Shula’s legacy was stronger than his jaw

by Gary Shelton on May 5, 2020

in general

Shula's carer can't be measured in Super Bowls.

Tuesday, 4 a.m.

A mountain died Tuesday.

A tidal wave washed away.

Don Shula, a force of nature, died. Against all odds, Shula died at the age of 90. And all of us who have withstood his icy stare, who have wilted as he roared "weren't you just here," when he didn't want to expand upon one of his answers, are ripped apart by his leaving.

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Shula was the alpha-est of any man I have ever met. He was sheer force, a stubborn unveiling man who willed the Miami Dolphins -- and before that, the Baltimore Colts -- into a team that mattered in the NFL.

He did not believe that mistakes were too small to accept. He took a Miami franchise that was short on money, short on facilities and short on draft acumen (yes, that was his fault, too) and forged them into a memorable team. By himself, he kept the Dolphins from being the Cleveland Browns.

And now, he is gone.

This devastates me. Shula was the most complicated man I've ever covered, a man capable of compassion and humor and kindness, and a man who could be a bully, stubborn and proud. I was the beat writer for the Dolphins from 1985-1990 for the Miami Herald -- the hardest job I ever had -- and as a columnist afterward. I liked him, mostly. I was intimidated by him, occasionally. I was fascinated by him, always.

There was a black chair in his office. The Duriel Chair, it was called, after Duriel Harris, the old receiver who he would bring in the rage at from time to time. I've sat in that chair, too.

One day, when Shula was in the last year of a contract, owner Joe Robbie came to visit camp. The team wasn't having a good season by Shula's standards, and at one point in his press gathering, Robbie blustered (he was good at bluster) that at the end of the season, Shula would see to the players and he (Robbie) would see to Shula."

Huh? Was he going to bench him? Make him run extra gassers.

So I asked this: "Are. you thinking about not bringing Shula back."

Robbie quickly retreated, saying that wasn't what he had meant. And the story died. I didn't even mention it the next day. But that night, I had to call Shula (he never changed his phone number) about another subject. "What's this I hear about you and Robbie?" he asked. I told him the story.

The next day, he called me into his office and asked again. I told him again. He said that another reporter said I baited Robbie into his statement.

Baited? I asked a question. If I had an angle, I certainly would have printed it. (These days, it would be all over the internet).

Shula looked at me and said "I would think I'd be above that kind of question."

And I said "Maybe you should be. But Robbie isn't."

And Shula blew up. The mere mention that something might happen that wasn't in his control left him in a rage. He threw me out of his office and was angry for days.

That was one of the cool things about Shoes, though. He never held a grudge. Usually, you were forgiven by the next news cycle.

We used to laugh a lot about Shula's submersion into his job. Once, he was introduced the writer James Michener. "Oh, what paper?" Shula said.

The equipment manager for the Dolphins in those days was Bobby Monica, a wheeler-dealer. He wrangled himself onto the "Miami Vice" TV show. In exchange, he got actor Don Johnson sideline passes.

After the game that Sunday, Johnson showed up for a handshake. "Hey, coach, I'm Don Johnson of Miami Vice."


"Coach, I just wanted to say that you do a great job."

"Uh, thanks. You guys do a great job, too."

"Thanks, coach. You'll have to come and watch us shoot sometimes."

Johnson left, and Shula turned to a confidante. "Who are they going to shoot? A bunch of crooks?"

It was a different time in the NFL during most of Shula's career. You couldn't chase a quick fix with free agency. If you made a mistake in drafting a player (Eric Kumerow, Sammie Smith), you couldn't fix it the next off-season.

What you could do was coach. And Shula could do that. He took pretty good teams and make them very good, and when he had a very good team, he could make it great. I've covered some great coaches on a regular basis -- Bear Bryant, Bobby Bowden, Steve Spurrier, Tony Dungy, Jon Gruden -- but there was only one Shula, the man with the granite jaw and the iron will.

Through the years, there have been a lot of bad-ass coaches who tried to prove how tough they were. They looked like kids walking in daddy's shoes.

Goodnight, Don.

You were, and are, a legend.

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