"If a nuclear bomb were dropped," Baltimore Colts defensive end Bubba Smith once said, "the only two things that would survive are AstroTurf and Don Shula."

Shula, who stepped down yesterday as the Miami Dolphins coach and the winningest coach in NFL history, will survive, but the game may not, according to his former Colts teammates and players.

"It's a great loss to football," said Tom Matte, a Colts running back who played for Shula. "We'd like him to stay in it in some capacity."

Shula, 66, has been defying the odds since his days with the Colts. From 1953 to 1956 he was a defensive back who compensated for his lack of speed with smarts. In 1963, at age 33, he was named the Colts' coach, the youngest in NFL history. Shula led the Colts through 1969, when people said he couldn't win the big one.

So Shula went to Miami and won two Super Bowls. Shula holds the NFL coaching record with 347 victories, and he has the admiration and respect of his former Colts players and teammates.

"I always said it's too bad Shula wasn't a general instead of a coach," Art Donovan said. "We wouldn't have had problems with any country in the world. He's a leader. There's no doubt in my mind he would have been the greatest general that ever lived."

Donovan, a defensive tackle with the Colts from 1953 to 1961, arrived in Baltimore the same year as Shula, a defensive back the Colts acquired in a multi-player trade with the Cleveland Browns.

As the Colts' starting right cornerback, Shula often helped assistant coach Ross Murphy devise new defensive schemes. "We all knew he was going to be a coach," Donovan said. "We never knew he was going to reach these heights."

Weeb Ewbank, then the Browns' defensive line coach, had encouraged the Browns to draft Shula in the ninth round in 1951. So when Ewbank came over as the Colts' head coach three years later, he knew he was inheriting a heady player. Ewbank, who recalled that Shula was always talking strategy with veteran players, reportedly had so much confidence in Shula that he allowed Shula to call the defensive signals on the field.

But Ewbank released his starting right cornerback in 1956: "He wasn't quite fast enough," Ewbank, 88, said from his Oxford, Ohio, home. "He was smart enough."

Shula spent one season with Washington, then went into coaching. After assistant coaching stints at the college level with Virginia and Kentucky and the pro level with the Chicago Cardinals and the Detroit Lions, Shula replaced Ewbank in Baltimore.

"All he had to do was not louse it up, especially with the talent the Colts had," Ewbank said. "He was smart enough to cash in on it."

In seven seasons in Baltimore, Shula had a 71-23-4 record and TC .745 winning percentage. He was known for his drill sergeant personality, brutal workouts and doing whatever it took to win.

"He was a tough guy," Matte said. "He was good. He knew the right buttons to push on people to motivate them."

But Shula's failure to win Super Bowl III against the New York Jets encouraged then-owner Carroll Rosenbloom to fire him.

Shula had a tepid relationship with Hall of Fame quarterback Johnny Unitas, who yesterday recalled the "great assistants who did all the work" and described Shula as an "overseer."

Unitas said the Colts did not suffer when Shula left for Miami.

But Matte said Baltimore's latest NFL team would benefit from Shula's return, possibly as coach.

"I said it would really be nice if he could end his career here," Matte said.