The mind’s eye is a powerful force, bringing the characters of our past to life in just the way we want to remember them. Like dreams of our own making, we close our eyes and recall the best of times.
When Upton Bell remembers his old friend Don Shula, he sees not the man who died Monday at 90 having spent his latter years mostly in a wheelchair, but the young coach who once ruled the sidelines for the Baltimore Colts.
He remembers the days that framed his own professional Camelot, when the man who would go on to become the NFL’s winningest coach was just getting that historic résumé going, when a shocking loss to the upstart Jets in Super Bowl III wasn’t the career-crusher it would have been for a lesser man, but the springboard for Shula’s run from Baltimore to Miami to the record books.
“I think of him on these 100-degree days and he was running gassers with his own players,” Bell said from his Cambridge home, mining the memories of his time as director of player personnel for the Colts before he would head north to take over as wunderkind general manager of the Patriots.
“I think of that youthful guy full of fire, all those characteristics that I love about people. It’s sad to think of the ending, like an era has ended. But I feel I was really lucky to have had that experience. My wish is that people knew the great person he was.”
That’s a tough sell in these parts, where Shula is known as much for his pointed criticism of Bill Belichick as he is for his perfect 1972 season. Any team’s assault on the undefeated Dolphins’ championship seemed to give Shula license to root, openly and without remorse, against it.
Belichick is the only one who’s ever really gotten close (and the only one with any realistic chance of passing Shula at the top of the all-time victory list). But even as the Dolphins popped their celebratory (if unseemly) champagne corks after the Giants shocked the Patriots in the Super Bowl following a perfect 2007 regular season, it wasn’t enough for Shula.
He called Belichick “Beli-cheat” in a 2015 interview with the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, a reference to the SpyGate incident in 2007. Later that year, at a celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Dolphins, Shula took aim at the Patriots’ second scandal, saying, “We always tried to do it by the rules and set an example for those that are looking for an example. It was always done with a lot of class, and a lot of dignity. We didn’t deflate any balls."
Belichick traveled the high road in remembering Shula, though you know it has to sting that the coach of the team he rooted for as a kid, one he’s always held in high esteem, said those things.
From Bell’s point of view, the remarks were never about Shula poking a bear or inciting a fan base. It’s just how he felt. If the man’s reputation was about one thing above all, it was integrity. He respected rules, didn’t cut corners, and dominated the sport anyway.
“Shula wasn’t doing that to make fun of Belichick or to be a cheap-shot artist, which everyone thought around here,” Bell said. “That’s what he thought. He thought that anybody willing to break the rules of the game, he might have had respect for what they did, but not for them.”
Belichick put the comments aside in a Monday statement, calling Shula “one of the all-time great coaching figures and the standard for consistency and leadership in the NFL.”
In that, he joined a national chorus of voices more than willing, even in these days, to pause and appreciate Shula’s extraordinary life. His innovative football mind, his lifelong influence on his players, his dedication to his church and his family, his legendary toughness on the field and charisma off it, his ability to win with three different Hall of Fame quarterbacks (Johnny Unitas, Bob Griese, Dan Marino) but also with a few backup ones (Earl Morrall twice, and Don Strock), his foresight in putting the league above team in all those years on the NFL Competition Committee.
“What I remember is that his teams were beautifully coached; like Toscanini conducting an orchestra, everything was in concert,” recalled Ernie Accorsi, who arrived in Baltimore a year after Shula left for Miami, spending years in the Colts front office (before heading to the Giants) battling Shula-coached teams.
“They never made a mistake, didn’t fumble, didn’t jump offside, always led the league in least penalties,” added Accorsi, who began a long friendship with Bell in Baltimore. “So tough to play against because they never beat themselves; you had to beat them. They executed flawlessly.
“Personally, I would say the key characteristic was his integrity.”
Yet Shula wasn’t strict or strident, at least not to an unreasonable degree. There’s the great anecdote about the players who went on a fishing trip late in that ’72 season, caught a baby alligator, and hid it in the coach’s shower. Upon the shock of seeing the reptile, Shula crashed into the locker room, angrily demanding to know who’d done it. But rather than direct continued ire at culprit Manny Fernandez, Shula laughed.
It was a moment many team members pointed to as releasing just the right amount of tension to run the table on the season.
He’s the man who allowed himself to leave practice early only to care for his first wife, who died of cancer in 1991. Bell, out of football at that point and working for WBZ, remembered an interview with Shula about it, the two men doing their best to contain their emotions. He remembered all the great traits of Shula, so open to debate and reasoned opinion, so willing to let a young personnel man like Bell make vital draft picks (his 1965 class included Mike Curtis, Ralph Neely, Al Atkinson, and Marty Schottenheimer), so respected that Bell would recommend a top front office hire he couldn’t make for the Patriots to Shula, sending Bobby Beathard his way.
He was a man kind enough to seek out Bell after a Week 9 game in New England in 1972, when signs behind the visitors’ bench were calling for the GM’s ouster, and a 37-21 Dolphins victory didn’t help his cause. Shula, talking with the great Globe columnist Will McDonough, heard Bell’s job might be in jeopardy.
“Shula told the bus to wait and walked up to my office, walked in and said, ‘Are you OK?’ ” Bell recalled.
“What do you mean?” Bell replied.
“Are you OK?” Shula asked again. “I don’t like what I saw behind the bench. I don’t like it.”
When Bell said simply, “I don’t know,” Shula reiterated, “I just wanted to check.”
“Pretty moving,” Bell recalled. “How many guys would do that? That’s what I would like to convey. He was a great coach, smarter than anyone, but not a big ego.
"I’ve loved it here, have lived here for 40 years, but what I would say is this: Those six years there were probably six of the best years of my professional and private life. I’m not thinking misty-eyed about the past, but it’s a time that changed all of our lives.”
Shula’s long life ended Monday. His impact? Eternal.