S-H-U-L-A: Miami+Moxie = Perfection


Like any other red-blooded American man of my vintage, I grew up in the shadow of greats like legendary NFL coach Don Shula.

Shula, who spent most of his career coaching the Miami Dolphins, was one of the shining examples that helped me map out what real men look like. Shula’s Miami Dolphins teams won Super Bowls back to back with the 1972 Super Bowl VII & The 1973 Super Bowl VIII championships.

You see, Shula had a steely jaw and flinty demeanor that could easily intimidate the biggest, scariest lineman. He had the fortitude to coach for 33 consecutive seasons — a record — and only post losing records twice that entire time. He had the skill to lead his teams to a record-setting 347 victories, including the only perfect season in NFL history.

Sadly, Shula died earlier this week at the age of ninety, during the COVID-19 pandemic sweeping the globe at the same time. Thus, he likely will not receive the adoration one of his stature would under normal circumstances. However, I read through tributes and pondered his legacy, a question kept surfacing for me: what made Shula so successful? What made it possible for him to win so much?

That answer is simple: moxie. It takes moxie to consistently achieve excellence for so many years, and Shula had it. Here’s how:

Moxie is singularly focused.

Shula was all about football, and football alone, all the time, to the exclusion of nearly everything else.

Case in point: in 1985, Miami was the epicenter of pop culture. The show Miami Vice dominated the airwaves and had everyone turning up in casual white cotton blazers and pastel t-shirts. After a Dolphins game one night, someone brought around the show’s star, Don Johnson, to meet Shula. They introduced Johnson as “Don Johnson from ‘Miami Vice.’”

Shula legitimately thought Johnson was an actual cop and told him to keep up the good work.

In retrospect, how much did Shula miss because he was so singularly focused on football? A lot, perhaps. But one could argue that he didn’t miss as much as he gained.

Moxie works harder and smarter.

Shula became a head coach at the tender age of 33, just a few years after wrapping up his own career as a professional football player. He had the unique experience of playing alongside and also coaching Louisville legend Johnny Unitas as part of the Baltimore Colts.

He never asked his players to do what he himself wasn’t willing to do, even if that meant running gassers at the end of brutal practice.

And make no mistake, his practices were brutal. He designed them to be as intense and fast-paced as a game situation. He paid attention to every detail, calling out every error and running plays again and again until they were perfect. The result was that good players became great teams.

“We weren’t as good athletes as some of the others,” said former Dolphins quarterback Bob Griese. “But we were willing to put in the extra time and extra effort. I know I wasn’t as good an athlete as Terry Bradshaw and some of the other guys who played in my era. But I won, and that was just the type of guy Shula wanted. He let me call the plays and never questioned any because he knew I put in the preparation.”

There’s just no substitute for hard work.

Moxie builds on the success of others.

It’s tempting as a leader to find a winning formula and stick with it. Leaders are often brought in with an eye toward replicating their previous success by implementing their system.

That wasn’t quite the case with Shula. While his commitment to hard work never waivered, he adapted his game strategy to get the best out of the players he had.

“To me, that’s what coaching is all about,” said Shula in an interview with the Hartford Courant. “It’s getting the most out of the players you have, not trying to jam your system down their throat. The quarterback’s position is a perfect example. Unitas had his own style. Bob Griese was very different from Unitas, and Dan Marino, they were all different players and different personalities. You have to try to adjust to get the most out of their talents.”

Shula’s success was rooted in setting up others to succeed. If individual players were successful, the team would be successful. If the team was successful, Shula was successful.

“I think what coaching is all about, is taking players and analyzing their ability, put them in a position where they can excel within the framework of the team winning. And I hope that I’ve done that in my 33 years as a head coach.”

Don Shula’s Wikipedia Page: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Don_Shula

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