Photo courtesy of Indianapolis Colts
The football world said goodbye to a coaching legend on Monday, May 4 as Don Shula died at the age of 90.
The winningest coach in NFL history, Shula won 347 total games in 33 years with the Baltimore Colts and Miami Dolphins. Shula was a 2-time world champion and played for pro football’s ultimate prize seven times.
In a multi-part series, we’ll be looking back on his legendary career in football. The series begins with a look at the early parts of his life and career.
Born in Ohio to Hungarian immigrants, Shula was one of six children. After excelling as a standout at St. Mary’s Catholic High School in Painesville, Shula earned a one-year scholarship to nearby John Carroll.
As a running back and defensive back, Shula was a standout at John Carroll. As a senior in 1950, he was part of a team that upset Syracuse at Cleveland Stadium, 21-16.
Shula and Cleveland Stadium would soon become familiar with one another.
After an outstanding career at John Carroll, Shula was selected by the Cleveland Browns in the ninth round of the 1951 NFL Draft. Shula was taken with the 110th overall pick and would spend seven years in the league as a defensive back.
Over those seven years with the Browns, Baltimore Colts and Washington Redskins, Shula recorded 21 career interceptions. Shula spent most of his career — four seasons — in Baltimore playing for head coach Weeb Ewbank.
Up the Coaching Ranks
Following his retirement in 1957, Shula entered the coaching ranks at the age of 28. His first coaching job was over defensive backs at Virginia.
Under Dick Voris, the Cavaliers went just 1-9 in 1958. The following season, Shula was hired to coach the secondary at Kentucky.
The Wildcats went just 4-6 under Blanton Collier in 1959. Despite winning just one SEC game, Shula showed enough to earn a job in the NFL.
At the age of 30, Shula was hired by the Detroit Lions as defensive backs coach. After a 7-5 season in 1960, Shula was promoted to defensive coordinator.
In two years under Shula, the Lions ranked third and first, respectively, in total defense while compiling a 19-8-1 record over that stretch. Detroit’s stout defense earned Shula his first head coaching job. In 1963, Shula replaced a man that he spent four years playing for — Weeb Ewbank.
Fired in Baltimore, Ewbank would become the head man of the AFL’s New York Jets. With the legendary Johnny Unitas at quarterback, the Colts won back-to-back NFL titles in 1958 and 1959 under Ewbank. In the three years prior to Shula’s arrival however, Baltimore had gone just a combined 21-19.
The Baltimore Years
In seven years under Shula, Baltimore put together a winning season each year. The Colts won at least 10 games in four of those seasons.
Unfortunately for Shula, he would develop a reputation of not being able to win the big game. In his second season of 1964, Baltimore reached the NFL Championship, but was ultimately demolished by Cleveland, 27-0.
Want more Dolphins content?
Content and discussion like this takes place every day on our college football forum. The best part – it’s free! Sign up today!
As embarrassing as the shutout loss was, it paled in comparison to the end of the 1968 season. That season, the Colts finished 13-1. Baltimore beat the Minnesota Vikings in the Divisional round before blanking Cleveland in the NFL Championship, 34-0.
The 1968 Colts were stacked. Baltimore’s offense included Earl Morrall, Tom Matte, Jimmy Orr and John Mackey. Defensively, Baltimore was headlined by linebacker Mike Curtis and defensive back Bobby Boyd.
In the third year of the AFL–NFL Championship Game, Baltimore made its way to Miami to take on the AFL champion New York Jets. Standing on the opposite sideline of Shula was his predecessor and former coach, Weeb Ewbank.
The Colts were 18-point favorites for the contest. At that point, the NFL was considered a far superior league to the NFL. The NFL’s Green Bay Packers had defeated the Kansas City Chiefs and Oakland Raiders in the first two AFL-NFL Championships by a combined 68-24 margin.
During the week of what is now known as the Super Bowl, Jets’ quarterback Joe Namath guaranteed a victory. Unfortunately for Shula and the Colts, Namath would make good on that guarantee.
On Jan. 12, 1969, Baltimore would be plagued by five turnovers in a 16-7 loss. The Colts eventually replaced Morrall with Unitas, who managed to lead the lone touchdown drive late to break up the shutout. Namath passed for 206 yards and was named the game’s MVP.
The loss still serves as the biggest upset in Super Bowl history. The upset ultimately brought about the merger of the two leagues.
As losers of the famed contest in Miami, Baltimore owner Carroll Rosenbloom remained sour about the defeat. After an 8-5-1 season in 1969, Shula left Baltimore to become the head coach of the Miami Dolphins.