The above statement won’t get me preferred seating at Shula’s Steak House restaurants in Miami Beach, Hialeah, Miami Lakes or Fort Lauderdale. Nor will it endear me at Shula’s On the Beach, Fort Lauderdale, Shula Burgers, Pinecrest, or Shula’s Glass and Vine, Coconut Grove. And, it won’t get me any special treatment at Shula’s 347 Grill in Coral Gables, where manager Patricia Bressler and her executive chef husband Bret have always taken good care of me and my friends.
The revered coach Don Shula’s very successful 45-year career in professional football continued with success in the business world where the Shula brand operates 26 restaurants in 12 states. He is the winningest coach of all time in pro football (347 is the number of wins his teams achieved); his teams won two Super Bowl championships; and Shula’s 1972 Miami Dolphins squad is the only unbeaten team in the history of the sport. Don Shula was also widely known for his integrity as a coach and his philanthropy in the South Florida community.
But “Shoes,” as Shula is sometimes referred to by friends, would not like my subjective take on his place in football history. If he knew I placed him below some of the other giants of coaching, he might confront me with an infamous Shula stare and thrust that famous Shula jaw in my face. And, who knows what would become of my future food orders at Shula’s 347. I’m counting the coach’s reputation for enjoying gallows humor to help me out here.
Before football and Don Shula met, he was a good student at Painesville High School in Northeast Ohio and considered becoming a Catholic priest. A gym teacher at the school then entered the picture and convinced him to try out for the team. The enterprising young Shula forged his parents’ signatures and signed up. The rest, as they say, is history.
Don Shula is 88 now. He doesn’t need someone taking shots at his wonderful record. But facts are facts. As a matter of “fact,” I went online to oldhardfootballfacts.com to get my facts straight. And, I think you should know my nickname in college was “Facts.”
Shula’s two consecutive NFL Super Bowl titles in the 70’s are, of course, formidable achievements, but nine other coaches have won more titles in pro football: Paul Brown (7-Cleveland Browns); George Halas and Curly Lambeau (6-Chicago Bears, Green Bay Packers); Bill Belechick and Vince Lombardi (5-New England Patriots, Green Bay Packers); Chuck Noll, a former Shula assistant coach, ( 4-Pittsburgh Steelers); and Bill Walsh (San Francisco 49’ers); Joe Gibbs (Washington Redskins) and Weeb Ewbank (Baltimore Colts, New York Jets) have won 3 each.
Though those other coaches topped Shula’s record for championships, only one (Halas) came close to his victory total of 347. Don Shula was a head coach for 33 years in the National Football League, achieving notable success with the Baltimore Colts before becoming the Dolphins coach in 1970. But there are contemporaries of Shula whose teams also won 2 Super Bowl championships, including Tom Landry and Jimmy Johnson (Dallas Cowboys), Tom Coughlin (New York Giants), George Siefert (49’ers), Bill Parcell (Giants), Mike Shanahan (Denver Broncos), and Tom Flores (Oakland Raiders). And there were a number of other coaches who won 2 league titles in the NFL or the American Football League before the Super Bowl was established in 1967. That doesn’t make them better coaches, does it?
We’re in a subjective area here. Do total wins trump championships? Do championship trophies count more than a career record? One thing: I do enjoy the food and service at Shula’s 347 and want to continue enjoying it. But, in all honesty, I can’t place Don Shula above men like Belechick, Halas, Lombardi, Lambeau, Walsh, Noll, Gibbs and Ewbank, who have all won more titles than Shula.
Is there a number one coach in professional football out of all those legends of the game? Someone who won the most championship and amassed the best record? I have my own choice, and coincidentally, it has a strong connection with Don Shula.
When Shula broke into pro football, he was not a prominent player from a major college. But the team he started his career with was famous for their advanced scouting methods. Don Shula’s first team had an acclaimed coach—a man who was a true innovator and brought professional football into the classroom. He saw great potential in a small college player like Shula and drafted him for his championship team in 1951 – the Cleveland Browns. Shula couldn’t have picked a better role model for a coach than the man I submit as the greatest coach the professional game has ever seen.
Paul Brown is the coach I would put above them all. Before Brown advanced to the NFL, he was a spectacularly successful high school coach in Massillon, Ohio and at 32 the head coach at Ohio State University, where he brought them their first national championship. After naval service in World War II, Brown started his own professional team in Cleveland as part of the new All American Football Conference and won the league title every year from 1946-1949.
The following year, the NFL, with but nine member cities across the country, brought Cleveland into the league along with teams in San Francisco and Baltimore. Derided as an untested team from an inferior league, the Browns were promptly matched with the defending champion Philadelphia Eagles to begin the 1950 season. Cleveland clobbered the defending champion Eagles 35-10 and swept to the championship in their inaugural year. Paul Brown’s teams won two additional titles over the next five years and made it to the championship game every year. When Brown’s run at Cleveland ended after the 1962 season, he established a new pro football franchise in Cincinnati as coach and part owner.
Did you happen to notice a certain similarity between the coach’s name and the nickname of the team in Cleveland? That’s right; the team is named after the coach.
As for our own coach Don Shula, I believe he would be satisfied with the wise observation of one of his coaching rivals, Bum Phillips of the then Houston Oilers: “Don Shula can take his’n and beat your’n, or he can take your’n and beat his’n.”
About the Author
Bob Goldstein is a retired broadcaster and advertising executive who has lived in South Florida for more than forty years. He is a veteran political activist (dsdcfl.org) and a member of the South Florida Writers Association. If you would like to comment on Bob’s columns, send your response by email to email@example.com.