Don Shula landed in the hospital this week and, fortunately, the 86-year-old former Dolphins coach was treated and released.
But the news served as a reminder of two things. One, Shula’s getting really old. Two, the time will come when it’s time to pay proper tribute to his coaching career and also point out that the petty potshots Shula’s lobbed at the Patriots since 2007 have colored New England’s opinion of him.
“All politics are local,” the great Tip O’Neill once said. Sports, too. We view things through our parochial prism, asking, “What does this (person/event) mean to me?”
The first thing people think about in this six-state region when it comes to Shula isn’t his 36 years as an NFL head coach, record 347 career wins, two Super Bowl titles, six Coach of the Year awards and his team’s perfect season in 1972. The first thing they think about is the times he’s ripped and discredited Bill Belichick and the Patriots. Few people under 40 will remember watching Shula coach in the 1984 Super Bowl. Few under 30 will remember him coaching in the NFL, period (he retired after the 1995 season).
That’s reality. And it’s too bad, because Belichick has always spoken on Shula with reverence. And the respect, at least for a while, was reciprocated.
More than a decade ago, as the Patriots prepared for the Carolina Panthers in Super Bowl 38, Belichick was asked about what he remembered about the 1972 Dolphins.
“They won all their games," Belichick deadpanned, before adding, “They had a pretty good coach. I tell you what, they had a pretty good coach (Shula). One of the coaches that I was fortunate, when I came into the league, he was coaching in the division I was in. I think Don is obviously one of the all-timers and should be."
While Belichick’s primary coaching idols were his father Steve, legendary Browns and Bengals coach Paul Brown, and Navy coach Wayne Hardin, Belichick closely followed Shula as well.
Growing up a Colts fan in Annapolis, Belichick said, “[Shula] was a guy I probably saw more of than anyone else. And who better to look at than Don Shula?"
"I just think he's done a tremendous job," Shula said back then. "One of the great coaching jobs of all-time was (in 2001). He brought them out of nowhere, with a young quarterback. The way they won, instead of sitting on the ball at the end like [announcer John] Madden wanted them to, they showed confidence in [quarterback Tom] Brady and the system, and they won in overtime. And then you look at what they did (in 2003) . . . They somehow find a way to win. Close games, they find a way to do it. And the other thing you admire is, they had so many injuries and you never heard a complaint. All they did was line up each week and win. The emphasis was on getting the next guy ready to play, and playing the next game.
"That starts at the top, Belichick, the coaching staff, the organization. Everybody is talking about parity, and they don't know what to expect, but (the Patriots) have gone to the Super Bowl two out of three years. That speaks volumes about their organization, their coaches and their players."
Shula’s tune changed, not surprisingly, in 2007 when the Patriots began to stalk the 1972 Dolphins perfect season.
In early November, Shula said the Patriots videotaping of opponent’s coaching hand signals in the first game of the season and in previous years “tainted” them. "The Spygate thing has diminished what they've accomplished," Shula said. "You would hate to have that attached to your accomplishments. They've got it."
Shula tried to walk his comments back two days later. "If they run the table, and they win all the games, then they are doing it within the rules of the National Football League," Shula said. "And there shouldn't be any asterisk to it. That would be the accomplishment that they made. It would be the best in all of sports."
But less than a month after that, with the Patriots bidding to get to 12-0, Shula was a guest in ESPN’s Monday Night Football booth when the Patriots played in Baltimore.
It was one of the most memorable games of the Bill Belichick Era and Shula rooted openly on national television for the Ravens. (This live blog recap is hysterical.) Bill Simmons described Shula’s appearance by writing, “Don Shula's interminable 'Monday Night Football' cameo during the Pats-Ravens game was the interminably long cameo by which all other interminably long cameos should be measured: I didn't find anything that he said to be interesting; he openly rooted for one of the two teams; he wouldn't even leave when Mike Tirico thanked him for stopping by 25 different times . . . ”
While the pride of ownership in being the lone team to have a perfect season is understandable, the annual champagne-popping and chest-puffing of those Dolphins had jumped from cute to obnoxious years before. Reactions among the ’72 Dolphins when the Patriots finished the regular season 16-0 were evenly split between genuine and grudging respect.
“My heart is dead set against it,” said ex-Dolphin Bob Kuechenberg. “The '72 team is uniquely immortal in American sports and I don't want us to lose that special place. We will forever be immortal, and if they win every game in front of them, then they will join us among those ranks.”
Belichick stayed consistent in his respect for Shula. He mentioned having had dinner with Shula in the offseason prior to 2007. He said in December of that year, "I was a big fan of Coach Shula from when he was at Baltimore and his association with my dad, going all the way back to when they were in Ohio . . . The team they had was an awesome team and they were fun to watch.”
The whole thing lay dormant for nearly seven years until a Florida columnist sat down with Shula in January 2015 on the occasion of his 85th birthday. During the conversation, Belichick’s name came up.
“Beli-cheat?” Shula replied.
Two weeks later, league operations officials seized footballs they believed the team removed air from prior to the AFC Championship Game and Deflategate was born.
In May, at an event kicking off the Dolphins 50th season, Shula lobbed another grenade.
“We always tried to live by the rules and set an example that it was always done with a lot of class, a lot of dignity’’ Shula said. “Always done the right way. We didn’t deflate any balls.”
That cemented Shula’s place on the Patriots fans’ enemies list and sent them off dredging up the occasions when Shula or his team line-stepped in what was unarguably a time when getting the valued “edge” was a lot easier and accepted.
Which brings us to now, where Shula seems at odds with the only current coach who belongs in the pantheon of great coaches alongside him and the others. Shula, Belichick, Brown, Chuck Noll, Joe Gibbs, Vince Lombardi, Tom Landry, Paul Brown and Bill Walsh. Rank them how you like but those are the best there’s been.
Does Shula really have that little respect for Belichick that, at the mention of his name, he seeks to discredit him? Or has he just been playing the hits for the Miami media when he’s had the chance?
At 86, I suppose the opinion of him in New England isn’t a daily concern of Shula’s. And it’s his prerogative to say whatever he likes. His coaching legacy is safe. But broadsides of Belichick make it hard for people up here to think first of his coaching acumen when Don Shula’s name is in the news.