INDIANAPOLIS — Pro Football Hall of Famer Don Shula, a former defensive back with the Baltimore Colts who would lead the franchise to its third NFL Championship title as head coach before becoming the winningest coach in league history with the Miami Dolphins, has passed away at the age of 90.
"We will miss you, Don Shula," Colts owner Jim Irsay tweeted Monday morning. "One of the last of the all-time greatest from an incredible era."
In a separate statement, Irsay remembered his feeling of awe when he first got an opportunity to meet Shula almost five decades ago.
"Today is a sad day for the NFL and the entire sports world with the passing of Don Shula," Irsay said. "There are few in the 100-year history of the NFL who have had a more positive influence on the game itself than Coach Shula. In addition to his record-setting tenure with the Miami Dolphins, he helped establish the Colts as one of the great franchises in all of sports. One of my most special memories is of meeting Don for the first time in 1972 in the Orange Bowl. He was larger than life, of course; and to me he always will remain so. He was an extraordinary father, husband, grandfather and human being who will be missed by all of us. Our hearts and prayers go out to the entire Shula family as well as our sincerest thanks for sharing his wonderful life with sports fans everywhere."
NFL commissioner Roger Goodell also issued a statement following Shula's passing on Monday:
"Don Shula will always be remembered as one of the greatest coaches and contributors in the history of our game," Goodell said. "He made an extraordinarily positive impact on so many lives. The winningest coach in NFL history and the only one to lead a team to a perfect season, Coach Shula lived an unparalleled football life. As a player, Hall of Fame coach, and long-time member and co-chair of the NFL Competition Committee, he was a remarkable teacher and mentor who for decades inspired excellence and exemplified integrity. His iconic legacy will endure through his family and continue to inspire generations to come. We extend our heartfelt sympathy to Don's wife Mary Anne along to his children Dave, Donna, Sharon and Mike, the Shula family, and the Dolphins organization."
Shula, a Grand River, Ohio, native, played collegiately at John Carroll University in Cleveland before being selected by the hometown Cleveland Browns, led by legendary head coach Paul Brown, in the ninth round of the 1951 NFL Draft.
In 1953, Shula was sent to the Colts as part of a historic 15-player trade. He would play cornerback for Baltimore for four seasons from 1953-56 before wrapping up his playing career with the Washington Redskins in 1957. In seven total NFL seasons, Shula would collect 21 interceptions and four fumble recoveries; he had two straight five-interception seasons with the Colts in 1954 and 1955.
Shula then entered the coaching ranks — first at the college level as an assistant at the University of Virginia, Iowa State University and the University of Kentucky, before being hired as the Detroit Lions' defensive coordinator in 1960.
But by 1963, the Colts came calling again, this time hiring Shula, then 33, as the then-youngest head coach in NFL history.
By the time he retired 32 years later after seven seasons with the Colts and then 25 seasons leading the Miami Dolphins, Shula would become the NFL's all-time winningest head coach.
Baltimore would never post a losing season under Shula. From 1963 to 1969, the team posted an incredible 71-23-4 (.755) overall record, starting in 1963 with an 8-6 performance, but quickly jumping to a 12-win campaign the following year, which ended in a loss to the Browns, 27-0, in the NFL Championship game.
Shula that year earned his first-career NFL Coach of the Year award, while his quarterback (and former teammate), Johnny Unitas, was named the league's Most Valuable Player.
The Colts would win 10, nine and 11 games the next three seasons — Shula and Unitas winning NFL Coach of the Year and MVP together once again in 1967 — before embarking on one of the greatest seasons in franchise history in 1968.
The team that year won a then-franchise record 13 regular season games, going on to defeat the Minnesota Vikings, 24-14, in the divisional round of the playoffs before knocking off the Browns, 34-0, to claim the franchise's third NFL Championship title. The Colts would go on to fall to the New York Jets, 16-7, in Super Bowl III.
Shula that year won his third NFL Coach of the Year award, while quarterback Earl Morrall, filling in for an injured Unitas, claimed league MVP honors.
Shula led the Colts for one more season in 1969 before moving on to the Dolphins, where he would lead the franchise to two Super Bowl titles. In 1972, the Dolphins, at 17-0, would complete the first and only undefeated season in NFL history; Shula was named NFL Coach of the Year for a fourth time.
Shula retired after the 1995 season with 347 total wins as a head coach, the most in NFL history. He was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1997.
Shula's legacy lives on through the annual Don Shula NFL High School Coach of the Year Award, which celebrates a high school football coach that displays "the integrity, achievement and leadership exemplified by the winningest coach in NFL history, Don Shula."