I can still remember the first time I heard of Don Shula. He was the coach of the Baltimore Colts – yes, Colts not Ravens – in 1968. His team had just won the National Football League’s Championship game over the Cleveland Browns 34-0 and his team was headed to the third NFL-AFL Championship Game – beginning to be known as the Super Bowl, Super Bowl III. The Colts were to take on the upstart American Football League’s New York Jets. Yes, there were two football leagues’ – the National Football League which was the older of the two and the American Football League, a much younger league.
I was a Minnesota Vikings fan back then, so it stood to reason in my young brain that I had to be a Colts fan in the upcoming Super Bowl Game. I had cheered on the Green Bay Packers to victory in the first two Super Bowls because they were, of course, the NFL representative in the game. And, Bart Starr was the quarterback of the Packers which was a plus in my book with him being from the University of Alabama.
I guess I should have been a fan of the New York Jets because of their quarterback – Joe Namath was another former University of Alabama quarterback, But, I was not at the time. The Colts had a legend at quarterback – Johnny Unitas – and all the kids wanted to be either Bart Starr or Johnny Unitas when we played football in the Epworth Methodist Church’s yard in Asbury Park. In our way of thinking, there were no other great quarterbacks. Unfortunately, Johnny Unitas did not play for the majority of the season because he had hurt his throwing arm in the preseason. Earl Morrall guided the Colts to a 13-1 record, a 10-game winning streak and the NFL Championship. Coach Shula decided to stay with Morrill because he was winning when Unitas healed. New York entered the game at 11-3 and had defeated the Oakland Raiders 27-24 in the AFL Championship Game.
Anyway, I cheered for the Colts and they lost 16-7 to the Jets. It was considered the biggest upset in professional football at the time. The Colts were an 18-point favorite going into the game. Just blame Joe Namath for the Colts’ loss. He guaranteed the Jets would win and he kept his promise.
In addition to that being the biggest upset in professional football history, it pretty much forced the NFL to merge with the AFL to create what we have today. We have the NFL with two conferences – NFC and AFC. The winners of the conference titles battle for the Super Bowl title each year. Last year’s winner – the Kansas City Chiefs – were a part of the old AFL and lost to Green Bay in Super Bowl I. Just an aside here – the video used for the original Super Bowl broadcasts were reused or lost. The first Super Bowl was broadcast by two different networks and the crowd did not fill the stadium. That has not happened since.
The next time I cheered for Don Shula as a coach was during his time with the 1972 Miami Dolphins. He guided the Dolphins to the only undefeated and untied team through the regular and post seasons in the Super Bowl Era. Shula’s Dolphins went 17-0, 14-0 in the regular season and 3-0 in the postseason. The 2007 New England Patriots went 18-0 before losing in the Super Bowl to the New York Giants and finished 18-1. The 18-0 was the most wins in a season by a professional football team. The Dolphins won the first game of the next season to go 18-0 before losing. The only other team to put together undefeated seasons in the regular season was the Chicago Bears in 1934 and 1942. Neither of those teams won the NFL Championship Game.
The Dolphins defeated the Cleveland Browns 20-14 in the division playoffs, the Pittsburgh Steelers 21-17 in the conference championship and then the Washington Redskins 14-7 in Super Bowl VII.
To really appreciate the 17-0 1972 Dolphins, you have to go back to the previous Super Bowl – VI – in which the Dolphins lost to the Dallas Cowboys 24-3. After that game, Shula vowed that his team would not only return to the Super Bowl in 1972, but that they would win the game. I guess he took a page out of Joe Namath’s playbook with the prediction. He kept his promise as the Dolphins returned to the big game and won 14-7. And, he had the same problem he had when he was with the Baltimore Colts. The starting quarterback for the Dolphins – Bob Griese – broke his ankle and Earl Morrall was his replacement. However, this time, Shula returned Griese to the starting slot when his injury healed. See, you cannot fool an old dog twice.
Just another aside – were you aware that Shula played seven seasons in the NFL as a defensive back before entering the coaching ranks and earned a place in the NFL Hall of Fame? He played in 73 games and intercepted 21 passes over the course of his playing days for three NFL teams – Cleveland, Baltimore and Washington.
Shula died this week at age 90. I am certain his family and the game of football will miss him as will us – the fans. He retired in 1995 and was elected to the NFL Hall of Fame in 1997. He is the all-time winningest coach with 347 victories in 526 games in 33 seasons.
When inducted into the NFL Hall of Fame, Shula made the following comment, “You know it’s only 50 miles from Grand River to Canton, but it took me 67 years to travel that distance.” Coach, it did not take that long for you to provide the game of football with a lot of special moments . . . and we will never forget that.
Mark Clark is a local sports writer for The Citizen of East Alabama.