The Dolphins advanced to the NFL playoffs in their first year in the league. In their second their season ended in the Super Bowl.
By the start of 1972 Shula was widely respected as one of the top coaches in the NFL, by the end he was a coaching legend. His 1972 team achieved a perfect season, ending with a victory in Super Bowl VII. Their dominance continued into 1973 bringing home a second championship in Super Bowl VIII.
Although Shula would never win another Super Bowl he consistently kept the Dolphins in contention year after year. Although they were in a losing effort the Dolphins return to the Super Bowl in both 1982 and 1984 proved that Shula was a true student of the game.
His great teams from the 1970s were based on power running, by the 1980s the Dolphins were one of the top innovators in passing offense. Shula’s ability to evolve kept his teams competitive all season long. A man who played the game in an era of, “three yards and a cloud of dust,” was suddenly assaulting NFL passing records with Dan Marino.
Shula retired from football after the 1995 season. In twenty-five seasons with the Dolphins, they only posted a losing record twice. In his thirty-three year career his 328 regular-season wins and 347 overall wins are both NFL records. Shula was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1997 a living legend among football coaches.