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. In the next part, we look at the early parts of Shula’s tenure in Miami:
A New Challenge
As was the case when he replaced Weeb Ewbank in Baltimore, Shula was tasked with succeeding another one of his former bosses in Miami. Shula worked under George Wilson for three years in Detroit from 1960 to 1962.
Over that stretch, the Lions had a winning season every year. In Shula’s two seasons as defensive coordinator, Detroit ranked in the top three in total defense each year.
Wilson was chosen as the first head coach of the AFL expansion franchise named the Miami Dolphins in 1966. In four seasons under Wilson, the Dolphins combined to go just 15-39-2. The best season was a 5-8-1 campaign in 1968.
The Dolphins were coming off a 3-10-1 season in 1969. The good news for Shula was that the cupboard was not bare.
During the 1969 season, Miami suffered five losses by a touchdown or less. Among those inherited by Shula on offense was quarterback Bob Griese, a former top-5 pick who had led Purdue to the Rose Bowl in college. The backfield included Pro Bowler Jim Kiick as well as speedster Mercury Morris and the bruising Larry Csonka.
On the defensive side of the ball, end Bill Stanfill and tackle Manny Fernandez headlined the front four. Nick Buoniconti was a 6-time Pro Bowl linebacker. Dick Anderson was a promising young safety who led the AFL in interception return yards and ranked second in picks as a rookie in 1968.
In 1970, the Dolphins drafted tight end Jim Mandich and safety Jake Scott. The big offseason acquisition was at wide receiver as Paul Warfield came over from the Cleveland Browns in a trade.
A Strong Finish Caps a Strong Beginning
There was no doubt that things were improving in Miami. After a season-opening loss to the Boston Patriots, the Dolphins rattled off four straight wins. Unfortunately, that was followed by three straight losses.
At 4-4, the Dolphins appeared to be on a downward spiral as mid-November arrived. Miami rallied to close the season with six straight victories.
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Among the most notable was a 34-17 victory over Shula’s former team, the Baltimore Colts. The Colts had shut out Miami, 35-0, earlier in the year, but it was clear that the times were changing.
The Colts would win the division, but on Dec. 13, Miami defeated the New York Jets 16-10 to clinch the AFL Wild Card. The Dolphins finished the season 10-4 before falling to the Oakland Raiders in the first playoff game in franchise history, 21-14.
Following the first winning season and playoff appearance in league history in 1970, 1971 would be another year of firsts for the Dolphins. Miami would win its first division title and first conference title.
Entering the final week of the season, the Dolphins trailed the Baltimore Colts by a half-game. The teams had split the regular season meetings with each winning at home. On the final Sunday of the regular season, Miami blasted the Green Bay Packers, 27-6. Shortly after, it learned that the Boston Patriots had held off the Colts, 21-17.
For the first time in franchise history, the Dolphins were AFC East champions. As reward, the 10-3-1 Dolphins headed to muddy Kansas City for a Christmas Day showdown with the Kansas City Chiefs.
The Longest Game in NFL History
In what would be the first home playoff game in Chiefs’ history, Miami and Kansas City played nearly 83 minutes of football before the Dolphins somehow prevailed in double-overtime, 27-24.
Prior to Garo Yepremian’s game-winning 37-yard field goal, Miami never led. The Dolphins trailed 10-0 early before drawing even on three separate occasions. Down 24-17, Miami tied the game on a 5-yard touchdown pass from Griese to Marv Fleming with 1:25 to go in regulation.
Ed Podolak accounted for 195 yards of offense and two touchdowns for the Chiefs. Following the tying touchdown, it looked as though he would be the hero for his efforts on special teams. With the contest knotted at 24, Podolak returned the ensuing kickoff inside the Miami 25-yard-line.
With seconds to play, future Hall of Fame kicker Jan Stenerud came onto the field to try a 31-yard field goal. After missing earlier in the game, Stenerud pushed the potential game-winner to the right and the contest went into overtime.
Stenerud would get another opportunity to win the game for the Chiefs, but Buoniconti blocked the kick. Yepremian missed a long field goal that would have won the game for Miami and the contest went into a second overtime.
Griese passed for 263 yards for the Dolphins, but it was Csonka who put Miami in position to win the game. On a sloppy field, Csonka gained 29 yards on a trap play across a mud-slopped field. It was the longest run of the day for the Dolphins and put Yepremian in position to ultimately end the longest game in NFL history.
Super Bowl, Here We Come
After winning the last football game at Kansas City Municipal Stadium, Shula and Miami returned home to face a familiar foe — the Baltimore Colts. Shula had coached Baltimore for seven years before coming to Miami. Twice, Shula took the Colts to within a win of football’s ultimate prize.
To give the Dolphins a chance to play for it, his former team was all that stood in Shula’s way. The Colts had played in the Super Bowl in two of the previous three years and were reigning world champions. Miami would see to it that the run would come to an end.
Griese would complete just four passes for Miami, but a 75-yard touchdown strike to Paul Warfield in the first quarter would be all the Dolphins needed. The Dolphins would catch nearly as many passes from Baltimore’s Johnny Unitas as they did their own quarterback.
Anderson returned his interception of Unitas 62 yards for a touchdown in the third quarter. Csonka put the exclamation point on the 21-0 win with a 5-yard touchdown run in the final period.
Two weeks later, the Dolphins found themselves in New Orleans to take on the Dallas Cowboys in Super Bowl VI. To that point, Shula had a reputation for not being able to win the big game. Unfortunately, that stigma would stick.
Dallas forced three turnovers and held the Dolphins to just 185 yards of offense at Tulane Stadium. The Dolphins became the first team in Super Bowl history to go without a touchdown in a 24-3 loss.
Following the contest, Shula gave an impassioned speech about winning every game the following season.