Bill Belichick, still coaching the Patriots at the age of 68, will go into his 70s chasing the ghost of Don Shula, who died Monday at the age of 90.
Belichick is all about football history, and that makes him all about Don Shula. Shula is the winningest coach in NFL history with 328 regular-season wins and 347 including playoffs. Belichick is at 273 and 304. There can be no doubt Belichick wants the record.
The Hoodie already came close to Shula’s “other” record. Shula’s 1972 Dolphins are the only perfect team (17-0) in NFL history. Belichick’s 2007 Patriots got to 18-0 before the bubble burst in Glendale, Ariz., against David Tyree and the New York Giants.
Growing up in Annapolis, the son of a Navy football coach, Belichick had to be in awe of the thirtysomething Shula. The Colts were the gods of Maryland, and Shula was their young coach throughout Billy Belichick’s teen years.
The two coaching legends intersected briefly in the 1990s, when Shula was finishing with the Dolphins and Belichick was in his first head coaching stint with the Browns. Their teams met twice, in ’92 and ’93, with Miami winning both times.
In retirement, Shula watched Belichick ascend to the top of the NFL coaching pyramid. He saw Belichick close in on his records. And he started to get more bold in his normally reserved remarks. Shula was all about integrity and level playing fields, and late in life he pushed back at Belichick, calling him “Beli-cheat” in 2015. Later that year, Shula said that his teams won with class and dignity and “didn’t deflate any balls.”
Awkward. After a lifetime of guarding his words, Shula let it rip in the final five years of his life, like grandpa after Thanksgiving dinner. Knowing this, the Dolphins made him less available in his final years.
Belichick took the high road when he issued his four-sentence statement after Shula died Monday. But Shula’s late-life slaps are going to hurt as Belichick approaches Shula’s record over the next five seasons.
A roundup of folks who knew Shula reveals a man who was all about rules and integrity.
"The guy was a role model for me,'' said Hall of Famer (Pro Football, not Patriot) Bill Parcells. "When I came into the league, Coach [Tom] Landry, Shula, [Chuck] Noll, and [Chuck] Knox — those were the guys.
“I didn’t know Shula well, but he was very steady and consistent. You knew when you played his team that you had to be prepared. If not, you were going to lose.”
"He was the noblest of them all,'' said pioneering reporter Lesley Visser, who first covered the NFL for the Globe in 1976, went on to CBS, and wound up with Parcells in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. "Coach Shula had grace, dignity, was honest and a brilliant coach.
“On road trips, he had a 10 p.m. curfew for players. On Saturday night, he would give the hotel bellman a football and ask him to get autographs from any players coming back to the hotel after 10. The next day, he had the names of all the violators. Then he would let the bellman keep the football.”
Shula’s Dolphins tortured the Patriots through the decades. Pat Sullivan, son of Patriots founder Billy Sullivan, remembered a couple of those rare occasions when the Patriots got the better of Miami.
"The first year of Schaefer Stadium , we beat them at home in December,'' said Pat Sullivan. "I was 19 years old and a student at BC and I was ballboy on the Miami sideline for that game.
“Late in the game, some clown came out of the stands and started running down their sideline. I ran out and completely drilled the guy. Anyway, we beat them, 34-13, that day, and after the game Shula was really pissed and said that the ballboy was the only guy on his side that made a good hit all day. He had no idea who I was.”
Sullivan was assistant general manager of the Patriots in 1982 when work-release inmate Mark Henderson drove his snowplow onto the Foxborough field during a snowy, scoreless December game to clear a path for Patriots kicker John Smith to boot a fourth-quarter field goal. Shula was furious after Miami’s 3-0 loss.
“Coach Shula never thought it was funny,” said Sullivan.
“I got the death stare the one time I asked about that,” said Visser. "He really didn’t want to talk about it and would only say, ‘I should have jumped in front of that snowplow.' ’'
Harvey Greene, head of Dolphins public relations for 28 years, said, "I wasn't there for that game, but all the guys who were say it was the most mad they ever saw him. He felt that was outside the rules of the game.
“Coach Shula was a man of ethics and integrity. Ron Meyer was coach of that Patriot team and Shula wouldn’t say his name. He would just call him ‘that coach up North.'
"Shula was old school. On road games, he wanted to go to the stadium for a walk-through on Saturday. In my second year, I was sent to Providence ahead of the team when we had a game scheduled in Foxborough.
"I made all the arrangements and was on the ground at T.F. Green Airport waiting for the plane to arrive. This was before the age of jetways, so they would have that portable set of stairs roll out to the plane on the tarmac. When our stairs rolled out to meet the plane, they didn’t reach the door.
"So the door opens and there’s Shula, looking down at the stairs, glaring at me. I could see smoke coming out of his ears. It took about a half-hour to get the right stairs to the plane. For Shula, this meant we were losing practice time. When they finally got the stairs and came down, Shula walked by me and said, ‘Add that to your [expletive] checklist,’ and stormed onto the bus.
''A similar thing happened in Seattle. They sent me out a week early. I was there to greet them when the team arrived, but on the way to practice, we got caught at railroad tracks while a long freight train went by.
"I was in the front of the bus and I could see Shula stewing as the endless procession of train cars rolled by. Finally he said, ‘Why didn’t you tell us when the train was due?’ And I said, ‘Coach, I didn’t look at the local train schedules.’ He said, ‘What the hell have you been doing here all week?’
"He would not take shortcuts. At training camp, one of the assistant coaches and myself would run laps around the field after practice. We always cut the corners in the end zone, running inside the pylons. Shula would never do that when he ran laps. Even when no one was looking.''
Shula went to daily Mass and would go with Billy Sullivan when the two were at NFL meetings.
"People don’t realize what a straight arrow Don was,'' said Boston attorney Eddie Jenkins, a Holy Cross grad who played two seasons in Miami, including the undefeated season. "You knew he was a person who had high moral character and didn’t tolerate foolishness. He lived his life a certain way.
"Every time we would go on the road, he thought there were spies in the stadium. He always believed people were watching. He thought there were some bad people out there and he wasn’t going to be one of them.
"But that thing about celebrating when an undefeated team would lose? He wasn’t about that. I think he was a lot more gracious than that. When he was asked about another team going undefeated, he said he didn’t mind someone parking in the driveway next to him.''
"He was very proud of the undefeated team and really enjoyed the fact that it was unique in NFL history,'' said Greene. "But he wasn’t one to participate in champagne-popping ceremonies when an unbeaten team finally lost. He always said, ‘If any team goes undefeated, I’ll be the first to congratulate them. Because I know how hard it is to do that.’ ''
Swell. But it didn’t sound like Don Shula wanted Bill Belichick to become the NFL’s winningest coach. And the chase is on.