The great Don Shula was a football genius, the winningest coach in NFL history whose 1972 Miami Dolphins remain the league's only perfect team. Shula, who died Monday morning at 90, was a Hall of Famer in every way, a cornerstone of the game as it became America’s pastime.
I knew him as all that, and more.
It was the summer of 1980, and as a college intern at the Miami Herald, I was dispatched to Dolphins' training camp with a specific assignment: to ask about problems with Miami’s running game.
Legendary Miami Dolphins head coach Don Shula dies at 90
MIAMI - Don Shula, the steel-jawed son of Hungarian immigrants who rose from tiny Painesville, Ohio, to carve his name in professional football's record books and become both a national figure and a South Florida icon, passed away Monday morning. The cause of death was not immediately known, but a source has confirmed it is not related to the coronavirus pandemic. Shula, an NFL head coach for MIAMI — Don Shula, the steel-jawed son of Hungarian immigrants who rose from tiny Painesville, Ohio, to carve his name in professional football’s record books and become both a national figure and a South Florida icon, passed away Monday morning.
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Eight years earlier, as a young girl in Toledo, I had been writing fan letters to Shula and his players. Now, I was standing five feet from him in a knot of reporters and camera crews. It was the first time I had seen him in person. I was no longer a fan; I was a journalist, and this was no time to waver.
Shula, who was sitting on a bench, slowly looked up to see who had asked that question. He clearly didn’t like it. He glared at me.
“Well, you know, we ran the ball pretty well the other day,” he started out, looking utterly disgusted with me. He then listed a few positive statistics about his running backs.
This story of Don Shula handling a curfew issue with his players is absolutely legendary
The winningest head coach in NFL history came up with a brilliant scheme to catch his players missing curfew.This story, told by ESPN's Jeff Darlington, only further cements Shula's greatness as a coach. Prior to working for ESPN, Darlington covered the Dolphins for the Miami Herald for six seasons. During that time he developed a close personal relationship with Shula. The day before Shula's 80th birthday, the coach invited Darlington over and ended up telling him "story after story," as Darlington puts it.
I stood my ground and followed up by asking if he planned any changes.
His stare told me there would be no more questions from me on that day.
I was back at Dolphins’ camp the next week, in the same gaggle of journalists, when Shula smiled and said hello. It was the beginning of one of the most wonderful coach-reporter relationships I have ever had.
When I returned to the Herald to start my career after finishing at Northwestern, my beat was college football, but I often was assigned to help out on the Dolphins, particularly on game days. I soon realized that the gruff and demanding Don Shula was, well, a feminist – although he wouldn’t have liked the term, certainly not back then.
Normally after games, I waited in loading docks under stadiums for players to be brought to me for interviews as the male reporters went into the locker room to do their jobs. But with the Dolphins, I walked right into the locker room with everyone else.
USC and Don Shula's Dolphins were both perfect in 1972
Don Shula, the winningest head coach in the history of the NFL, died on Monday at age 90. Shula's most important connection with a USC player was his relationship with Monte Clark, which we briefly looked at in the days leading up to the NFL Draft. Clark had a soli d NFL playing career as a USC draft pick, but then became Shula’s offensive line coach for the Super Bowl-winning Miami Dolphins teams of the early 1970s. Clark parlayed that experience into a head coaching career with the Detroit Lions. He won a division title and reached the playoffs, which automatically makes him a relatively decent Lions coach in the Super Bowl era.
Why? In 1981, Shula told all of his players that they were going to wear robes, because women like me were being assigned to cover the NFL, and he was going to make sure we had the same access as men did.
Leave it to the innovative mind of Don Shula to find a way to solve a problem before everyone else did; it wasn’t until 1985 that NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle made equal locker room access mandatory for every team. And, let’s be honest; to this day, there are coaches who still believe women in sports media shouldn’t be allowed equal access to conduct interviews and do their jobs. Shula had it all figured out before some of those guys were even born.
After one game, I was in the Dolphins’ locker room conducting an interview when I felt a slight tug on my elbow. I really didn’t want to be interrupted. I kept on working. The tug came again. I swung around impatiently.
It was Shula.
“Everything going okay in here?”
The question startled me. “Ah, you bet, Coach,” I said, hoping I didn’t look as perturbed as I felt a moment earlier. “Everything’s great, thanks.”
“Good,” he said, smiling kindly. “Keep up the good work.”
Which NFL teams are the most, least popular?
America’s Team is called America’s Team for a reason. The Dallas Cowboys remain the pinnacle of NFL popularity heading into the 2020 campaign. But which teams are the least popular?The folks at WSN.com put together a comprehensive list detailing social media interactions. They also factored in the average ticket price and home attendance to give a better overall picture of where teams stand.Without further ado, here’s how things stand. We’ll start with the most popular NFL teams.Top-five: Most popular NFL teamsHere’s how things stand atop the NFL popularity rankings.
Over the years, I ran into Shula at NFL meetings, and we always stopped and caught up. I called him occasionally for USA TODAY columns, seeking his thoughts on various subjects.
He always was the voice of reason in the NFL. When the league was debating the use of instant replay, his words sealed the deal for many. “If people sitting in their living rooms can see a play is called incorrectly, then we should be able to see it too,” he said.
The last time I spoke to him was several years ago. I interviewed him for a column I was writing, then we talked about the old days in Miami.
Anytime we spoke, I always made sure to thank him, as I did that day.
“For what?” he said.
“For not going easy on me,” I replied. “For toughening me up when I was just starting.”
He laughed heartily. “I wasn’t that tough, was I?”
“No, Coach, not at all.”
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Opinion: The great Don Shula was gruff and demanding, but I saw a softer side
Celebrity PDA of 2020 .
See the stars kissing, hugging and cuddling while out and about and on the red carpet this year!