Don Shula could have been Detroit’s. Perhaps, for a long time. And it’s lovely to think that his virile, no-gloss sideline stature, spiced by a voice deep and Hollywoodesque, would have been a Lions fixture for a decade or two.
It probably wouldn’t have happened. Not unless the real root to Lions issues the past 60-plus years — front-office skill — would have been different with Shula as head coach.
We never will know, we can’t know, and it hardly matters to the NFL world at-large as Shula, who died Monday at age 90, is today gloried and remembered.
Shula won more games than any other NFL head coach (347), with Miami and earlier with Baltimore, but before he was picked as Colts head coach in 1963, at age 33, he had spent the previous three seasons coaching Lions defenders as an assistant on George Wilson’s staff. The final two he worked as Wilson’s defensive coordinator at a point the term was first entering football’s lexicon.
Here’s where Shula came to personify life under late Lions owner William Clay Ford.
Someone else had identified his greatness.
Shula, who was born and raised along the Lake Erie shoreline northeast of Cleveland, had been a hotshot at John Carroll University and then played defensive back for the Browns and Colts.
The Colts had an owner, Carroll Rosenbloom, a shrewd man, who had seen while Shula was in Baltimore that a defensive back was as much NASA engineer as he was football player.
Analyzing, photographing, dissecting, X-raying plays and schematics — Shula had the DNA of two men he had either played or coached for: Paul Brown and Blanton Collier.
Thus, Rosenbloom was just fine with Shula being, at the time, the youngest man to head a NFL team.
He had some splendid years with the Colts (71-23-4 in the regular season), then even grander times in Miami, winning two Super Bowls.
And yet the Lions never forgot that Shula once had been theirs. Nor did an owner forget, even if he had a tendency to not see in his assistant coaches the potential other NFL clubs were seizing on.
Which is where Shula again is tied to Lions coaching lineage.
It was January of 1978 and the Lions, as was their habit, were looking for a new head coach after jettisoning Tommy Hudspeth.
It has always been suspected that Ford called Shula for thoughts. Shula, it is believed, recommended his faithful past line coach and offensive coordinator, Monte Clark, who a year earlier had wrapped up a short stint as 49ers head coach.
This was after the Lions had tried to swipe another man who then was working for Rosenbloom’s new team, the Rams.
Chuck Knox had been an assistant on Joe Schmidt’s staff from 1967-72 and had since been winning a string of NFC division titles as Rams head coach. In the late ‘70s, he now was Ford’s target as Knox and Rosenbloom squabbled. But there were legal and compensation issues in any Knox move to Detroit and nothing came of Ford’s romancing.
As, of course, nothing had come of Lions assistants, at least in terms of promotion, in the ‘60s and ‘70s. They often went on to happy seasons as head coaches elsewhere after leaving Detroit as, well, assistants, failing to overly impress a Lions owner until other teams had done the identification and certification.
Among the group: Shula, Knox, Jerry Glanville, and a guy who had been a Lions assistant in 1976 and ’77 — Bill Belichick.
Decades of Lions soap-opera scripts followed. Shula, meanwhile, with Bob Griese at quarterback, or with Earl Morrall filling in, or with Dan Marino flinging endless touchdown passes, simply won football games by the bushel. All the winning included an immaculate 1972 ream: 17-0.
He had about him such aura: the resonant voice and commander-in-charge mien, and with it a sense of effortlessness that distinguishes true vocation and talent.
The two seasons Shula spent in Detroit as Wilson’s defensive coordinator, in 1961 and ’62, aren’t always appreciated. The Lions were sniffing follow-ups to their ’50s championship seasons, going 8-5-1 and finishing second to the Packers in the NFL West, and then, a year later, 11-3 and maybe missing the NFL championship game because of a bad Milt Plum pass in the dying moments of a game at Green Bay the Lions had all but won.
Shula, by that time, was in his final weeks with Detroit.
Rosenbloom soon was to call. The Colts were about to exploit a young coach’s relative genius.
And a man, now known by a younger generation maybe more for his steakhouse restaurants than for his coaching splendor, was headed on a lustrous arc to NFL immortality.
He was once Detroit’s. He became, more broadly and perhaps more properly, America’s definitive football coach. Don Shula’s majesty was real. Today, it endures.
Lynn Henning is a freelance writer and former Detroit News sports reporter.