Fins host 80th birthday bash for Shula

1/2/2010 - NFL Miami Dolphins

MIAMI -- As his 80th birthday party was about to kick off, Don Shula walked through the entrance of the stadium lobby holding his wife's hand and surveying the big room filled with family, friends and former players.

The old coach wore a grin worthy of a Super Bowl celebration.

"If I had known we were going to have all this excitement, I would have been 80 earlier than this," Shula said. "Everybody I see is going to bring back a memory. That's what makes this so special."

He turns 80 Monday, and the Miami Dolphins threw a party Saturday night for the coach who led them to the only perfect season in NFL history and won 347 games, a league record many consider unbreakable.

Black Eyed Peas singer Fergie serenaded Shula with a rendition of "Happy Birthday," and more than 30 of his former players attended. Pro Football Hall of Fame fullback Larry Csonka joked that he came reluctantly.

"I've spent the last 30 years getting Don Shula's voice out of my ears," Csonka said. "To be asked to come here and talk about him and put him back in my ears, I had to think about it a little bit."

Also joining the celebration were NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, current Dolphins coach Tony Sparano, team owner Stephen Ross, former NFL coaches Marty Schottenheimer and Dan Reeves, golfer Ray Floyd and former U.S. Sen. Bob Graham.

"Eighty years young," said Bob Kuechenberg, who played his entire 14-year career for Shula. "You don't know many 80-year-olds who are as together as coach Shula."

The Hall of Fame coach walks with a limp but otherwise looks fit. He played golf Saturday and plans to attend the Dolphins' game Sunday against the Pittsburgh Steelers. He and his wife travel a lot, and he joked he stays busy keeping track of the names of their 16 grandchildren and one great-grandchild.

"I feel great," he said. "I don't feel like I'm 80 years old. I used to think 80 was old. My whole perspective has changed."

He wryly noted that his former players have gotten older. That includes former quarterback Earl Morrall, who's not far behind Shula at 75.

"We're just happy Don made it this long," Morrall said. "When he cut some of the players, they had ill feelings and might have got to him."

Morrall played quarterback on the 1972 Dolphins, who went 17-0 for the NFL's only perfect season. This season's last unbeaten team, the Indianapolis Colts, lost last week to ensure the '72 team's achievement will remain unsurpassed for at least one more year.

"People think we're a bunch of angry old guys who can't wait for that last undefeated team to get beat," Shula said. "We're very proud of our record, and if somebody breaks it, I'm going to call that coach and congratulate them. Until they do, it's our record."

Shula resigned at age 66 following the 1995 season, his 33rd as an NFL head coach and his 26th with the Dolphins. Coincidentally, his 80th birthday party took place one day after 80-year-old Bobby Bowden coached his final game at Florida State.

"My two college football heroes are Bobby Bowden and Joe Paterno for the way they've handled themselves, and their accomplishments, and what they've meant to the game," Shula said.

Shula became the youngest coach in NFL history at age 33 when he took over the Baltimore Colts in 1963. He joined the Dolphins in 1970 and led them to consecutive Super Bowl championships in 1972-73.

Shula also led Miami to the AFC titles in 1982 and 1984. He won 17 postseason games with the Dolphins; the franchise's seven other head coaches have combined for three playoff wins, none since 2000.

As a result of the decade-long drought, Shula's stature in South Florida has only grown since retirement. Schottenheimer and Reeves agreed that his 347 victories will never be matched.

"The longevity and the success he had -- nobody will ever surpass what he did in this business," Schottenheimer said.

Shula said he experienced a letdown when he retired, struggled at first to fill the time and still misses the emotional highs of game day.

Has he considered a coaching comeback?

"If things go well, I might decide to come out of re -- no, not at all," he said with a laugh.

Then he headed upstairs to join the party. Several former players predicted it won't be Shula's last big birthday bash.

"I fully expect, if I'm lucky enough to still be around, to speak at his 100th birthday," Csonka said. "Because can you picture a world without Don Shula in it? Neither can I."