When the Miami Dolphins completed an unprecedented National Football League season of 17 victories, no defeats in 1972, a man who owned a company that specialized in creating motivational films called a Baltimore sportswriter for an appointment. He asked for an objective opinion of Don Shula and how he went about winning so many games.
The movie man was told there was no special secret, abracadabra or magic spell cast by Shula, merely hard work. That, in the opinion of the producer/director, didn't lend itself to merchandising or marketing. There wasn't much of a story line. He lost interest.
If all Shula was going to be able to provide was the tip to "work hard," then that kind of basic information had little commercial value. Parents, teachers and coaches are always telling that to those in their care, be they children, students or athletes. The idea was something repeated ad nauseum but it's still the most time-honored formula for success.
Now the same Shula has gone to the highest level of coaching achievement, setting an all-time career standard for number of wins (325) in the NFL. He went past George Halas, the founder, owner, general manager, player and coach of the Chicago Bears, perhaps the most famous of all pro football teams.
Appropriately, one of the first letters of congratulations Shula received came from the daughter of Halas, now Mrs. Ed McCaskey, who wrote to tell him how pleased she was that he was the coach to break her father's record.
That meant much to Shula, who frequently met Halas in church on a Sunday morning before they tried to dismantle each other's team hours later, be it in Baltimore's Memorial Stadium or Chicago's Soldier Field.
"I will always remember the spirit of Halas," said Shula. "We had some unforgettable battles when I was coaching the Colts. Sure, he screamed, ranted and raved and tried to gain an edge, even attempting to intimidate if that's what he thought it took. But doesn't every football coach endeavor to do that? You're out there for one thing -- to win. Halas made the Bears what they were for all those years by his dynamic intensity."
Shula has never been one to advocate or implement gadget plays. He believes in the kind of football that all the great coaches, be it high school, college or pro, have utilized. That means to win with blocking and tackling. Yes, the simplistic way.
But in handling personnel, the NFL's all-time winningest coach has his own hands-on approach. It comes in direct communication. He's not going to let a player make decisions for him. Shula is the boss -- period, exclamation point. One of the most perceptive and amusing of all comments about Shula comes from Mike Golic, playing his first season as a Miami Dolphin after eight previous years with the Philadelphia Eagles and Houston Oilers.
"The difference between playing for Don Shula and other coaches is the difference between going to public school and parochial school," said Golic. Anyone with a background of experiencing how things are in parochial and public schools, especially when it comes to discipline, will recognize the contrast Golic is making.
What does Shula do now? His plan is to see this season to a conclusion and also coach again next year, which will complete his contract. Then he will have reached his 65th birthday, a juncture he says may be the perfect time to assess his options and decide if he'll continue to coach or buy into an ownership arrangement similar to what Halas had in Chicago and another of his coaching heroes, Paul Brown, had with the Cincinnati Bengals.
"I've changed some, I'll admit that," said Shula "but only slightly. I'm more willing to listen. But there are things about me that will never change. You'll always need discipline. There can only be one boss and that's me.
"I'm honest with players. I think that's the heart of my success. I don't play word games with them. They know where I stand, what I want and expect. I've had great players and assistant coaches over the years. You can't do it alone. Bottom line, it's the hard work you put into it that counts."
His achievements and how he has accomplished them prove that coaching football should never be described as anything approaching genius. Nor should what he does be distorted and glorified into something that it isn't. Hard work might sound simplistic, but it's never easy. This has been the Shula way, his only formula, in recording a record 325 wins . . . and counting.