Remembering Don Shula

Historic NFL coach Don Shula passed away Monday, May 4th in Indian Creek, Florida at the age of 90. Shula won more games than any coach in NFL history, leading the Miami Dolphins to the league’s only perfect season and two Super Bowl wins. Known for his “fearsome defenses and explosive offenses,” Shula was a key figure in leading pro football into its modern era. He is one of the subjects of Jack Gilden’s Collision of Wills: Johnny Unitas, Don Shula, and the Rise of the Modern NFL (Nebraska, 2018).

Collision of Wills examines the complicated relationship between Don Shula and his star player, quarterback Johnny Unitas. In their seven years together, these two kings of the fabled Baltimore Colt’s 1960’s team, created one of the most successful franchises in sports. Though put together, Shula and Unitas had a higher winning percentage than many of the NFL’s greatest teams, they never won a championship together, instead encountering stunning upsets at the league’s greatest stages. Gilden’s book examines how a secret animosity between Shula and Unitas fueled an explosive era for the Colts, when their losses were just as memorable as their victories.

The following is an excerpt from Collision of Wills—the paperback edition will be available this September.

Prologue:

Entombed within a sprawling South Florida manse with a sweep of shimmering turquoise water behind him, and a lavish, manicured lawn and golf course in front, sits Don Shula, the most frequent winner in the history of professional football.

The trappings of his unprecedented success surround him: elegant furniture, magnificent statues, and original masterworks of the canvas. He is in a room deep within his huge home, and his home is deep within the heart of the community where he elevated football to higher levels than anyone else knew existed. But on this day he is no longer a choreographer of wild men; he’s white haired and enfeebled. Wherever he sits, his walker sits beside him. Despite his infirmities he is kind and friendly; he offers cold drinks and polite conversation. He is a comfortable and satisfied man.

And, perhaps, he also holds the answer to one of the few mysteries still extant in the overcovered, overanalyzed National Football League (NFL).

Today, mighty networks and their online affiliates follow the league around the clock, bringing more probing investigation to a felonious running back than any enterprising journalist in the world applies to Iran’s nuclear weapons program. There’s not much that happens in the league, has ever happened in the league, that the public doesn’t know.

But Shula’s secret is buried deep, and it comes from a city that’s so distant, it’s half a century away. Back then the coach wasn’t decrepit; he was ferocious, a young man with ambitions that were as red-hot as his volcanic temper. Because of his later success with the Miami Dolphins, where he lasted almost thirty years, coached two Hall of Fame quarterbacks, went to five Super Bowls, and led his team to football’s only undefeated season, few remember his first job. They don’t recall that Don Shula was once the brilliant young head coach of the mythic Baltimore Colts.

Some of the details are fuzzy even to him.

I asked him: “Who had a higher winning percentage? ThePackers under Vince Lombardi or the Baltimore Colts under Don Shula?”

“I don’t know,” he said, smiling, the old competitive fires glinting behind his tired eyes. “Who?”

The answer is Shula’s Colts, by a single percentage point. From 1963 to 1969 they won more than 75 percent of their games against the likes of Halas and Butkus and Sayers, Jim Brown and Paul Warfield, the Fearsome Foursome, and, of course, Lombardi’s Packers, with whom the Colts shared a rivalry of unmatched intensity.

Yet the Packers won five championships in that tumultuous decade; Shula and the Colts, for all their success, didn’t win a single one. Twice they qualified for the big game. Both times they lost in spectacular upsets. The mystery of this success-failure dynamic only deepens if you know that Shula’s business partner in these pursuits was Johnny Unitas.

Since George Halas drafted Sid Luckman and aimed the quarterback’s Semitic right arm at the rest of the league, the coach-and-quarterback combination has been the most consistent indicator of success in football. That’s roughly been true from World War II to Brady and Belichick.

Unitas and Shula should’ve been the greatest of these duos. Shula’s coaching career would last more than thirty years, fueled by his unmatched success. Unitas would one day be eulogized on the cover of Sports Illustrated as “The Greatest There Ever Was.” Separately, they achieved as much as Lombardi and Starr, winning five world championships. Unitas won two, under Weeb Ewbank, before Shula arrived on the scene and one under Don McCafferty, the first season after Shula departed. As the Don of the Dolphins, Shula quickly went to three straight Super Bowls and won two of them.

They appeared, to the public, to be in perfect sync—two young and intelligent men, deeply competitive, and extraordinarily driven. But that was merely a facade. Behind the scenes there were tensions between them that few others knew or understood.

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