Jets played constant role in Don Shula’s legendary NFL career

It probably tells you a little bit about why Don Shula was able to amass 347 victories as a head coach in the NFL that the game he was most reminded about – and the one that, until the end of his days, got him most fired up – was one of the 173 that he lost.

That was Super Bowl III, of course, when Shula was still coaching the Baltimore Colts, when his 14-1 team became the first NFL team to lose to the upstart AFL, when Joe Willie Namath talked the talk and then walked the walk all over Shula’s supremely confident team.

“Did it motivate me later on? I think I was always a pretty motivated guy as a student, as a player, as a coach, as a father,” Shula said a few years back, on some or other anniversary of Jets 16, Colts 7. “But sure, it was something I had to learn to live with. It happens, and you can’t change that it happened, so you learn to live with it and you try to learn from it. Did it make me a better coach? Every game I lost helped make me a better coach.”

Shula died Monday morning at age 90, ending a splendid American life that once included a telephone call from a curious Miami Dolphins fan on the eve of Super Bowl VI, hoping to push his adopted team across the finish line against the Dallas Cowboys.

“I still think you can hit Paul Warfield on a down-and-in pattern,” Richard M. Nixon told Donald F. Shula early one morning, not long after the Dolphins had defeated Shula’s old team, the Colts, 21-0 in the AFC Championship game. Nixon, who kept a southern White House in Key Biscayne, had become one of the Dolphins’ biggest fans.

“That’s a good idea, Mr. President,” Shula replied, and take this as you will but it is a matter of public record that on the eighth play of the game on Jan. 16, 1972, played at New Orleans’ Tulane Stadium, Dolphins quarterback Bob Griese tried to hit Warfield on a down-and-in; cornerback Mel Renfro knocked it away.

The Dolphins lost that game, 24-3, and in so doing Tom Landry handed a most unwanted baton to Shula, the tag of best coach who could never win the Big One. Shula’s ’64 Colts had lost to the Browns in the NFL title game. In 1967 and ’68, those Colts went 24-2-2 and had nothing to show for it. And the Jets, of course, provided the coup de grace.

Partly, that’s what made what soon followed for Shula so satisfying, so gratifying, and so important to his legacy. The ’72 Dolphins went 17-0, the only NFL team to ever craft a perfect record, and 48 years later pop champagne corks every year that the last undefeated team falls. They backed that up with a 15-2 beauty in ’73.

Shula had an up-and-down relationship with Dolphins owner Joe Robbie, and it was during one of those lulls, in 1976, when he flirted ever-so-briefly with the Jets. The Jets had just gone through the miserable Lou Holtz experiment, and finished the season under Mike Holovak, and they were desperate. Leon Hess called Joe Robbie, and asked what it would cost to lure his coach away.

“Every first-round draft pick for the rest of your life,” he was told.

Shula admitted years later he was intrigued, but instead turned his attention to exacting payback to the Jets for Super Bowl III for most of the rest of his career. Shula won 14 of the first 16 games the Dolphins played the Jets as AFC East foes beginning in 1970. From there the rivalry evened out – the Jets were actually 7-0-1 against him from 1978-81 and 19-17-1 across the final 18 years they shared a division.

Still, Shula did manage to play a part in a few of the more tortured moments of Jets history. The Jets only lost four games in strike-shortened 1982, but three of them were to the Dolphins, including a 14-0 slop bath in the AFC Championship Game, dubbed the Mud Bowl because Shula had conveniently “forgotten” to cover the Orange Bowl with a tarp when rains ransacked South Florida in the week leading up.

“I’m not God,” Shula quipped years later, “but I’ve heard from a few Jets fans who think I am because I made it rain that day.”

Thirteen years later, he was on the sidelines when Dan Marino pulled off his fabled “fake spike,” which cinched a 28-24 Dolphins comeback win and all but sealed the fate of Pete Carroll as Jets coach. Carroll, Holtz and Holovak were three of the 10 coaches Shula tormented during his 36 years with the Dolphins, from Weeb Ewank to Rich Kotite, from Charley Winner and Ken Shipp to Bruce Coslet and Walt Michaels and Joe Walton.

The Jets fired the first salvo. Shula won plenty of others, enough that No. 1 on the active coaching list, 68-year-old Bill Belichick, still needs four years of 11-win seasons to pass him. He learned to live with it.

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