Don Shula, who led the Baltimore Colts to a 73-26-4 record in the 1960s as part of a historic head coaching career that took place mostly with the Miami Dolphins, passed away May 4 at the age of 90.
Shula is the winningest coach in the NFL history, having led his teams to 347 regular-season and playoff victories. He coached the Dolphins from 1970-1995, leading them to two Super Bowls and the lone undefeated season in NFL history in 1972 (17-0 including playoffs).
He got his start as a head coach in Baltimore in 1963, just six years after he stopped playing in the league (1951-1957, including four years with the Colts). After becoming the youngest head coach in NFL history when he took over the Colts at the age of 33, he went on to win Coach of the Year three times during his seven-year stint in Baltimore and led the Colts to an appearance in Super Bowl III against the New York Jets as part of the 1968 season.
Former running back Tom Matte, who played for the Colts from 1961-1972, had long known Shula, who was just 10 years older than him, because both had grown up in Northeast Ohio – Matte in East Cleveland and Shula in Painesville, Ohio.
“I think he was very knowledgeable, very intense,” Matte said on Glenn Clark Radio May 4. “You didn’t want to get on the bad side of Shoes because you were in trouble. He just knew the game. That’s what made him a great coach. He grew up here in Cleveland just before I did, so we go back a long, long way. He was just one hell of a coach.”
Matte ran for 4,646 yards and 45 touchdowns and caught 249 passes for 2,869 yards and 12 scores during his 12-year career, earning Pro Bowl nods in 1968 and 1969. But his most memorable season might’ve been 1965, when he was forced to play quarterback with starter Johnny Unitas and backup Gary Cuozzo both hurt.
Matte started the Colts’ regular-season finale against the Los Angeles Rams, a playoff game against the Green Bay Packers and the consolation game against the Dallas Cowboys. Baltimore finished the season 10-3-1. At the direction of Shula, Matte wrote down the Colts’ plays on a wristband to make running the offense easier. That wristband is now in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
It wasn’t the first time a coach had switched him to quarterback. Ohio State head coach Woody Hayes had Matte play quarterback in 1959 and 1960.
“I have very small hands. I couldn’t even put my hand around the ball,” Matte said. “Unitas, he’d wrap almost all the way around the football, so he could always throw that wonderful spiral. All my receivers, especially Jimmy Orr, used to laugh. He said, ‘Well, the one thing about Tom Matte, he throws that option ball.’ And I said, ‘What are you talking about, option ball?’ He said, ‘You could catch it at either end.’”
Matte appreciated that Shula put him in the best possible situation in order to succeed in difficult circumstances.
“[Unitas] and I sat down and figured out what I could do. And then we proposed it to Shula, and Shula said, ‘We’ll do this, this and this. This is what I also want you to do,’” Matte said. “He had the final say, but I’ll tell you, he was a great coach. I really respected him.”
Matte touched on several other topics regarding Shula …
On what Shula meant to him as a player:
“I really enjoyed him as a coach, and he cut through the chase. He said, ‘All right, Matte. You’ve got to run that option pattern coming out of the backfield.’ And he’d go through the whole thing and show me. He’d splice film together from the season before, show me all my highlights and what I did right and then he’d show me what I did wrong. He says, ‘Here’s what you have to correct.’ He was a great coach. Not only that, he was very active in the community, he had a wonderful family and the players really enjoyed playing for him.”
On how Shula and Unitas worked together to put the best possible product on the field:
“The thing about Shoes is that he understood that Unitas knew the game offensively. Don Shula knew the game defensively, and he did a tremendous job converting our defense into one of the top in the league. There was active participation between the two of them, who’s going to control what and all that kind of stuff. But when it came down to game time, these two guys were on the same page and made the game what it is and what gave us some great records. It was a team. That was the thing that he really personified in making his coaching decisions is to make sure that we were all together and one the same page.”
On Shula becoming one of the faces of the NFL:
“He had a great example in Carroll Rosenbloom, the owner here. Shoes just picked up right with him. He wanted the players to be active in the community. He personified what you wanted to have as a coach and a PR guy. He did a great job, and he had a wonderful family. We watched them all grow up. They were ball boys and all this kind of stuff. We all respected him. I really enjoyed him. He became a great, great friend when I got into the broadcasting business. Anytime I had his game, he made sure I had all the information.”
This has been updated since its original publication to correct what games Matte played quarterback in.
For more from Matte, listen to the full interview here:
Photo Credit: Courtesy of the Miami Dolphins