Rest in peace, Mr. Shula

Don Shula was 33 years old when in 1963 the Baltimore Colts made him its head coach, succeeding Weeb Ewbank. By Shula’s second season, the Colts, led by quarterback John Unitas, had become champions of the National Football League’s Western Conference. Four years later in 1968, they won the league championship. As a native Baltimorean, I adored the Colts, and my fan’s affection was still strong when in 1967 I went to work as a reporter on The Miami Herald.

In Miami a new football team called the Dolphins struggled under George Wilson, a coach with a winning record in Detroit, then as an assistant with the Washington Redskins. By 1969, the team’s third year, Wilson’s Dolphins had compiled a woeful won-lost record of 15-39. Dolphins owner Joe Robbie was restless. He wanted a winning team.

The Colts arrived in Miami in January 1969 as heavy favorites to win Super Bowl III against the American Football League’s New York Jets, whose brash quarterback Joe Namath predicted a Jets victory. Joe was right. The Jets defeated the Colts 16-7. I watched that game from my seat in the second row of the Orange Bowl’s upper deck.

That loss placed a burr under the saddle of Colts owner Carroll Rosenbloom and soured his relationship with Shula.

In his college years, Shula attended John Carroll University, a 3,000-student Jesuit school near Cleveland, Ohio. So, it happens, did Bill Braucher, a Miami Herald sports writer, who in 1969 picked up his phone to call Dolphins owner Robbie to make a suggestion.

Shula’s arrival as the new coach transformed the Dolphins into winners immediately and ignited South Florida’s huge potential fan base. The Miami News’ Don Wright drew my favorite editorial page cartoon of all time. It pictured two Biscayne Bay fishermen in a rowboat, their lines in the water, doffing their floppy hats to greet granite-jawed Shula, carrying a clipboard, striding across the bay, atop the water. “Good morning, Mr. Shula!” the caption read.

So it was that Don Shula became the Dolphins’ coach for the next 25 years, compiling a won-lost record of 257 to 133, winning two Super Bowls and leading the team in 1972 to a perfect unbeaten season of 17-0, an accomplishment that no other team has yet been able to match.

Don Shula died yesterday at the age of 90. His life, though dominated by football, also placed a high priority on his family and his faith. A devoted husband, father and grandfather, a devout Catholic, a sportsman who never cheated, a worthy model for all of us.

Rest in peace, Mr. Shula.

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