Few would think that a small, Division III school could produce one of the best NFL head coaches of all time. But such is the case.
A Grand River, Ohio native, Don Shula graduated from Harvey High School in 1947 and John Carroll University in 1951. Following his graduation, he was taken by the Browns in the ninth round of the draft. He played in Cleveland for legendary head coach Paul Brown before being traded to the Baltimore Colts in 1953. After finishing his playing career with the Washington Redskins in 1959, Shula found a head coaching gig four years later with the Colts. Shula coached in Baltimore until 1969, when he moved on to the Dolphins.
Shula built a dynasty in Miami over the course of 26 years, accomplishing feats such as coaching the only undefeated season in NFL history in 1972. He won two Super Bowls and became the winningest coach in the history of the NFL with 347 career victories. The coaching legend was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1997.
The Carroll News recently talked with Shula over the phone, discussing a variety of topics.
The Carroll News: What do you remember about your education at JCU?
Don Shula: They emphasized educating the whole man, everything. It’s not just sided, one way or the other. It tries to prepare you for what’s out there.
CN: What exactly do you think about a John Carroll education makes it special?
DS: It covers all bases; it tries to take everything into account and prepare you for what could happen later in life. I think that’s the big benefit of a Jesuit education.
CN: Do you think that a Jesuit education is why so many JCU alumni have moved on to the NFL? Is there a certain quality or characteristic that you believe is the reason for so many alumni in the NFL?
DS: I don’t know how many have gone on to the NFL … I just know as far as I was concerned, I felt I had great preparation to be ready for what’s out there, all walks of life.
CN: What do you think makes the school special as a whole? Is it the place itself or is it the people?
DS: Any school, whether Big Ten or Ivy League, whatever, is a combination of what they have to offer educationally and then also the people who go there who later go on to represent that school.
CN: How did you draw from lessons learned at John Carroll when you coached in the NFL?
DS: I just think that it was part of my background. I had the opportunity to go to a school that took a lot of pride in educating the whole man, getting ready for life after college. I leaned back on that a lot. It was very instrumental in my career.
CN: Do you have any fond memories of the school? Are there any classes that you found particularly interesting?
DS: Father [Joseph] Schell in logic. He was an outstanding educator, an outstanding teacher, a very avid football fan. He’d be out there watching our practices. I’m sure he never missed a game.
CN: Have you been back to JCU at all recently?
DS: I’d have to think back; it hasn’t been for a while.
CN: Do you try to keep up with what’s going on in the school’s news?
DS: Yeah, I get updates from the school. Tony DeCarlo would always make an effort to keep me up to date with what’s going on. He lives over in Naples; occasionally they have reunions over there, and I always get invited to that.
CN: If you had the opportunity to share a piece of advice with a John Carroll student, what would it be?
DS: Make the most out of your opportunities, because the things that are offered at John Carroll are things that are always going to better prepare you for what you’re going to encounter in later life.
CN: Was the 1972 team you coached, obviously to Super Bowl VII, the best team you’ve ever played or coached on?
DS: You know, in football, they keep score to see who wins the game. And then at the end of the year, they have a record to see who has the best record. The team that has the best record you’d have to say has the best team, right? And then if you go back and do something that nobody else has ever done, then you have to take a lot of pride in that. That’s our ’72 Dolphins. Nobody had done it in the 50 years that football was played before ’72, and nobody has done it in the time since ’72, 40 years since. And that’s why it’s such a special accomplishment.
CN: What do you think made that team special?
DS: I think everything combined. The coaches coached, the players played, we had great fan support. The combination of all those things it takes to build and to be a winner.
CN: Were you a Browns fan growing up?
DS: Yes I was. I lived about 30 miles south of Cleveland. Whenever possible, I would go to Browns games and Cleveland Indians games. When I was at Carroll, I remember that if we wore our letter sweater, for 50 cents we could sit in the end zone bleachers, which is now the famous Dawg Pound. We all made sure we had our letter sweaters on game day and got to go watch them play for 50 cents. After the game, we would jump out onto the field and run around a little bit and test out the field.
CN: In 1972, when you played the Browns in the playoffs, they gave you guys a pretty good fight. What was it like coaching in that game?
DS: It was like all the other games. You get your team ready to go, play the best that you can play. Each game that you played was equally important. The fact that I had played with the Browns and came from that area, that made it that much more important.
CN: What is your favorite memory of your coaching career?
DS: I think when you’re able to do something that nobody else had ever done, it [has to] be the most memorable time in your career when you realize nobody had done it before, and especially now, nobody’s done it since.
CN: Do you have any particularly fond memories playing for the Browns?
DS: The coach at Carroll, Herb Eisele, he went to every clinic that Paul Brown ever had, and our terminology to a much lesser extent was the same that the Browns had in their playbook. So I had an early start on my professional education. That helped me a lot, playing at Carroll for a coach like Herb Eisele. He had two assistants: Danny Marmelli and Bill Belanchek. They had a three-man coaching staff, but they were outstanding.
CN: Did you borrow a lot of terminology and techniques from Paul Brown?
DS: As I mentioned, our coach at John Carroll, Herb Eisele, went to every clinic Brown ever had. That was the basis of his football, and that’s the first football that I learned. When I went into coaching myself, I had to have my own playbook and my own terminology; a lot of it stems from that Paul Brown school of football.
CN: Do you think, over the span of your career, that the game of football and coaching in the NFL changed?
DS: Yes, I think everything has evolved … The players are bigger, faster, stronger. They start weight training at an early age. All of the techniques have evolved, too, to where they are today. The film and the videos, they pretty much video everything that moves nowadays. They use those as instructional tools to help present the picture to the player. All of that has been very, very helpful. It’s evolved over a period of time. It used to be that you had one can of film and you’d have to pass it around to the different parts of the team – offensive line, defensive line, running backs, defensive backs. And now, everything that you do on a practice field is videotaped. You walk off the practice field and it’s handed to you to look at and study. Everything has evolved and has modernized.
CN: Since you’ve retired from coaching, have you been enjoying the retired life?
DS: I coached for 33 years; I retired in ’95. So now I’ve been out of it over 15 years. I’m enjoying my quiet time, my time away. My wife and I do a lot of different things: we travel, we have a restaurant business that has evolved and has grown into a big business. I want you to go out and try our Shula Burgers.
CN: Do you still keep up on the NFL?
DS: My son, Mike, was made the offensive coordinator of the Carolina Panthers, and they got Cam Newton, who’s a great quarterback down there. So I get down there to watch games whenever I can, and certainly I’ll watch them on TV if I can’t get down there to watch them in person.