Many Green Bay Packers fans will forever call Vince Lombardi the greatest coach to ever lead a football team. One of his contemporaries whose career spanned into the modern era, one of the few who could compete with him for the title of best ever, has passed away.
As reported by ESPN’s Adam Schefter:
Hall-of-Fame coach Don Shula, who won more games than any NFL coach, passed away this morning, the Dolphins announced. Shula was 90. pic.twitter.com/cnNttV9wNl— Adam Schefter (@AdamSchefter) May 4, 2020
The NFL shared a statement after the news came out:
Sad day for the NFL and sports pic.twitter.com/tu4Oy5ikEG— Brian McCarthy (@NFLprguy) May 4, 2020
Shula won more games than any coach in the history of NFL football – 328 wins over a 33-year career. His teams won two Super Bowls, appeared in six Super Bowls and made the playoffs 19 times – more than half of the years he coached in the NFL.
Rivalry with Lombardi
From 1958 until 1970, two franchises dominated the NFL – the Green Bay Packers and Baltimore Colts, Shula’s first coaching destination, where he started in 1963. The Packers won five NFL titles in that span, while the Colts won three.
Those two teams had a championship-caliber rivalry that defined the course of the NFL, and the five years Lombardi and Shula coached against each other produced 10 contests that defined who dominated the sport in those years.
Lombardi’s Packers won seven of those 10 meetings against a Colts team laden with Hall of Famers like Johnny Unitas, Lenny Moore, Raymond Berry and Gino Marchetti – a team that would have been a dynasty if they hadn’t run into the Packers.
The only three Shula-led Colts victories in that time were in 1964 (two wins) in a year where those victories were the difference in the Colts winning the Western Conference, and 1967 – when an undefeated Colts team and the Packers were in different divisions in the conference.
In 1965, the Packers needed three wins over Baltimore – two of them in last-minute fashion – to earn the Western Conference title.
The last of them, in a playoff game which was forced by equal 10-3-1 regular season records, turned into controversy when a Don Chandler field goal attempt to tie the game in the final two minutes sailed wide to the right, Shula and his Colts believed. But the referee standing under the uprights called the field goal good, and another Chandler field goal – this one most assuredly good – gave the Packers a 13-10 overtime win on the way to their first of three straight world championships.
During the off-season, the NFL raise the goalposts higher to avoid such a situation ever happening again.
In 1966, the Packers again swept the season series, this time a two-game series. The Packers defense dominated Baltimore, allowing Unitas and company just 13 combined points in two games, with the second game’s “Million Dollar Fumble” where Willie Davis dislodged the football from Unitas in the final two minutes gave the Packers the Western Conference – and the pathway to their second straight title and a win in Super Bowl I.
Incredibly, not once did the Packers
But from 1968 on, Shula owned the Packers in a run of domination that defined both his team’s success and the Packers’ failures in the first two and a half decades after Lombardi.
10 times after 1967, the Packers played Don Shula-coached teams – twice, the Colts in 1968-69, and the Dolphins eight times from 1971-1994.
All 10 times, Shula’s teams won.
The first of the wins in Miami was a true changing of the guard – four years after the last Lombardi-era championship, and the last game Hall of Famers Bart Starr and Willie Wood ever played for the Packers.
It also ended the regular season for the first of three straight Super Bowl teams for Shula – a loss in 1971, but a win in 1972 (the perfect 17-0 season) and 1973.
Those teams were dominated by the No-Name defense and one of the most ground-oriented offenses in NFL history – the type that would only throw seven passes in some games.
Then, the Dan Marino-led pass-happy Dolphins would beat the Packers five times for Shula in the 1980’s and early 1990’s.
It wasn’t until the 1997 Packers beat Miami that the hex would end.
By that point, Don Shula had entered coaching retirement, the ability to enjoy the fruits of his labor crafting some of the greatest teams in NFL history.
And a coaching legacy that rivals the man whose teams he battled for years, and whose Hall of Fame legacy he sits beside, Vince Lombardi. The man whose namesake is on the trophy Shula won twice – including arguably the greatest single-season team in NFL history.