A Conversation with Don Shula

Don Shula, now 80, quit coaching after the 1995 season, but during his 32 years on the NFL sidelines he learned many lessons that helped him successfully transition into a business career.

A Conversation with Don Shula


He holds the NFL record for the most career wins, with 347 victories under his belt; is a member of the NFL Hall of Fame who coached the young Miami Dolphins through a perfect season (17-0) in 1972; and had only two losing seasons in his career.

Don Shula, now 80, quit coaching after the 1995 season, but during his 32 years on the NFL sidelines he learned many lessons that helped him successfully transition into a business career. His Miami Lakes-based Shula Restaurant franchise now boasts 35 restaurants in 17 states, including a Shula’s 347 Grill that opened in Tallahassee in December. He recently sat down with 850 Editor Linda Kleindienst to impart some of his winning wisdom.


‘Obsessed’ with Perfection

As a coach, you want to have the best team. And we want to have the best restaurant. We want everybody to know their assignments and what to do and how to do it and do it in a first-class way. That was my whole coaching philosophy. We never wanted to lose a game because we didn’t know what we were doing or because we were penalized in critical situations. We were always the least penalized team, and we prided ourselves in not making mental errors that might cost the ball game.

That same thing applies (to business): knowing what you’re doing, knowing your business and doing it better than your opponent.

There is a great film clip of Larry Csonka, talking about me after a game that we had won but hadn’t played that well. I knew that if we had continued to make those kind of mistakes we weren’t going to be able to win in the future. Csonka is quoted as saying, “Hey, I thought when you won a game the coach was happy. But Shula wasn’t. He was obsessed.”

You made them aware of the fact that you always want to strive for perfection and, if you’re making errors, somebody can get by you.

Losing Isn’t an Option

That’s what is going to separate you from the competition. I guess everybody could sit around a table and say that, but the key is whether or not you practice it, whether you do it.

Molding Many into One

On game day, it’s a team game. There’s nobody who can go out there and do it by themselves. They’ve got to rely on their teammates, they’ve got to trust their teammates. And they’ve got to have that kind of commitment to each other.

A Loser Becomes a Winner

When I got there in 1970, (the Dolphins) were 3-10-1. They’d never had a winning season. We turned that around. We went 10 and 4 the first year. And then we got beat in the first round of the playoffs by the Raiders. And the next year we got to the Super Bowl and lost to Dallas. And then the next year was the perfect season.

There were some good players there, but they didn’t know how to win. I had this elaborate schedule for them when I took over, to say this is how we’re going to do things. They didn’t know what hit them. They were walking around complaining, bitching and moaning about everything. And then we won. (After that) they bought into it, knowing that hard work equals success.

Taking Chances

My big decision (came) after college. I was offered a teaching/coaching job at Canton Lincoln High School in Canton, Ohio, for $3,750 a year, coaching and teaching math. And I was drafted in the ninth round by the Cleveland Browns. They offered me a contract for $5,000 if I made the team. So I decided to shoot for the moon — I decided I don’t want to some day try to think whether or not I could have made it in the NFL. So I decided to take that shot.

Signs of a Good Leader

You always have to learn as much as you can from the people that you’ve been around, but do it in the framework of your own personality and don’t try to be somebody other than who you are. That’s probably one of the biggest lessons that I had to learn.

Reflections on Game Day

There’s nothing that replaces game day. You think about … the decision-making, the highs and lows, the emotional rollercoaster that you’re on. That sideline is not a place for the faint of heart.