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Don Shula’s Assistant Coaching Career

This is part two of a four-part series about Coach Shula’s life and career. This article focuses on his time as a college assistant and as defensive coordinator for the Detroit Lions before he became head coach of the Baltimore Colts and Miami Dolphins.


There weren’t any secrets about Shula’s potential as a coach. Many of his teammates and coaches recognized it. The consensus was that Shula’s abilities as a head coach might dwarf his accomplishments as a player. That prediction turned out to be true. Indeed, people are often surprised to learn about Shula’s NFL playing career. You can read about Don Shula’s early life and playing career in this post..


Shula got his first coaching shot immediately after he retired from playing. First-year University of Virginia head coach Dick Voris hired Shula as an assistant for the 1958 season. Things looked promising at the start – Virginia started out 1-1, the loss being a close, season opener against a ranked Clemson club. The win in the second game of the season turned out to be the only win of Voris’ three-year stint with the Cavaliers.


Thankfully for Shula, he got an offer the University of Kentucky for 1959 and missed out on Virginia’s back-to-back winless seasons. The coach at Kentucky was Blanton Collier, a man who served as an assistant coach under Paul Brown when Shula played for Cleveland. Collier left the Browns to take the helm at Kentucky when Bear Bryant left the school after the 1953 season. He saw enough of Shula to know his potential coaching skills.

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Blanton Collier hired Don Shula at Kentucky

Two other assistant coaches on that Kentucky team played roles in Shula’s future success: Bill Arnsparger and Howard Schnellenberger. Blanton Collier had previously been Bill Arnsparger’s football coach in high school and Schnellenberger’s college coach for two seasons.

Shula spent one year at Kentucky before the NFL knocked on his door.


The Detroit Lions hired Shula as a defensive backfield coach for the 1960 season. Shula inherited a secondary with three future Hall of Famers: Night Train Lane, Yale Lary, and Dick LeBeau.  

Lions head coach George Wilson previously won the 1957 NFL Championship piloting the Lions. Before that, he served as an assistant coach for the Lions through their run of championships in the early 1950s. As a player, Wilson threw a famous open-field block for the Chicago Bears in the 1940 NFL Championship Game that took out two Washington Redskins defenders on a touchdown run by Bill Osmanski.

Wilson promoted Shula to defensive coordinator in 1961. Besides that tremendous secondary, Shula added Hall of Famers Joe Schmidt and Alex Karras under his command, not to mention standout linemen Darris McCord and Roger Brown.

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Detroit Lions Head Coach George Wilson with Joe Schmidt and Alex Karras

Shula stayed as defensive coordinator for two seasons. Statistically, the Lions placed third in the NFL in 1961 and second in 1962. Shula was the Lions’ defensive coordinator for Detroit’s famous Thanksgiving Game victory over the Green Bay Packers in 1962. It was the only loss the Packers had all season. (FUN FACT: the Packers Defensive Line coach in 1962 was Dick Voris, the man who hired Don Shula at the University of Virginia).

1960s Playoff Bowl

Those Lions teams didn’t make the playoffs but finished in the Runner-Up Bowl (also called the Playoff Bowl) each of those three seasons. It is noteworthy that the Lions won all three of those games and that under today’s format they would have easily made the playoffs.

The Lions share a common thread of barely missing the playoffs with a team Don Shula would soon direct as head coach: the Baltimore Colts. History doesn’t answer the question of how those Lions and Colts teams might have fared in an expanded playoff format. However, it certainly answers if Shula could attain his potential in the National Football League as a head coach. The answer is a resounding, “Yes.”

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.comBarnes and NobleUniversity of Nebraska Press

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