Don Shula died Monday at the age of 90 as one of the greatest NFL head coaches of all time. Shula’s coaching career was defined by an almost preposterous amount of winning. Over his 33-year coaching career, he won an NFL record 347 games,1 and he remains the only head coach to lead his team to a perfect Super Bowl-winning season.
Shula was the second-longest tenured head coach in NFL history, and his sustained dominance is unmatched in NFL history. Both Bill Walsh and John Madden coached for just 10 seasons, and both were inducted into the Hall of Fame. Shula tripled that longevity across two franchises and a career that spanned from 1963 to 1995, and he was the only head coach in NFL history to lead his team to a Super Bowl appearance in three separate decades,2 according to ESPN’s Stats & Information Group. His career regular-season record is an incredible 172 wins above .500. In 33 years of coaching, he had just two losing seasons. There’s almost no one else to compare him to.
Well, maybe one. Perhaps the only coach besides Shula who can credibly lay claim to the title of the NFL’s greatest coach is New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick. The few coaching records that Shula does not possess seem to all belong to Belichick. Shula’s six Super Bowl appearances are second only to Belichick’s nine, and Shula is third all-time in playoff wins with 19 — one behind former Dallas Cowboys coach Tom Landry and 12 behind Belichick.
Besides their dominance, there are other parallels between the two coaches. Both Shula and Belichick spent their coaching careers with just two NFL franchises, both are among an elite group of six coaches to win back-to-back Super Bowls, and both coached teams that lost unforgettable Super Bowls they were heavily favored to win.
Shula’s championship defeat is probably the most famous game in NFL history. After Hall of Famer Johnny Unitas was injured in the 1968 preseason, Baltimore played the season with 34-year-old backup quarterback Earl Morrall at starter. Morrall was a journeyman in his 13th year in the league and on his seventh NFL team, but Shula was somehow able to coax a league-leading 9.2 yards per attempt and 26 touchdowns from him en route to 15 wins and a Super Bowl berth. The Colts rolled into Super Bowl III against the New York Jets as 18-point favorites but ended up losing to Joe Namath and the upstart AFL Jets in one of the greatest upsets in sports history.
Belichick’s heartbreaking Super Bowl loss came 39 years later against another New York football team — the Giants — during a season in which they nearly matched the ‘72 Dolphins’ perfect 17-0 season. Heading into the game, the Patriots were 12 point favorites to beat Eli Manning and the Giants, but they lost thanks to David Tyree’s Helmet Catch in the final two minutes of the game.
But the similarities between the coaches go only so far. Shula guided his teams to championship berths with multiple quarterbacks, while Belichick has seen precious little postseason success without Tom Brady. And unlike Belichick, Shula started racking up victories almost as soon as he became a head coach. In his first year in Baltimore in 1963, the Colts finished the season by winning five of their final six games. The next year, in his second season as a head coach, the Colts made the 1964 championship game. Meanwhile, Belichick’s record in Cleveland during his first stint as a coach was just 37-45.
It’s likely that none of this is lost on a student of football history like Belichick. Despite having Jarrett Stidham as their starting quarterback, the Patriots are at least ostensibly making another run at a title in 2020 and beyond. Belichick is only 44 wins away from overtaking Shula and putting any remaining questions about his coaching greatness to rest.