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Don Shula Colts Head Coach

Don Shula Baltimore Colts Head Coach

Don Shula is a name that resonates with excellence in the realm of football coaching. While most remember him as the legendary leader of the Miami Dolphins, Shula’s tenure as the head coach of the Baltimore Colts from 1963 to 1969 was marked by notable achievements and laid the foundation for his illustrious coaching career. Despite those achievements, Shula’s time with the Colts was marred due to a crushing defeat to the Cleveland Browns in the 1964 NFL Championship Game. However, the Colts loss to the New York Jets in Super Bowl 3 remains the most infamous loss in Shula’s coaching history.

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Shula’s time with the Dolphins, especially the undefeated 1972 season, made Shula’s name synonymous with championships. However, previous to his back-to-back championships with Miami in 1972 and 1973, he lost to heavy underdogs in championship games as head coach of the Colts. Although it might be hard to believe that fans and writers questioned if Shula could win a Super Bowl, his losses in the 1964 NFL Championship, Super Bowl 3, and later Super Bowl 6 raised the question.

Shula as Colts Head Coach

Colts owner Carrol Rosenbloom looked to make a change after the 1962 season. We wanted to replace head coach Weeb Ewbank, a man who Don Shula played for as a player. Rosenbloom asked Colts star defensive Gino Marchetti who he thought would make a great new head coach in Baltimore.

Marchetti suggested Shula.

Rosenbloom knew Shula was likely a great coaching but bristled about his young age. Rosenbloom contacted Shula and asked him if he could handle being a head coach at the age of 33. Shula simply told him that Rosenbloom would have to hire him to find out.

Shula was appointed as the Colts’ head coach in 1963 at the age of 33, making him one of the youngest head coaches in NFL history.

Shula quickly implemented a strict regimen that emphasized discipline, accountability, and attention to detail.

Don Shula’s First Year as Colts Coach

Rosenbloom hired Shula, and Shula took over the Colts for the 1963 season. Shula hired his University of Kentucky pal Bill Arnsparger as defensive line coach. He kept some of Ewbank’s coaches on his staff, however, including Charlie Winner (who was an assistant while Shula played for the Colts), Cleveland native Don McCafferty, and Shula’s former Browns teammate John Sandusky.

The star-studded lineup included many Hall of Famers but Shula said he immediately noticed one weak spot. He needed better blocking from the tight end position. Shula found the perfect remedy by selecting Syracuse tight end John Mackey in the second round of the 1963 NFL Draft. His first round pick also turned out well – tackle Bob Vogel started right away and played for the Colts until 1972.

The whole situation a unique circumstance because Shula was once a teammate of many of the Colts players. Shula had played both with and against many of the Colts as a defensive back. Several of the players were also in their 30s. Gino Marchetti and Bill Pellington were two starters who were actually older than Shula. 

1964 Colts

There was some question as to how the veteran Colts would respond to the youngest coach in the league, especially a man who had been their teammate. Moreover, Shula was younger than a few of the players. There were also questions about whether Shula could effectively lead a coaching staff with members who had once coached him as a player.

Shula answered all the questions quite effectively by leading the Colts to the 1964 NFL Championship Game in just his second year. The Colts lost only one regular season game in 1964 and were heavily favored over the Cleveland Browns.

The 1964 Colts won 11 straight regular season games. Baltimore finished the season with a 12-2 record and were heavily favored going into the 1964 NFL Championship Game against the Cleveland Browns. Colts running back Tony Lorick told The Game before the Money that many writers wondered if the Colts were one of the greatest teams of all time.

The 1964 season came to a disappointing close, however. Although the Colts had the NFL’s highest-scoring offense, they were shut out 27–0. The score shocked many fans outside of the state of Ohio. The Browns coach was Shula’s former boss at Kentucky, Blanton Collier. Shula’s former teammate Dub Jones also played a large role in designing the Browns offense and set up devastating play calls that focused on wide receiver Gary Collins. Collins scored three touchdowns that day.

Don Shula’s Innovative Coaching Style

Under Shula’s guidance, the Colts experienced a transformation in their approach to the game. Shula emphasized discipline, attention to detail, and a strong work ethic. He introduced innovative game plans and strategies that set the team apart from others. His dedication to preparation and relentless pursuit of excellence became defining characteristics of the Baltimore Colts.

