Former Dolphins players, team and league officials remember Don Shula’s impact on the game and the region
Before he could transform the Miami Dolphins from an expansion team into Super Bowl champions, before he could direct a perfect season no other team in the NFL’s 100 years has matched, and before he could win more games than any coach in league history, Don Shula had to earn the trust and respect of the men he would be leading.
Dick Anderson, who was still a few years away from becoming an All-Pro safety, reflected Monday — the day Shula passed away at age 90 — on when he recognized there was something special about the coach.
“Probably the first day he showed up,” Anderson said.
A leader. A taskmaster. A perfectionist. Those are some attributes past and present members of the Dolphins’ organization used to describe him Monday. Likewise, they reflected on the grandfatherly image of his later years, one that many witnessed for the last time Jan. 4, when they gathered for a surprise party to mark Shula’s 90th birthday at the home of one of his friends on Miami Beach.
“If there were a Mount Rushmore for the NFL, Don Shula certainly would be chiseled into the granite,” Dolphins owner Stephen Ross said. “He won more games than any coach in the NFL, and his 1972 ’Perfect Season’ team stands alone in the 100-year history of the league.
“His contributions to his sport, to the Miami Dolphins franchise, and to the South Florida community will have a lasting impact. We were so fortunate to have him associated with the Dolphins for 50 years, and he was a source of inspiration to me every time I was around him. There will never be anyone like him, and I want to extend my condolences to his wife, Mary Anne, and the entire Shula family.”
Monday morning, phones began ringing nonstop as news spread among Shula’s former players. Tributes poured in from throughout South Florida and around the country.
"Probably the best thing that ever happened to me in my whole life is him coming to Miami when he did and helping us accomplish everything we did accomplish,” former defensive tackle Manny Fernandez said from his home in Georgia. “Tremendous leader. What a man."
The Dolphins had never enjoyed a winning season when original owner Joe Robbie made the decision in 1970 to replace coach George Wilson with Shula, who had been coaching the Baltimore Colts. It transformed an organization and with it, a growing community.
“Don Shula was so much more than just the greatest coach in NFL history,” Tim Robbie, son of the late owner, said in a statement released to the Palm Beach Post. “More importantly, he possessed so many qualities that only the very best among us attain: Unparalleled leadership, dignity, class, honesty and integrity. His passing is a tremendous loss for the entire South Florida community as well as for football fans and Dolphins fans throughout the world. Our heartfelt condolences go out to the entire Shula family.”
In 1990, when Shula knew the fortunes of his team rested on the arm of quarterback Dan Marino, the Dolphins drafted left tackle Richmond Webb in the first round.
“I was there when he became the winningest coach in NFL history,” Webb said, referring to a victory over the Philadelphia Eagles in 1993 that enabled Shula to surpass George Halas. “You don’t get opportunities to be surrounded by people like that. At the time you take it for granted. But as you get older and reflect back it was such a blessing.”
At least one of his players held Shula in high regard before he even played under the coach.
“I went to high school in Palm Beach Gardens and was a big fan of the Dolphins, so to be drafted by Coach Shula and the team was a dream come true,” defensive tackle Bob Baumhower said. “I had the opportunity to play under him for 10 years. When I look back at our time together, I realize how much I owe to him. He moved me to a position I never wanted to play (nose tackle) and that led to my career being as long as it was.
“Because he drafted me, I met my wife, had my children and even went into the restaurant business. He was such an important figure in my life. He will be remembered forever.”
Many former Dolphins have long credited Shula with instilling values in them that helped them succeed after football.
“He was dedicated to his craft, more so than anybody I've ever met in my life,” said Kim Bokamper, a linebacker/defensive end who later became a successful South Florida broadcaster and restaurant owner.
“Certainly one of the strongest men I've ever met. A guy that really taught and mentored and coached people in a way that you didn't know you were being coached and mentored and taught until you look back later. He was tough. He was demanding. He was difficult to play for. Demanding to the end. But at the end you realize you won a lot of games and you were better for it. I've been very lucky in my post-career life and he taught me preparation, dedication, making the best of a bad situation, overcoming obstacles. All the things that make a good football team and a good football player I learned from him. I try to live my life the way I learned from him.”
Webb couldn’t help but feel sadness that the coronavirus pandemic will affect how South Florida says farewell to Shula.
“People won’t be able to celebrate his life in a certain way because of the coronavirus,” Webb said. “That’s the one thing that I have the most regret about. That's the one thing I've been really thinking about.”
Regardless of how or when South Floridians can pay their respects, Shula’s legacy remains safe.
“Don Shula will always be remembered as one of the greatest coaches and contributors in the history of our game,” NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said in a statement. “He made an extraordinarily positive impact on so many lives. … He was a remarkable teacher and mentor who for decades inspired excellence and exemplified integrity. His iconic legacy will endure through his family and continue to inspire generations to come.”
David Baker, president and CEO of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, which enshrined Shula in 1997, said, “The game has lost one of the greats today, but we have all lost a truly incredible man. Hall of Fame coach Don Shula served as an ambassador for this great game for more than half a century.”
Such admiration might have surprised some of his players in the early 1970s. Shula the taskmaster drove them to shed their losing ways and maximize their abilities. But sometimes it meant holding four training camp practices per day in South Florida’s scorching summer. No one was immune from the fiery Shula — not even All-Pros and Hall of Famers.
“Quit yelling at Anderson!” Anderson recalled Hall of Fame linebacker Nick Buoniconti telling Shula during one practice.
“Get back where you’re supposed to be,” Shula yelled back. “He plays better (when I yell).”
“You only think that I do,” Anderson replied.
Reflecting Monday, Anderson said, “He was the leader. He was the coach. He would yell at you all the time, but it was to make you better.”
Anderson described what set Shula apart: “George Wilson was a fine individual, but he was an old-style coach. Don Shula had every minute of every day planned. And there was a purpose and a reason. All of those things were the reason for our success.”
Surprisingly, Anderson also called Shula “a quiet jokester.” Even more surprisingly, he wasn’t the only one saying that Monday.
“Practice was serious business,” Webb said. “But on a walkthrough on Saturday he gave you some jokes. He knew how to lighten the load. You knew he had a funny side to him. Every now and then he would go from a stare to smiling. He had the poker face. Most of the time it was a poker face.”
More than anything, he had the Dolphins believing in themselves.
“There is no excuse for not doing your best or not winning,” Fernandez said. “He instilled in you a belief you could do what needed to be done.”
Palm Beach Post sports writer Joe Schad contributed to this report.