The greatest coach the Miami Dolphins have ever known -- and one of the greatest coaches of all time -- reached yet another milestone Monday, as legendary Coach Don Shula turned 80.
Hard to believe, but it's been 15 years since Shula stepped down as coach of the Dolphins, and really, the franchise still hasn't recovered.
Shula won 274 of his record 347 victories on the Dolphins sideline, and he guided the team to 14 AFC East titles, 16 playoff appearances, 17 postseason wins and two Super Bowl championships -- including the undefeated season in 1972.
But, what Shula is remembered for just as much as his winning past is his decency and honesty, two traits that few coaches seem to possess much of anymore.
Shula coached three Hall-of-Fame quarterbacks during his tenure, starting with Johnny Unitas in Baltimore, and Bob Griese and Dan Marino in Miami.
Perhaps former Houston Oilers coach Bum Phillips said it best when he was asked why Shula was at the top of his profession during the 1970s: "He'll take his'n and beat your'n, and take your'n and beat his'n."
Shula is an icon in South Florida, as big as any of his players. An expressway is named after him, as well as a chain of steak houses.
The Shula of today is a kind, reportedly much mellower person than the man who took over the losing Dolphins in 1970 and announced of his methods, "I'm about as subtle as a punch in the jaw."
He was, as Unitas disainfully put it, a "hollerer," and many a Dolphin experienced Shula's wrath and icy glare when performance did not meet his high expectations on the football field.
During the '72 season, he rode the Dolphins hard, determined to win a Super Bowl after coming up short his two previous trips.
As the season progressed and the wins piled up, players like Larry Csonka would reflect on how critical Shula was in the film room, and that was on the heels of a dominating victory.
"Didn't we just win this game?" Csonka remembers asking a teammate.
Shula was fiercely competitive, and here are some of my favorite anecdotes I've picked up or heard over the years about Coach:
- After Jets linebacker Marty Lyons clipped future Dolphins Hall-of-Fame center Dwight Stephenson during an interception return in 1987, effectively ending Stephenson's career, Lyons entered the locker room post-game to check on his former college teammate and apologize. I'ts rumored that Shula chased him out of the locker room with a string of profanities.
- Former receiver Duriel Harris reportedly had a chair in Shula's office named after him because he was there so frequently
- A young Shula screaming at an official, "You're ruining my life! You're ruining my life!" -- in an exhibition game
- When the Dolphins drafted Marino in 1983, Sports Illustrated's Paul Zimmerman, or Dr. Z, was covering it on TV, and relayed a scout's belief that Marino "pushed" the ball when he threw it. The next time Dr. Z and Shula crossed paths, Shula jabbed a finger in Dr. Z's chest and said, "Pusher, huh? Pusher? What do you think of my pusher now?"
- During Super Bowl week in the Perfect Season, Csonka and defensive tackle Manny Fernandez decided to play a prank on Shula, so they brought in a live alligator, taped its mouth shut, and put it in Shula's bathtub. Upon seeing it, Shula ran out of the bathroom, yelling and screaming. The next day in the film room, Csonka admitted he had done it, and he said, "You won by one vote." Shula answered, "Vote for what?" "To tape the alligator's mouth shut."
Like any coach in a competitive, high-pressure environment, Shula was tightly wound. But he was never dishonest or belittling, and reporters respected that.
I had the privliege of meeting Shula once, during the Shula Bowl, the annual game between Florida Atlantic and Florida International. A group of reporters were herded into a lounge where Shula was sitting in a chair, ready to hold court. This was during the Patriots' run to 16-0 in 2007, so naturally, that was the hot topic.
I rememeber Shula smiling quite a bit and being good-natured and warm with reporters, probably nothing like he was like when he was coaching.
But, it was a chance to see a legend up close, and Shula didn't disappoint.
He's the coaching gold standard, and on my Mount Rushmore of the greatest NFL coaches of all time, along with "Papa Bear" George Halas, Paul Brown and Vince Lombardi.
So, Coach, here's to you on your 80th. The Colts and Saints have already given you the best birthday present you could ask for, and your presence on the sideline will never be forgotten by Dolphins fans.