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This was not necessarily met well by the players. There have been questions surrounding whether Shula butted heads with star quarterback Johnny Unitas. In the book The Game Before the Money: Voices of the Men Who Built the NFL, Colts running back Tony Lorick suggested that the team wanted to focus their offense on running the ball in the 1964 NFL Championship Game, although Shula focused the offensive game plan on passing.

1968 Colts

The 1968 regular season proved to be a remarkable year for the Baltimore Colts under the leadership of head coach Don Shula. With a record of 13-1, the Colts dominated their opponents and secured their place as one of the most dominant teams in the National Football League (NFL) that season.

Led by quarterback Earl Morrall, who filled in for injured starter Johnny Unitas, the Colts displayed a balanced and formidable offense. The team boasted a potent ground game with running backs Tom Matte and Jerry Hill. Wide receiver Willie Richardson and tight end John Mackey provided reliable targets in the passing game.

The Colts’ defense was equally impressive, anchored by the defensive line consisting of former first-overall draft pick Bubba Smith, Billy Ray Smith, Fred Miller, and Roy Hilton. Their tenacious pass rush and stout run defense stifled opposing offenses throughout the season.

The Colts’ sole regular season loss came in Week 2 against the Cleveland Browns, with a score of 30-20. However, they quickly rebounded, embarking on a 13-game winning streak that showcased their resilience and determination.

With their impressive regular season performance, the Colts clinched the Coastal Division title and earned a spot in the NFL Championship Game. The Colts crushed the Browns 34-0 to gain a spot in Super Bowl 3.

Super Bowl III Baltimore Colts

Super Bowl 3, held on January 12, 1969, took place at the Orange Bowl in Miami, Florida.

The Colts had a dominant regular season and were expected to secure an easy victory in the championship game. However, the Jets had other plans. Jets quarterback Joe Namath, known for his brash confidence, famously guaranteed a victory prior to the game. Namath followed up his boasting by leading New York to a 16-7 victory.

During the game, the Jets’ offense outplayed the Colts’ defense. Namath, displaying exceptional accuracy, completed 17 of 28 passes for 206 yards. The Jets’ running game, spearheaded by Matt Snell, effectively moved the ball against the Colts’ defense. Although Namath was named the game’s Most Valuable Player, many historians say Snell played well enough to earn MVP. Kicker Jim Turner’s field goals also proved highly important.

The Jets’ defense also played a crucial role in their victory, intercepting three passes from the Colts’ quarterbacks. Namath’s composure and the Jets’ resolute defense, plus Turner’s three field goals, proved insurmountable for the Colts.

The Jets beat the Colts in Super Bowl 3. The score as 16 to 7.

The Baltimore Colts’ journey to Super Bowl III stands out as a defining moment in Shula’s career with the team. Despite entering the game as overwhelming favorites, they experienced a disastrous defeat. The loss remains a bitter disappointment for the Colts and their fans decades later.

Shula’s Departure and Legacy

Shula left Baltimore after the 1969 season. He took over the Miami Dolphins in 1970. The Dolphins finished 3-10-1 the previous season under George Wilson, whom Shula worked for with the Lions. Shula turned the Dolphins around, going 10-4 in his first season.

Shula experienced a lot of success in Baltimore, but that success ultimately ended with misfortune. The loss to Cleveland in the 1964 NFL Championship Game stung. Super Bowl 3 was a loss that the Colts and their fans never fully recovered from, despite their win in Super Bowl 5.

Super Bowl 3 proved so devastating that not everyone remembers that Don Shula was the Colts head coach. Fewer still remember that Chuck Noll was an assistant coach on Shula’s staff. Both ended their careers as Hall of Fame coaches. Shula’s success in Miami ultimately erased his traumatic losses in Baltimore, although those losses affected the franchise and fans decades later.

Hear More on The Game Before the Money Podcast:

Looking for a great NFL history book? Check out The Game Before the Money: Voices of the Men Who Built the NFL available at — Amazon.com – Barnes and Noble – University of Nebraska Press

Like sports history? Listen to The Game Before the Money Podcast! Most episodes include stories from legendary football stars.

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