Advertisement
News

Shula, who loved to tackle odds, comes full circle at Ohio's Hall

CANTON, OHIO — CANTON, Ohio -- Coming out of high school, only one college offered even a conditional scholarship. It was Virginia's Emory and Henry. But Don Shula, one of six children from a middle-class family whose father was a Lake Erie fisherman, would have to pay for room, meals, books and indoctrination fees -- something he wasn't able to afford.

The year was 1947, and campuses were crowded with returning veterans from World War II. Because of the huge surplus of talent, Shula's football abilities and those of other young aspiring players were not exactly in overwhelming demand. It was a situation indicative of those unusual postwar times.

Advertisement

Then a chance meeting with a coach in a gasoline station led him to John Carroll University. He would be able to join a car pool and ride with other students to the Cleveland school from his nearby home in Painesville, Ohio. That relieved him of any financial obligation, since the college would take care of the tuition and he would be able to continue to live with his parents and avoid the extra expenses.

John Carroll had a highly respected small-college team, and Shula became a standout. After Saturday games, he would spend Sunday afternoons watching the Cleveland Browns from a 25-cent seat in the end zone.

Advertisement

In his senior year, John Carroll upset highly favored Syracuse and Shula, a halfback, ran for 125 yards. After graduating, he was made the Browns' ninth selection in a draft that then had 30 rounds. He signed a contract for $5,000 but, as was the custom, had to make the 33-man roster before he'd actually be paid on a prorated game basis.

The only other option, coming out of college, was a chance to coach and teach mathematics in Canton, at Lincoln High School, for a salary to be negotiated between $3,500 and $4,000. Lincoln High has long since closed, but Shula arrived as an invited guest in Canton yesterday to receive the highest honor professional football can bestow: enshrinement in its Hall of Fame.

Shula, as a coach, established the best record in the 77-year history of the NFL with 347 wins, 173 defeats and six ties. Although not endowed with speed or size, he believed in himself as a player and in the value of total application, which is why he signed with the Browns in 1951 and was the only rookie to survive the final cut, although Carl Taseff was activated later in the schedule.

As an aside, the Browns of the previous season were the best team this reporter watched in almost 60 years as a fan, sportswriter and team executive. So don't ever try to demean Shula as a football player. To make the Browns of 1951 at the age of 21, the youngest player on the squad, and to start as a defensive back in nine of 12 league games, plus the high quality of the overall play in the league, is sufficient testimonial to his ability.

He was a hard, almost unerring tackler in the open field. But in Cleveland, coach Paul Brown had stockpiled an abundance of personnel, so he dispatched Shula to Baltimore in a 1953 trade involving 15 players -- 10 from the Browns, five from the Colts. Shula had learned his lessons well and, in Baltimore, actually "coached the coaches," frequently explaining to them in exacting detail how a coverage needed to be executed.

He played four years with the Colts, the only halfback in the NFL to call defensive signals, and therein is the genesis of how he was embarrassed by being beaten on an infamous "sleeper" play to open the 1954 season. The Los Angeles Rams had the ball at the 20-yard line after the opening kickoff. Shula went to the scrimmage line, turned his back on the Rams' offense and set the Colts' defensive alignment.

But Rams quarterback Norm Van Brocklin, going on a fast count, quickly threw downfield. Bombs away. Shula figured the Rams were wasting a play but, shockingly, Volney "Skeets" Quinlan ran undetected and under the pass for an 80-yard touchdown. The Rams had put Quinlan near their bench, camouflaged him with a background of players standing behind the sidelines and, when the ball was snapped, Shula was victimized since Quinlan was his responsibility. Three days later, commissioner Bert Bell ruled such a tactic illegal and the "sleeper" play was never seen again.

In 1957, the Colts made a critical judgment on Shula, the wrong one as it turned out. In all likelihood, it cost them a possible championship. A halfback named Henry Moore was acquired for a fourth-round draft choice from the New York Giants and, to justify the deal, the team kept Moore and waived Shula. Later that year, the Colts lost to the Green Bay Packers when Moore missed a coverage, and the defeat cost them the division title.

Advertisement

"You can bet if Weeb Ewbank had kept Shula, we'd have won it all," said Bert Rechichar, a safety. "Shula might have missed a coverage -- that can happen to anyone -- but he wouldn't have 'blown' it completely, as happened with Moore. Except for that, we probably would have won the championship that year, too, and not had to wait until beating New York in 1958."

Shula, after his release by the Colts, completed the year with the Washington Redskins. He then was an assistant coach at Virginia and Kentucky before joining the Detroit Lions' coaching staff. That's where he was in 1963 when two of his friends and former teammates with the Colts, Gino Marchetti and Bill Pellington, persuaded owner Carroll Rosenbloom to hire Shula, then 33 and the youngest to command an NFL team, as a replacement for Ewbank.

"I have tremendous personal memories of Baltimore," Shula said before the induction ceremony. "It was doubly enjoyable to play there and come back as a coach."

But he also was upset over Rosenbloom diminishing his duties when he hired Don Klosterman as general manager. That led to a former John Carroll teammate, Bill Braucher, a sportswriter for the Miami Herald, contacting Shula to find out whether he would be interested in taking over the Dolphins.

After Shula left the Colts, Rosenbloom continued to issue unprovoked personal attacks. When Rosenbloom coupled Shula with George Allen, coach of the Redskins, and said they had broken every rule in football, Shula became infuriated. Allen? Yes. He was infamous for trickery and double-dealing, but not Shula, who took pride in adhering to ethical standards.

In Miami's first visit and what amounted to Shula's return with a then-inept team to Baltimore, the Colts handled the Dolphins, 35-0, causing Rosenbloom to say sarcastically, "I thought they'd be better coached." Shula was a hard driver who used strong language in reprimanding players. But he could extract ability and get them to play -- his way.

Advertisement

Charlie Winner, who coached Shula in Baltimore and then scouted for him in Miami, said: "I've been around the game most of my life, but I never knew a coach who was better informed on all aspects of football than Don. He could be on the sidelines, at field level, and had an uncanny ability to recognize what was going on and make on-the-spot changes. Amazing."

So now the Hall of Fame, standing for the acme of recognition, comes to Don Shula, a much better player than generally perceived and a coach, the record book clearly shows, who achieved more than any other man in pro football history.

Pub Date: 7/27/97


Advertisement