Don Shula was already a legendary head coach, the perfect coach of the perfect 1972 Super Bowl VII Dolphins, when I started covering the Walt Michaels 1977 Jets.
And here’s what I remember about Shula: Every time I asked to interview him, he would always call. It was intimidating for a young reporter, especially when he would bark over the phone following a question he didn’t particularly care for, or was just plain dumb, but he would always call. And he didn’t know me from Adam.
Many years later, during a Super Bowl week — when he had become a kinder, gentler Don, but forever The Don of football coaches and the Don of Miami — I asked him what his reaction was when the Jets passed on Dan Marino in the 1983 draft and selected Ken O’Brien instead.
Shula’s face lit up like a Christmas tree, and with the unbridled joy of a young boy, he smiled a smile for the ages and roared: “Yay!”
Shula, 90, died Monday morning at his South Florida home.
Former Giants GM Ernie Accorsi worked for the Baltimore Colts for most of the 1970s and was their GM in 1982 and ’83. He arrived in Baltimore as public relations director in 1970, when Shula was lured away from the Colts by Dolphins owner Joe Robbie.
Accorsi was a longtime witness to Shula’s greatness, to why he would win 347 games and become the NFL’s winningest coach.
“His teams were so beautifully orchestrated,” Accorsi told The Post. “Everything was precision. … They didn’t make any mistakes. They were not gonna beat themselves, they were not gonna give you the game, they never fumbled, they never jumped offside. He took the talent he had and used it perfectly.
“It seemed like it was always second-and-5. He would give the ball to [Larry] Csonka and he’d get 5 yards on that. Now you got [Paul] Warfield and Mercury Morris and [Bob] Griese can do anything they want to you.
“But playing against him was like a slow death. I mean, they would just methodically move down the field, and they just would never make a mistake. They were just beautifully coached.”
Shula, his famous jaw forever jutting from here to John Carroll University, where he played, coached John Unitas in Baltimore, Bob Griese and Dan Marino in Miami. He won his two Super Bowls with Griese, lost to the Super Bowl III Jets with Earl Morrall and a wounded Unitas in relief, lost with Griese to Tom Landry’s “Doomsday” Cowboys, and lost to the Bill Walsh-Joe Montana 49ers with Marino.
“You never saw Shula with a headset,” Accorsi said. “They would call a play on a timeout or something, but for the most part, he had smart quarterbacks, he prepared them perfectly and they called the plays.”
Shula regretted failing to win a championship with Marino.
“It wasn’t a slow death with Marino. It was a quick-striking death,” Accorsi said with a laugh, of Shula’s shift in offensive strategy. “He adapted, that’s the amazing thing about him. “
When Griese was sidelined with a fractured fibula and dislocated ankle in Week 5, Morrall led the Dolphins to 11 consecutive wins during the perfect season.
“He played with his backup quarterback most of that season,” Accorsi said. “As he did in ’68 in Baltimore. So the one thing about Don is he would adapt to whatever his personnel was.”
And, much to the 1982 Jets chagrin, to the weather as well. Michaels was livid that Shula hadn’t covered the Orange Bowl with a tarpaulin during a virtual monsoon before the 1982 AFC Championship game — aka the Mud Bowl — when Richard Todd threw five interceptions in what turned out to be Michaels’ last game.
“Shula was a competitor, now,” Accorsi said.
The rest of the league had a far different opinion of Shula than Michaels and the Jets did.
“As a person, he had unimpeachable integrity,” Accorsi said. “I was in a lot of competition committee meetings over the years where he was co-chairman with [former Giants GM] George Young for a while. And it was always the league first and the rules first. You could trust what he was gonna think, that’s just the way he was.”
He was 2-4 in the Super Bowl. But it didn’t stop the NFL from remembering Don Shula as its perfect coach.
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