Shula: The Coach of the NFL’s Greatest Generation (Liveright, 2019)
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Don Shula is one of the NFL’s legendary coaches, deservedly placed alongside greats like Lombardi, Landry, Walsh and Belichick. His phenomenal 33-years as head coach included five Super Bowl appearances (two wins), two NFL Championship appearances (one win), and more career wins (328) than any other head coach.
Oh, and there’s the perfect season: Shula’s 1972 Miami Dolphins won all 14 regular season games and three playoff games, culminating in the Super Bowl, to become the only team in NFL history to complete an entire season without defeat.
Mark Ribowsky, whose books are divided between pop music and sport, turns to Shula for his third football book. Shula, the son of Hungarian immigrants, grew up in a small Ohio town, destined for the priesthood until a last-minute change, and a lucky encounter at a gas station, put him on his football path. After a college career that doesn’t seem to merit much discussion in the book, Shula played for the Browns, Colts and Redskins, before retiring at age 28 and immediately moving into coaching.
He became head coach of the Colts in 1963, aged 33, where he had a difficult relationship with future Hall of Fame quarterback Johnny Unitas. In 1969, Shula was poached by the Dolphins, where he remained until 1995, amassing the aforementioned Super Bowl titles on the way.
Ribowsky covers Shula’s difficult relationships with Unitas and Colts owner Carroll Rosenbloom, as well as his sense of humiliation at losing Super Bowl III to the Jets – coached by his former head coach at the Colts, Weeb Ewbank. In his early days at the Dolphins, Ribowsky explains, Shula had a to navigate a generational clash with his young, Baby Boomer, players. Their disregard for authority, long hair and – later – taste for drugs, were a problem for Shula, who was a stereotypically taciturn member of the Silent Generation.
The book questions how much Shula knew about the cocaine problem that later developed within the Dolphins, and whether he could have done more to address racial tensions within the team. Shula wasn’t interviewed for the book so we can only guess at the answers but it feels like Ribowsky gives Shula too much leeway. As, effectively, general manager of the Dolphins and its head coach, Shula surely carries more responsibility for team culture than a typical coach.
That also applies to the team’s decline through the 1980s. Dan Marino’s arrival looked like it would keep the Dolphins among the NFL’s super powers. The team made the Super Bowl, and lost to the 49ers, in Marino’s second season. They never made it back. After that Super Bowl, Shula coached for 11 more seasons, with a playoff record of four wins and five losses. Ribowsky quotes one observer who says that Shula got carried away with excitement at having a quarterback of Dan Marino’s talent and leant on him too heavily. But, whatever the reason, Shula never capitalised on Marino’s potential.
Shula comes across as a decent, stoic man, prone to petty grudges and occasional emotional outbursts. However, he is frustratingly hard to pin down beyond that. There’s not much here about his philosophy as a coach – how he prepared for teams and developed ways to beat them. The bulk of the book is a season-by-season chronicle of Shula’s Dolphins career. It’s comprehensive and well-told but not very deep. We know what Shula did but we don’t often know why, or what he felt about it.
After the mid-1970s, and Shula’s great Dolphins teams, the book starts to drag. That’s mostly because Shula isn’t a controversial figure. He gets frustrated about how often his teams come up short, he struggles with the team’s owner and deals with contract disputes but there are no great feuds, no big emotional burdens. He mostly gets on with the job quietly, as you’d expect a member of the silent generation to do.
Ribowsky has done a solid job with the material available and this book will undoubtedly be a good read for Dolphins fans. More general readers are likely to find it unsatisfying, however. Whatever mysteries lie in Don Shula’s head and heart, however, remain there still.
Photo: Joint Staff Public Affairs