Don Shula has died; Dolphins’ legendary coach was 90

Don Shula won more games than any other coach in NFL history and also led the only perfect season.
Don Shula won more games than any other coach in NFL history and also led the only perfect season. (AP Photo/KAW)

MIAMI – Don Shula, the legendary Miami Dolphins coach who won more games than anyone else in NFL history, has died.

He was 90.

The Dolphins say that Shula “passed away peacefully” at his home across Biscayne Bay from downtown Miami on Monday morning.

“Don Shula was the patriarch of the Miami Dolphins for 50 years. He brought the winning edge to our franchise and put the Dolphins and the city of Miami in the national sports scene,” the team said in a statement. “Our deepest thoughts and prayers go out to [his wife] Mary Anne along with his children Dave, Donna, Sharon, Anne and Mike.”

On Monday, the Dolphins flag outside the team’s facility in Davie flew at half staff for the man that led Miami to two Super Bowl titles, including the undefeated 1972 season — the only perfect season in league history.

“Hard to believe he’s gone. He was such a dominant force,” Larry Csonka, the fullback on the Dolphins’ title teams tweeted. “I fully expected he’d live to see 100. Winning was critical to him but winning WITHIN THE RULES was more important. There was only 1 perfect team in the first 100 yrs of the NFL and Coach Shula is the reason!”

Shula surpassed George Halas’ league-record 324 victories in 1993. He retired after the 1995 season with a record of 347-173-6 and was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1997.

At 33, he was the youngest head coach in NFL history when hired by the Baltimore Colts in 1963. After the 1969 season, Dolphins owner Joe Robbie signed Shula to be Miami’s second head coach, and he quickly turned the team from a perennial loser into a powerhouse.

In 33 seasons as a head coach, he had a losing record only twice.

“He was a perfectionist, and he pushed us to a level higher than we thought we could get to,” Dick Anderson, a safety on both Dolphins championship teams, said Monday. “He screamed and yelled on the sidelines and pushed you to get better. … That’s why we were successful. His record speaks for itself. ... He has the only perfect season in 100 years of football.”

Donald Francis Shula was born Jan. 4, 1930 in Grand River, Ohio, and raised in Painesville, Ohio, by Hungarian immigrants. He learned the meaning of hard work on the water, watching his father fish for a living.

He was a religious Catholic and stuck to a routine.

“He began his day at 6 o’clock every morning with a mass,” said Jimmy Cefalo, the former Dolphins receiver and longtime broadcaster. "And he ended his day as a coach at 11:30. He wanted to be home in time to watch Johnny Carson’s monologue. And he did that for 33 years.

“He worked harder than anybody, he knew the rules better than anyone. He was the smartest coach that I think ever lived.”

Shula proved he could win with different styles, leaning on a dominant running game during the title years of the early 1970s and then leading one of the best passing attacks in the NFL with Dan Marino in the 1980s and ’90s.

Shula’s teams appeared in six Super Bowls, and he reached the playoffs in four decades. He coached three Hall of Fame quarterbacks: Johnny Unitas, Bob Griese and Marino.

“Thank you for always believing in me. You made me a better player and person,” Marino tweeted Monday. “Love you Coach! #RIP

Shula became an institution in South Florida beyond the football field, with his name now found on an expressway, and athletic club and a chain of steakhouses.

“It could be argued that this community came together for the first time when the Dolphins were winning Super Bowl championships. So he’s much more than just a sports figure in our town. He’s a legend in our town,” Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Giménez said.

Shula launched his first steakhouse in 1989 in Miami Lakes and it grew into a whole restaurant group.

“It turned out to be a highly successful restaurant — mainly because I ate there a lot,” Shula quipped in an interview with Local 10 marking the flagship restaurant’s 25th anniversary.

Shula supported many charities. The Don Shula Foundation, formed primarily to assist breast cancer research, was established as a tribute to his late wife, Dorothy. They were married for 32 years and raised five children before she died in 1991. Shula married Mary Anne Stephens during a bye week in 1993.

The couple traveled extensively after his retirement from coaching, and they spent the summer months in Pebble Beach, California. He would also wrestle with his grandchildren, lose to his wife at gin, read John Grisham novels and fall asleep watching late-night TV.

Shula had also been known to go with Griese to the horse races at Gulfstream Park.

“While he started out as my coach, over time he became more than that. He became a mentor, and even better, a great friend,” Griese said. “We lost someone who cannot be replaced, who cannot be equaled, and who personified everything that is right not only about our sport, but about the way we all should conduct ourselves.”

Before Shula turned 90 in January, several of his former players threw him a surprise birthday party that was attended by about 100 people.

In his typical humor, Shula said, “Where were all of you when I turned 89?” Griese recalled in an account by the Associated Press.

Shula’s wife said at the time that he was doing well.

“He’s a little tired from all the things going on during the holidays,” she said in that AP story. “But he’s doing fantastic. It’s amazing to be 90. He’s still telling lots of jokes. He’s content, happy, fulfilled and has a beautiful life.”

SET A REMINDER: Local 10 will air a special on Don Shula Wednesday at 8:30 p.m.
SET A REMINDER: Local 10 will air a special on Don Shula Wednesday at 8:30 p.m.

Shula had mostly used a wheelchair recently, but he had been feeling better since a heart procedure in 2016.

Nat Moore, the former Dolphins receiver who is currently in the team’s front office, said he spoke with Mary Anne on Monday.

“She was devastated,” Moore said. "He’s the love of her life and they spent so much time together, and all of a sudden Don is no longer here with us.”

Before coaching, Shula played running back at John Carroll University in Cleveland and cornerback in the pros for seven seasons with Cleveland, Baltimore and Washington.

He entered coaching as an assistant at the University of Virginia in 1958 and was the Detroit Lions’ defensive coordinator before getting his first head coaching job in Baltimore.

But his presence is felt greatest in South Florida.

Hard Rock Stadium, where the Dolphins play, is located at 347 Don Shula Drive. Outside the stadium is a statue of Shula, commemorating him being carried off the field after that perfect season was clinched in Super Bowl VII.

“I don’t know where old coaches and players go when they pass away, but wherever that is, it just changed dramatically," Csonka said. “There’s a lightning bolt coming with Coach Shula’s arrival.”

Near the end of his career, Shula’s biography in the Dolphins’ media guide began with a quote from former NFL coach Bum Phillips:

“Don Shula can take his’n and beat you’n, and he could take you’n and beat his’n.”

For all his success, Shula once said he wanted to be remembered for the way his teams played.

“If I’m remembered for anything, I hope it’s for playing within the rules,” he said. “I also hope it will be said that my teams showed class and dignity in victory or defeat.”

In lieu of flowers, the Shula family requests for contributions be sent to The Don Shula Fund for Breast Cancer Research at the Moffitt Center or School Communities in Cooper City benefitting adult Special Needs.


Some of Don Shula’s most memorable quotes

Don Shula remembered: Reactions to the death of a Dolphins icon

Information from the Associated Press was used in this report. Click here to get updates sent directly to your email inbox.

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