The nation is mourning the loss of Don Shula, the winningest head coach in NFL history.
The legendary coach grabbed 347 career wins and led the Miami Dolphins to two Super Bowl victories – and the only perfect season in NFL history.
Shula was 90 years old, and his presence was felt here in Southwest Florida.
One Lee County who spent years on the Miami sidelines next to Shula said the coach changed the game.
“Don Shula pretty much ran the National Football League,” said Mike Westhoff.
He recalled the first phone call he got from Shula in the 1980s.
“I got a call from him…about joining his staff,” Westhoff said. “I was off the charts with anticipation; to be able to work for Don Shula was a dream.”
He owes Shula the start of a 32-year career coaching special teams in the NFL – and a friendship that lasted long after the two no longer worked with the same team.
“He was such a brilliant tactician that he always loved being able to talk about the intricate parts of the game and I was able to have that relationship with him for a long time.”
Westhoff reflected on sharing the sideline with Shula.
“He called plays from the sideline with no script,” he said. “Everything from his head. He could call the entire formation and play right off the top of his head.”
Shula inspired athletes like North Fort Myers alum and former NFL fullback Tommy Bohanon.
“He’s also a very philanthropic man and he inspired me and many others I’m sure to help out in our community as well,” Bohanon said.
As word of Shula’s passing began to spread, the league and everyone inspired by Shula sent their condolences to his family and shared memories of the legend.
“If there were a Mount Rushmore for the NFL, Don Shula certainly would be chiseled into the granite,” Dolphins owner Stephen Ross said in a statement.
Shula surpassed George Halas’ league-record 324 victories in 1993 and retired following the 1995 season, his 33rd as an NFL head coach. He entered the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1997, and the induction ceremony took place at Canton, Ohio, 70 miles from his native Grand River.
Shula became the only coach to guide an NFL team through a perfect season when the Dolphins went 17-0 in 1972. They also won the Super Bowl the following season, finishing 15-2.
The 2007 Patriots flirted with matching the perfection of the ’72 Dolphins but lost to the Giants in the Super Bowl and finished 18-1.
When asked in 1997 if he was the greatest coach in NFL history, Shula said he didn’t know how to measure that, but added, “I always thought that’s why they keep statistics and wins and losses.”
Shula reached the playoffs in four decades and coached three Hall of Fame quarterbacks: Johnny Unitas, Bob Griese and Dan Marino. During his 26 seasons in Miami he became an institution, and his name adorns an expressway, an athletic club and a steakhouse chain.
But because the Dolphins last reached the Super Bowl after the 1984 season, Shula came under increasing criticism from fans and the media. He was replaced in January 1996 by Jimmy Johnson, and Shula later said the adjustment to retirement was difficult.
“There’s such a letdown,” he said in 2010. “There’s no way you can fill the time you spent as a coach. Life is great after football, but you don’t have those emotional ups and downs you had on game day.”
Shula’s active retirement included plenty of travel and social events. In January 2010, the Dolphins threw him an 80th birthday party at their stadium, and guests included NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, former U.S. Sen. Bob Graham and former NFL coaches Marty Schottenheimer and Dan Reeves.
Hall of Fame fullback Larry Csonka was among the ’72 Dolphins who threw a surprise party for Shula in December to celebrate his 90th birthday.
“It was the first time in the entire time I’m known him where he was genuinely surprised,” Csonka said. “I think he was very happy.”
Shula always enjoyed talking about the 17-0 team, and he and his 1972 players drew criticism for the way they savored their unique status each season.
“People think we’re a bunch of angry old guys who can’t wait for that last undefeated team to get beat,” Shula said in 2010. “We’re very proud of our record, and if somebody breaks it, I’m going to call that coach and congratulate them. Until they do, it’s our record, and we’re proud of it.”
As for regrets, Shula put not winning a Super Bowl with Marino at the top of the list. They were together for 13 years, and Marino became the most prolific passer in NFL history, but he played on only one AFC championship team — in 1984, his second season.
Shula was born Jan. 4, 1930, and raised in Painesville, Ohio. He played running back at John Carroll University in Cleveland and cornerback in the pros for seven seasons with Cleveland, Baltimore and Washington. He entered coaching as an assistant at Virginia in 1958.
Before his 1970s triumphs with Miami, Shula had a reputation as a coach who thrived during the regular season but couldn’t win the big game.
Shula became the youngest head coach in NFL history when the Baltimore Colts hired him in 1963 at age 33. The Colts finished 12-2 the following season and were widely seen as the league’s dominant team.
But they lost 27-0 to Cleveland in the title game, and for the next few years continued to come up short.
The humiliation was greatest in the Super Bowl to end the 1968 season. The Colts steamrolled through the NFL, finishing 13-1 and outscoring opponents by a nearly 3-1 margin. After crushing the Browns 34-0 in the title game, they were overwhelming favorites to defeat the Jets of the upstart AFL, which had lost the first two Super Bowls.
But the Colts lost 16-7, blowing numerous scoring opportunities and allowing Jets quarterback Joe Namath to control the game.
The result is still regarded by many as the biggest upset in pro football history, and it contributed to Shula’s departure after the 1969 season. In 1970, after the NFL-AFL merger, Shula joined the Dolphins, a fourth-year AFL expansion team that had gone 3-10-1 the previous year.
Miami improved to 10-4 in his first season and made the playoffs for the first time, and the 1971 Dolphins reached the Super Bowl before losing to Dallas. The following season, when Miami took a 16-0 record into the Super Bowl against Washington, Shula considered his legacy on the line.
“If we had won 16 games in a row and lost the Super Bowl, it would have been a disaster, especially for me,” he said in a 2007 interview. “That would have been my third Super Bowl loss. I was 0-2 in Super Bowls and people always seemed to bring that up: ‘You can’t win the big one.’”
The Dolphins beat the Redskins 14-7, then repeated as champions the following year by beating Minnesota in the title game.
After Shula retired, he traveled extensively with his wife, Mary Anne. He would also wrestle with his grandchildren, lose to his wife at gin, read John Grisham novels and fall asleep watching late-night TV.
He supported many charities. The Don Shula Foundation, formed primarily to assist breast cancer research, was established as a tribute to his late wife, Dorothy. They were married for 32 years and raised five children before she died in 1991. Shula married Mary Anne Stephens during a bye week in 1993.
Shula’s oldest son, David, coached the Cincinnati Bengals from 1992-96. When Cincinnati played Miami in 1994, it marked the first time in professional sports that a father and son faced each other as head coaches.
Don won, 23-7. Another son, Mike, is a longtime NFL assistant coach and was head coach at Alabama in 2003-06.
Shula spent more than 20 years on the powerful NFL Competition Committee, which evaluates playing rules as well as regulations designed to improve safety.
“If I’m remembered for anything, I hope it’s for playing within the rules,” Shula once said. “I also hope it will be said that my teams showed class and dignity in victory or defeat.”
There were many more victories than defeats. His career record was 347-173-6.
Shula is survived by his second wife, two sons and three daughters.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.