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Home / Columns and Features / Don Shula’s death evokes memories of fierce football rivalry

Don Shula’s death evokes memories of fierce football rivalry

scottteaser-215x160Long before Bill Belichick, there was Don Shula.

Long before the Hoodie, there was the Jut-Jaw.

Shula once was public enemy No. 1 in Western New York. He was the coach Buffalo Bills fans loved to hate. He’s the reason the rivalry with the Miami Dolphins became as torrid as Yankees-Red Sox, Syracuse- Georgetown, Bird-Magic, Ali-Frazier. He’s the reason Bills loyalists loved nothing more than to “Squish the Fish.” This disdain can be traced to the 1970s, a decade of sartorial destitution (think leisure suits and disco shirts) and Dolphin domination. It still boggles the mind the Bills went 0-20 against their South Beach rivals during that forgettable era, a dubious NFL feat that hasn’t been replicated.

And the man who became the Don of NFL coaches, the man who died Monday at age 90, was on the Miami sidelines for each of those defeats. The ignominious streak was such a burden for Bills fans that when Buffalo finally ended it with a 17-7 victory on Sept. 7, 1980 at the stadium then known as Rich, several thousand fans stampeded onto the field and tore down the goal posts. “It felt like we had won the Super Bowl,’’ recalled nose tackle Fred Smerlas. “That’s how much people in Buffalo had come to hate the Dolphins.” Bills owner Ralph Wilson was as ecstatic as the fans. “This is the biggest win in the history of the team … bigger than the AFL championships,’’ Wilson told reporters. “I’ll be happy to buy new goal posts.”

Buffalo’s futility against its longtime AFC East rival continued even after that momentous victory, with the Bills losing 11 of their next 13 meetings. The script finally would be flipped after Marv Levy showed up in 1986, as the Bills won 17 of their next 23 against Shula, including all three playoff matchups. The last of those Fish fillets occurred in Shula’s 526th and final game as an NFL head coach, when the Bills beat Miami, 37-21, in the 1995 playoffs.

Shula, whose distinguished face appeared to be chiseled from granite, finished with two Super Bowl titles and an NFL-record 347 wins – 43 more than Belichick, who currently ranks third all-time. Bills fans’ contempt for Shula eventually softened, and they found a new villain in Belichick, whose New England Patriots have won 35 of their last 40 games against Buffalo.

Levy, the only coach with a double-digit victory total vs. Shula, never shared the animus Bills fans felt toward the legend. In fact, he respected Shula the moment he met him. Over time the two adversaries became friends. “To me, Don Shula epitomized what a football coach should be,’’ the 94-year-old Levy said the other day from his Chicago home. “He was incredibly organized, had a keen eye for talent, and knew how to utilize and motivate his players. He clearly was a winner, and he did so in an honorable way.”

There was never a hint of malfeasance with Shula. No Spygate or Deflategate to call into question his integrity.

“Coach Shula is an avid, avid supporter of other people winning and giving it their best shot,’’ former Syracuse University and Dolphins fullback Larry Csonka told me in 2007. “But Coach also is very avid about playing within the confines of the rules. His belief was if you can’t live with the rules then get yourself elected (to the rules committee) and get the rules changed. That’s what he did.”

As Levy noted in a Sports Illustrated tribute shortly after his rival retired, Shula cared about others in the coaching profession. “He probably doesn’t remember, but I once called him when I was out of work,’’ Levy wrote. “It was 1983, and he was scouting at the East-West Shrine game and he must have had a hundred messages from guys like me who were looking for jobs. I didn’t expect to hear from him, but he returned my call. We just talked about coaching for a few minutes. He didn’t have a job for me, but he certainly left an impression. This was a man who didn’t just like coaching; he liked coaches. He never got too big for the other guys in the game.”

Levy also experienced Shula’s kindness during the 1995 season, when the Bills coach underwent prostate cancer surgery. “Don was one of the first people to call my office and wish me well,’’ he said. “The next day I received a get-well telegram at the hospital from him.”

Shula’s finest coaching moments occurred during the 1972 season, when his Dolphins went undefeated – something no team has done since. The Bills gave them a scare that year, taking them to the limit, before losing 23-20 on a 54-yard field goal by Garo Yepremian. Levy, who was a special teams coach with Washington that year, played a role in almost thwarting Miami’s quest for perfection in Super Bowl VII. Washington blocked a field goal attempt, which was retrieved by Yepremian, who threw a foolhardy pass that was picked off by Mike Bass and returned 49 yards for a touchdown. The Dolphins managed to overcome that miscue for a 14-7 win that capped their 17-0 season. “We made things close, but so did several other Dolphin opponents that season,’’ Levy said. “It didn’t matter. Don’s teams never panicked in close games.”

Three years after retiring, Shula spoke at a Compeer luncheon in Rochester and I asked about that 1970s domination of the Bills. “For whatever reason, we just had their number,’’ he said. “But things run in cycles, and once Marv got there in the late 1980s, the pendulum swung. It became a great rivalry. You always got a little extra jacked up when you went into Rich Stadium because those fans were so rabid. I don’t know of too many places where the fans are more dedicated.”

They eventually came to respect Shula in the manner Levy did. In the last paragraph of his SI tribute, Levy wrote: “Someday soon I intend to take my grandchild to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. When I point to that bronze statue, I’ll say, “See that jut-jawed man? Now, there was a football coach.’”

Best-selling author and nationally honored journalist Scott Pitoniak is the Rochester Business Journal’s sports columnist.

4 comments

  1. My brother was such a fan of Don Shula when we were little kids that the Dolphins became his team for life. He has been loyal to them through the much more disappointing decades. It was nice to read and learn more about Mr. Shula. What a great role model. Thanks.

  2. Dave Wohlhueter

    Loved your story about one of the finest coaches in the game !

  3. This is a great story about a man, a coach (and friend) whom I truly admired, and it was written by a journalist whom I have always admired, also.

  4. Great story. Thank you Scott.

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