MIAMI GARDENS, Florida — NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell stood on a stage and spent a few minutes running down a partial list of Don Shula’s accomplishments: Two Super Bowl wins, more wins than any coach in NFL history and the only perfect season the league has ever seen.
And then Goodell, in one sentence, summed up Shula’s football life.
“He changed the game, and made it better in every way,” Goodell said.
Almost a year and a half after Shula died, the Dolphins finally held a public celebration of his life on Saturday, an event that couldn’t be held last year because of the pandemic. It was fitting that Miami chose this weekend for its Shula celebration and alumni reunion: The Dolphins on Sunday play host to the Indianapolis Colts, the other NFL team that Shula coached in his Hall of Fame career.
His 347 wins, including playoffs, is still unmatched for any coach in the league’s history; George Halas had 324 and New England coach Bill Belichick enters this weekend with 312.
“The league really didn’t find success until the mid-’60s, around the time that Don Shula — just a few years after being named the youngest head coach in NFL history — started his streak of seven straight winning seasons with the Baltimore Colts,” Goodell said. “During his 26 years here in Miami, he put Miami and in large part the NFL on the sports map by establishing one of the great franchises.”
And to think much of Shula’s run with Miami almost never happened.
Archbishop Thomas Wenski, the Archbishop of Miami and close friend of Shula, told a story about how the coach once had a falling out with then-Dolphins owner Joe Robbie early in his Miami tenure and was preparing to leave.
“It happened sometime before the perfect season,” Wenski said. “He and Joe Robbie had a fight. Now, they were both headstrong and they were so mad at each other they stopped speaking to each other, and that’s why the rumors were flying that Shula was going to pack up and leave Miami.”
Shula, a devout Catholic, went to daily Mass, Wenski said. Robbie also was a practicing Catholic, and the Archbishop of Miami at the time — Archbishop Coleman Carroll — called each of them individually and asked for a meeting. Shula arrived, Robbie arrived, both were brought to separate rooms and neither knew that Carroll had arranged for a news conference.
Carroll ordered them to shake hands. They did. The fight ended.
“And eventually, Miami went on to the perfect season,” Wenski said.
Shula coached the Dolphins until 1995, though remained a larger-than-life figure around the franchise until his passing. His statue at the stadium is a weekly gathering place for Dolphins fans to pay tribute, his name adorns the award the NFL gives out annually to the national high school coach of the year, and the Shula brand adorns a restaurant and a golf course in Miami Lakes, Florida — the town where he once lived.
“He’s a great coach,” Dolphins coach Brian Flores said. “It was an honor and privilege for me to get to speak to him and get some insight from him about coaching and about helping guys become the best version of themselves from a preparation standpoint, and then take the things that they learned from football on the field and use it outside of football when they’re done to help them attain success in other areas.”
But it was the on-field success — and that 17-0 season in 1972 — that still sets Shula apart from all others.
“When he came to us, we were the bottom of the league,” Dolphins legend Larry Csonka said. “He came into the meeting room and started talking in a language we barely could understand. We were the worst team in the league. Four years later, we were the best team in history.”