Published May 4, 2020
To Lions fans, Don Shula was always the “one who got away.”
It’s true, on the surface.
Shula’s Hall of Fame coaching career, outside of Baltimore and Miami, is never more conspicuous than in Detroit, because Shula was a hotshot young assistant for the Lions from 1960-62, when he was ages 30-32.
It’s tempting to blame the Lions, because usually they’re shooting themselves in the cleats. For more than 60 years, they’ve been the pro football franchise that can’t get out of its own way.
But when it comes to Shula, who passed away earlier today at age 90, there really isn’t blame involved. Just poor timing. Then again, the Lions have been victims of that plenty of times as well.
Carroll Rosenbloom was one of those pro sports owners whose ego and hubris often bled into how he ran his teams—and not always for the good. Unfortunately for the Lions, Rosenbloom’s boldness worked out just fine—for his Baltimore Colts.
At the end of the 1962 season, Rosenbloom was thought to be mulling over the removal of iconic coach Weeb Ewbank after nine years, which included the 1958 NFL Championship for the Colts. Weeb had two years remaining on his contract, but Rosenbloom wasn’t happy with the team’s downward trend since the legendary OT win over the Giants to win the ’58 title.
Rosenbloom did indeed fire Ewbank in early 1963, and the Baltimore owner set his sights on a former Colt defensive back who was making some noise in Detroit, coaching DBs and functioning as the de facto defensive coordinator.
It didn’t matter to Rosenbloom that Shula was only 33 years old. All the Colts owner saw was a Lions defense that had become dominant—arguably the league’s best. Shula’s 1962 Lions defense allowed the fewest yards and second fewest points in the NFL. It was a defense largely built on the backs of the original Fearsome Foursome: ends Sam Williams and Darris McCord, and tackles Alex Karras and Roger Brown.
Rosenbloom hired Shula to coach the Colts in 1963, and Shula brought an NFL Championship to Baltimore in 1968. Of course, that was blunted by the famous upset by the New York Jets in Super Bowl III.
Joe Robbie, another sometimes bombastic owner, hired Shula away from the Colts to run his Miami Dolphins in 1970. The legend grew from there.
The Lions had a good thing going in 1963, when Shula left them. They were a force in the NFL (11-3 in 1962), and had there been a wild card back then, the Lions would have been it. Their head coach was George Wilson, a man beloved by his players and the one who delivered the last Lions championship in 1957.
There really was no reason for the Lions to sack Wilson in ’63 and replace him with 33-year-old Don Shula.
Enter Bill Ford.
Ford emerged as the team’s sole owner on Nov. 22, 1963—a date that will live in infamy in Detroit for reasons other than the obvious. After letting Wilson coach one more season, a disappointing one to be sure (7-5-2), Ford demanded that Wilson fire some assistants in order to keep his job. Wilson refused, and quit.
By then, Shula was preparing to start his third season as Colts coach. He was long gone from the Motor City.
Timing is everything, they say.
Yes, Don Shula was the one who got away, but it’s rather disingenuous to posit it that way. Just like it is to rag on the Lions for not seeing the brilliance of Bill Belichick, who was a measly TE coach for them in 1977.
Far be it from me to defend the Lions, but when it comes to Shula and Belichick, I can’t with any credibility, blame them for what happened.
Shula gave a nod to his time with the Lions in his HOF acceptance speech in 1997.
“I started my coaching career in the National Football League as an assistant coach with the Detroit Lions in 1960, ’61 and ’62, and the memorable game in that period of time is when nobody was beating the Green Bay Packers and Vince Lombardi. We beat them on Thanksgiving Day (1962) in a great, great performance. I think we had 12 quarterback sacks in that ball game and then, again as a defensive coach, I was given a lot of credit for that success. This led me to have the opportunity to become a head coach in the National Football League; the Colts were looking.”
Yes they were. Timing is everything.