Don Shula, the NFL’s winningest coach and the architect of the only perfect season in league history, died Monday, one of his children confirmed to the Miami Herald. He was 90.
Shula’s death was also confirmed in a statement from the Miami Dolphins, the team he coached to five Super Bowls from 1970 to 1995.
The cause of the coaching Icon’s death was not immediately known, the Herald reported. However, a source has confirmed to the newspaper it was not related to the coronavirus.
Shula, who turned 90 on Jan. 4. remains the only coach to take an NFL team to an unbeaten, untied season, achieving it with the 1972 Miami Dolphins. The New England Patriots also were perfect, going 16-0 in the regular season in 2007, but were stunned 17-14 in Super Bowl XLII by the New York Giants to finish their season 18-1.
"If not immortal, he seemed indestructible,” Mark Ribowsky wrote in “Shula,” his 2019 biography.
Shula was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1997. In a statement, Pro Football Hall of Fame President and CEO David Baker said the game has lost “a truly incredible man.”
“The game has lost one of the greats today, but we have all lost a truly incredible man," Baker said. “Hall of Fame Coach Don Shula served as an ambassador for this great game for more than half a century.
“Coach Shula was a man who truly loved the game and I have often been moved by the deep respect and affection he was always afforded by the men who played for him.”
Shula won the most games in NFL history (347) coached the most games (526) and consecutive seasons (33). He coached in six Super Bowls, a mark topped only by Bill Belichick’s nine appearances in pro football’s championship game.
While Shula won Super Bowls VII and VIII with Miami, he also lost four times in the title game, tying Bud Grant, Marv Levy and Dan Reeves. He also suffered what remains arguably the biggest upset in Super Bowl history, as his Baltimore Colts, favored by more than 18 points, were shocked by the New York Jets 16-7 in Miami’s Orange Bowl, where ironically, Shula would carve out his greatest legacy.
“He can take his’n and beat your’n or take your’n and beat his’n.” Houston Oiler coach Bum Phillips once said about Shula’s coaching ability.
Shula has an expressway in Miami named for him, along with two restaurants and a game between Florida Atlantic and Florida International universities, the Sun-Sentinel reported. There is also a football field named for him and an endowed chair of philosophy at John Carroll University, his college alma mater, the newspaper reported.
“Don Shula will always be remembered as one of the greatest coaches and contributors in the history of our game," NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said in a statement. “He made an extraordinarily positive impact on so many lives. The winningest coach in NFL history and the only one to lead a team to a perfect season, Coach Shula lived an unparalleled football life. As a player, Hall of Fame coach, and long-time member and co-chair of the NFL Competition Committee, he was a remarkable teacher and mentor who for decades inspired excellence and exemplified integrity. His iconic legacy will endure through his family and continue to inspire generations to come.”
During the 1960s in Baltimore, Shula lost heartbreaking games: the Colts were pummeled 27-0 by the Cleveland Browns in the 1964 NFL title game, lost a 1965 playoff game in Green Bay when a controversial field goal sent the game into overtime and the Packers prevailed with another field goal. Shula missed the 1967 NFL playoffs despite being 11-0-2 heading into the regular-season finale against the Los Angeles Rams. The Rams won, but only one 11-1-2 team could advance -- Los Angeles.
Then came the upset loss to the Jets in Super Bowl III, and Miami’s 24-3 loss to Dallas in Super Bowl VI.
Shula never wavered, putting together a 32-2 record and back-to-back Super Bowl victories after the 1972 and ’73 seasons.
“I played for six coaches, and Shula was the most prepared of them all,” placekicker Garo Yepremian wrote in his 2002 book, “Tales from the Miami Dolphins.”
Focused? Shula had tunnel vision. As he was being carried off the field after the Dolphins sewed up their perfect season, a fan stole his wristwatch, the Sun-Sentinel reported. Shula ran after the fan and got his watch back.
During the 1980s, Shula was introduced to actor Don Johnson, who was starring in the hit television show, “Miami Vice,” the newspaper reported.
Shula, thinking Johnson was a police officer, smiled and said, “You guys do a great job.”
“I’m fairly confident that if I died tomorrow, Don would find a way to preserve me until the season was over and he had time for a nice funeral,” Shula’s first wife, Dorothy, once said.
Dorothy Shula died in February 1991 -- during the offseason.
Shula, Mike Freedman wrote in his 2012 book, “Undefeated,” had “a face that projected authority and radiated uncompromising discipline.”
“I’m no miracle man,” Shula said in the summer of 1970 before his first regular season with the Dolphins. “I don’t have any magic formulas.”