(May 4) Younger sports fans know of former NFL head coach Don Shula, who died Monday at age 90, only by his remarkable career numbers, but they may have a hard time appreciating just what a striking presence he had while manning the sidelines.

It is a shame that the word “iconic” is so badly overused these days, because Shula was iconic well before that.

Before Shula came along, NFL head coaches broke into two stereotypical categories. The first was the blood-and-guts tough guy, associated in the public mind with George Halas of the Bears and later Bill Parcells of the Giants and other teams, but most legendarily with Vince Lombardi of the Packers. The second was the austerely professorial type, associated with Paul Brown of Cleveland, Tom Landry of Dallas, and later by Bill Walsh of the San Francisco 49ers.

Then came Shula, who seemed to meld the two into one imposing package.

He always appeared to be a mastermind, always one mental step ahead of the competition. But he also appeared to be a raw-boned “tough guy.” Part of the latter was the famously jutting jaw, along with eyes that seemed to stare right though anybody. He had also played seven years as a solidly effective defensive back in the rough-and-tumble NFL of the 1950s, so it was clear he had real grit.

The tough guy image was enhanced when his Super Bowl-winning Miami Dolphins teams of the early 1970s all but abjured the popular, high-flying passing game, instead preferring just to ram the ball down opponents’ throats with guys named Csonka and Kiick, with some Mercury thrown in for sizzle. In Super Bowl VII, where Shula’s Dolphins capped off the only undefeated season in NFL history, the Dolphins threw only 11 passes despite having the Hall of Famer Paul Warfield as a receiving target….

[The full column is here.]


Tags: , , , ,