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Don Shula, Hall of Fame coach who won NFL championship with Baltimore Colts, dies at 90

Don Shula was 33, the third-youngest head coach in NFL history when he took over the Baltimore Colts in 1963. But players learned early in training camp that youth didn’t translate to lenience.

"We seldom got water breaks," the late Ordell Braase, a defensive end, once said. "Shula was old school. His mind-set was: Forget your thirst until you've gotten in shape."

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When players snuck over to the trainers' table to raid the ice bag, Shula "went ballistic," said Braase. "'Get away from that ice, dammit!' he'd say.

"All through practice, you'd think, 'If I can make it to the locker room, I'll be OK.' Then we'd head out afterward for a few beers."

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Shula, a demanding coach who led the Colts to an NFL championship in 1968 and the Miami Dolphins to two Super Bowl titles, died Monday at his home in Miami Lakes, Florida. The Hall of Fame coach was 90.

Though best known for his 26-year tenure with the Dolphins and their undefeated 1972 season — unique in NFL history — Shula shaped his career in Baltimore. In seven years here, the Colts went 71-23-4 but were upset in their two biggest games: a 27-0 loss to the Cleveland Browns in the 1964 NFL championship and a 16-7 shocker to the New York Jets in the 1969 Super Bowl.

The loss to the Jets galled Colts owner Carroll Rosenbloom, who openly blamed his coach.

"After the Super Bowl, Shula asked for a raise and Rosenbloom said, 'How can you ask for more money when you lost to a coach [Weeb Ewbank] that I fired?' " guard Dan Sullivan recalled. "So Shula figured he'd better look somewhere else."

In 1970, he took over Miami and stayed until 1996, retiring with an NFL-record 328 victories.

“If [the Colts] had won Super Bowl III, and continued to win, I certainly wouldn’t have gone,” Shula told The Sun in 2008. “I’d still be in Baltimore, eating crab cakes.”

His Colts' roots ran deep. A graduate of John Carroll University, Shula played defensive back for the Colts in their formative years, coming from Cleveland in a blockbuster 15-player trade in 1953. In four years, he called defensive signals and intercepted 14 passes. In 1957, he was the last player cut in training camp. Players decried his loss. Five days later, following a 34-14 defeat of the Detroit Lions in their home opener, the Colts voted Shula the game ball.

Six years later, he returned as head coach, replacing the likeable Ewbank, who'd won NFL titles in 1958 and 1959.

“Shula was a very efficient task master who really had a feel for the game,” said Sullivan, 80. “From the start, he treated guys with whom he’d played in Baltimore, like Bill Pellington and Gino Marchetti, no different than the rest. We all had to run laps after practice, and Don gained my automatic respect by enforcing that.”

“Don Shula is a cornerstone of Baltimore’s football foundation,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh, who worked with Shula on the Philadelphia Eagles’ coaching staff in the early 2000s, said in a statement released by the team. “He helped grow the love of the game in our area. ... He belongs on the Mount Rushmore of NFL head coaches. We have all learned from the principles he taught and established throughout his legendary career.”

Shula’s coaching debut was forgettable: a 37-28 loss to the New York Giants (the Colts blew a 21-3 lead) before a then-record crowd of 60,029 at Memorial Stadium. The Colts finished 8-6, their worst mark under the coach who won three NFL Coach of the Year awards in Baltimore and who, in 1997, was enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame Canton, Ohio, 50 miles from his birthplace in Grand River.

“Don was tough but fair,” said Rick Volk, 75, an All-Pro safety who played for Shula here from 1967 through 1969 and again in Miami late in his career. “There were times when he’d get on you but it wasn’t to demoralize you. He didn’t want you to let yourself down. It was always, be as good as you can be.”

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While his relationship with Johnny Unitas, the Colts’ stellar quarterback, was prickly at best, Shula had a knack for squeezing the best from journeymen players, said Bill Curry, a center and linebacker whom the Colts acquired in 1967.

“He saved my career,” said Curry, 77, a onetime center and linebacker for the Green Bay Packers who’d just been sloughed off in that year’s expansion draft and taken by the Atlanta Falcons. "Shula called and said, ‘Bill, I want to trade for you because I like the way you play special teams with all your heart.’

"I said, 'Coach, I will walk to Baltimore to play for you.' "

Curry starred on both Colts Super Bowl teams (1969 and 1971) after a rocky start. In his first game here, against Atlanta on national TV, he was flagged for clipping in front of the Colts bench on an 80-yard punt return.

"Shula flipped out, ran onto the field, grabbed me by the shoulders and cussed me out," said Curry. "So I shouted back at him in the same language.

"Well, before practice Tuesday morning, I'm thinking, my one-game Colts career is through. I found Shula and said, 'Coach, I apologize. I didn't think I clipped, and you came out there, and I lost it.'

"He smiled and said, ‘I kind of like fiery guys. Just don’t clip the guy.’ "

Even now, Shula's retort resonates with Curry:

“Do you wonder why we played hard for that man?”

Baltimore Sun reporter Jonas Shaffer contributed to this article.

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