SHULA, DONALD FRANCIS “DON” (4 January 1930-4 May 2020) was a Cleveland area native who played football for seven years in the NFL before going on to become the most successful coach in pro football.

Shula was the fourth of seven children born to Dan and Mary Shula. Dan Shula, who had anglicized his name from Sule, emigrated from Hungary at the age of 6 and worked as a fisherman on Lake Erie.

Don Shula grew up in Grand River before attending PainesvilleHarveyHigh School, where he played football. He worked at a local gas station before a chance encounter with a football coach at JOHN CARROLL UNIVERSITY led him there, where he played halfback and defensive back. The stadium at John Carroll is now named for him, and the Shula family endowed a chair in philosophy.

Shula was drafted by the CLEVELAND BROWNS with the final pick of the ninth round of the 1951 NFL Draft, 110th overall. He had 21 interceptions and four fumble recoveries playing in 73 games in a seven-year career as a defensive back with the Browns, Baltimore Colts and Washington Redskins. While with the Browns, he served in the National Guard and completed a master’s degree in physical education at WESTERN RESERVE UNIVERSITY.

After his playing career ended, he started coaching at the collegiate level, with stops at Virginia, Iowa and Kentucky – where he was an assistant to future Browns coach Blanton Collier – before taking his first NFL job as a defensive backfield coach for the Detroit Lions in two years.

In 1963, Shula became the youngest head coach in NFL history when he was hired by the Colts. In his second year as coach, the Colts went 12-2 and advanced to the NFL Championship Game, where they were blanked by the Browns, 27-0, in their last championship to date. Despite that, Shula was named NFL Coach of the Year, the first of a record four times he’d receive the honor. The Colts went 13-1 in 1968, steamrolling the Browns 34-0 in the NFL Championship Game and advancing to Super Bowl III, where they famously lost to the Jets of the AFL in a win guaranteed by Joe Namath.

Shula’s relationship with owner Carroll Rosenbloom soured, as he appeared to be unable to win the big one, and after the 1969 season, he became the coach of the Miami Dolphins, a team that had started four years earlier in the AFL. The NFL ruled his signing amounted to tampering, and the Colts were given the Dolphins’ first-round draft pick in 1971 as compensation.

In Shula’s first year as coach, the Dolphins had a seven-game turnaround, making the playoffs. The following year, the Dolphins advanced to the Super Bowl, losing to the Cowboys. In 1972, they put it all together, going 14-0 and beating the Browns and Steelers in the AFC playoffs before playing Washington in the Super Bowl. Miami beat the Redskins to cap off what remains the only undefeated season in modern NFL history. The Dolphins repeated as champions the following year, beating the Vikings in the Super Bowl, but lost to the Raiders in 1974 in the famous “Sea of Hands” playoff game, depriving them the opportunity of four straight Super Bowl appearances.

That team was effectively dismantled when several players jumped ship to the ill-fated World Football League, but Shula and the Dolphins appeared in Super Bowl XVII in 1983, losing to the Redskins, and Super Bowl XIX in 1985, losing to the 49ers in what turned out to be quarterback Dan Marino’s only Super Bowl appearance.

Shula almost left the NFL in the 1980s, negotiating with Donald Trump, who at the time owned the New Jersey Generals of the USFL. Trump offered Shula an unprecedented $5 million contract, but negotiations broke down when Trump went public with them.

Shula retired following the 1995 season with a winning percentage of .666 and a lifetime record of 347-173-6, having surpassed previous leader George Halas by 23 wins. In his 33 years as an NFL head coach, he had just two losing seasons, and his 26 years as head coach with one team, the Dolphins, remains an NFL record, as do his 526 games coached in the NFL.

The most lasting tribute to Shula came from Bum Phillips, who coached the Oilers and Saints, in a quote that appeared in Dolphins media guides for years: “Don Shula can take his’n and beat you’n, and he could take you’n and beat his’n.” Shula was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1997.

When the NFL took bids for ownership for the expansion Browns, Don Shula was part of the group headed by Charles and Larry Dolan. He would have owned five percent of the team and served as executive vice president, but the franchise was not awarded to the Dolans, going instead to AL LERNER.

Shula was also the namesake of a restaurant group that includes Shula’s Steakhouse and Shula Burger chains, with a total of 21 restaurants in six states, including Shula’s 2 in Independence. He also appeared in advertisements for NutriSystem and for various South Florida auto dealerships.

He married the former Dorothy Bartish of Painesville on 19 July 1958. They had two sons, Dave and Mike, and three daughters, Donna, Sharon and Annie. Shula’s sons followed him into the coaching ranks. Mike coached Alabama and is now an NFL assistant. Dave was at one point the head coach of the Bengals. On 2 October 1994, the Bengals played the Dolphins, marking the first time a father and son were on opposing sidelines as head coaches in the NFL. Dave’s son Chris coached for John Carroll and is now an NFL assistant.

Dorothy Shula died 25 February 1991 of breast cancer, and Shula’s eponymous foundation has raised money for breast cancer research since. Shula married the former Mary Anne Stephens on 15 October 1993.

Vincent Guerrieri

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