Don Shula and Bill Belichick are two of the most successful coaches in NFL history, but only one of them can be called “The Greatest”.
Who is the greatest coach of all time, Bill Belichick or Don Shula? Not surprisingly, that is a question that inspires ardent passions, not just among New England Patriots’ and Miami Dolphins’ fans, but across the entire NFL spectrum. And yet, unlike so many sports hypotheticals, this most mystifying of conundrums may, in fact, have a clear cut answer, but in order to reach it, we must dig deep, past well-worn statistics, to the fascinating stories they mask.
To that end, we will compare these two giants of the game in six unique categories: regular season performance, post season performance, player development, the level of competition in each of their eras, head-to-head matchups and character.
THE REGULAR SEASON
Needless to say, both Shula and Belichick have enjoyed tremendous success throughout their long and storied careers. However, there is one important distinction that isn’t immediately evident when looking at their regular season win-loss totals. It is a detail that makes Shula’s staggering record even more impressive.
|All-Time Rank||Seasons||Wins||Losses||Ties||Winning Percentage|
Belichick’s achievements have all come under the current 16 game format, but Shula spent the first 15 seasons of his 33 year career competing under a 14 game format. Additionally, in 1982, Shula coached an abbreviated 9 game schedule due to a players strike. As such, if measured by the modern 16 game format, the number of games Shula coached is equivalent to 30 seasons and 11 games, making his mark of 328 wins all the more titanic.
The other amazing thing on Shula’s resume is that he was able to finish his 33 year career with an incredible .677 winning percentage. This is particularly impressive considering that the winning percentage of most coaches tends to fall off towards the tail end of their careers. It happened to Shula, and in all likelihood, it will happen to Belichick, making it nearly impossible for him to surpass Shula’s mark. To better illustrate this point, let us look at the former Dolphins coach’s win-loss record after 336 games, which is the exact number of games Belichick has coached to this point.
As we can see, when comparing the two coaches at the same stage of their careers, Shula’s numbers weren’t just better; they were vastly superior. More daunting still, in order for Belichick to break Shula’s all-time wins record, he would need to maintain his current winning percentage until the age of 75. An unlikely feat, to be sure, especially considering he has already suffered five losing seasons during his 21 years in the NFL, while Shula endured just two losing campaigns over 33 seasons. Thus, we must conclude that Shula’s record will remain intact long after Belichick has retired.
THE POST SEASON
This aspect of our evaluation is interesting because it is something of an apples to oranges comparison.
|Playoff Appearances||Divisional Titles||Playoff Record||Super Bowl Appearances||Super Bowls Won|
At first glance, it would appear as though Belichick has the clear advantage. Yet, if we take into account how the NFL playoffs have evolved over the past 53 years, the gap between these two legends becomes substantially narrower.
|# of Playoff Teams||2||4||8||12|
|# of Divisions||2||4||6||6|
|# of Times Shula Reached the Playoffs||2||1||12||4|
The changes initiated by the NFL between Shula’s first season and Belichick’s rookie campaign were monumental in scope, and they resulted in two fundamental consequences that are impossible to ignore. It is now much easier to qualify for the playoffs, therefore, the level of competition on the road to the Super Bowl has been significantly reduced.
|Belichick’s Career||1991-1995 & 2000-2001||2002-Present|
|# of Playoff Teams||12||12|
|# of Divisions||6||8|
|# of Times Belichick Reached the Playoffs||2||12|
As we can see from these timelines, Shula spent 27 of his 33 years in the league under a set of rules that made it much more difficult to succeed than has been the case during Belichick’s tenure. Proof of this watered down effect lies in the fact that during Shula’s era, no team ever made the playoffs with a losing record. Yet, that anomaly has already occurred twice during Belichick’s time. Both the 7-9 Seattle Seahawks of 2010, and the 7-8-1 Carolina Panthers of 2014, not only won their divisions, but a first round playoff game as well.
Thus, after reviewing how drastically the playoff format has changed over the decades, any notion that Shula and Belichick’s post season records can be compared at face value loses all validity. What remains beyond doubt is that, regardless of changes to the system, Shula’s presence in the playoffs was a constant over four decades. He qualified for the post season three times in the 60s, seven times in the 70s, five times in the 80s, and four times in the 90s. He is also the only coach to lead teams from both conferences to the Super Bowl, as well as the only coach to reach the Super bowl in three separate decades.
While getting to the playoffs was considerably more difficult in Shula’s time, Belichick deserves his due given the fact that he has won four Super Bowls and managed a .730 post season winning percentage. Thus, when it comes to post season success, he edges out Shula, but not by much.
DEVELOPING GREAT PLAYERS
A hallmark of elite coaches is their ability to turn good players into great players. Even so, a few, like Bill Belichick, rely on a system rather than personnel. To illustrate the difference between these two schools of thought, below are lists of current Hall of Famers who have played under Shula and Belichick for at least five seasons.
Hall of Famers
Hall of Famers
Raymond Berry WR 1963-1967NAJim Parker OT 1963-1967NALenny Moore RB 1963-1967NAJohn Mackey TE 1963-1969NAJohnny Unitas QB 1963-1969NANick Buoniconti LB 1969-1974, 1976NAPaul Warfield WR 1970-1974NALarry Csonka RB 1970-1974, 1979NAJim Langer C 1970-1979NALarry Little G 1970-1980NABob Griese QB 1970-1980NADwight Stephenson C 1980-1987NADan Marino QB 1983-1999NA
Needless to say, this chart is a stark example of the difference between these two men. Shula, a master teacher, coached thirteen all-time greats, while Belichick, in 21 years as a head coach, has yet to produce a single player who is currently enshrined in the Hall of Fame. Of course, there are those who will argue that Belichick is still coaching, and as such, may yet give rise to several Hall of Famers. That argument has some validity, but not nearly as much as one might suspect, particularly considering five of the men on Shula’s list (Unitas, Warfield, Berry, Parker and Moore) were already Hall of Famers by Shula’s 21st year.
Tom Brady is, of course, a shoe in to get into Canton. Richard Seymour, Logan Mankins, Wes Welker, Vince Wilfork and Rob Gronkowski are all viable contenders as well. But even if we assume they will all make it into the Hall, and that is a huge assumption, Belichick would still only have six players in Canton, less than half of what Shula has thus far.
I say “thus far” because there are several more Dolphins who may eventually be enshrined. Seven time Pro Bowler Richmond Webb, six time pro Bowler Bob Kuechenberg, five time Pro Bowlers John Offerdahl, Jake Scott, Bob Baumhower, Bill Stanfill and Mark Clayton are all every bit as qualified as the Patriots previously mentioned, and they have Shula’s guidance to thank for it.
Shula’s ability to get the most out of his players was perhaps best summed up by former Houston Oilers coach Bum Phillips when he said, “Don Shula can take his’n and beat your’n and take your’n and beat his’n.”
“Don Shula can take his’n and beat your’n and take your’n and beat his’n.”
Another great example of Shula’s player oriented mindset versus Belichick’s system oriented approach can be seen in the way each reached the pinnacle of the sport. Shula used six different QBs (Johnny Unitas, Earl Morrell, Bob Griese, David Woodley, Don Strock, or WoodStrock as they were affectionately known, and Dan Marino) to get to his six Super Bowls. Bill Belichick, on the other hand, reached his six Super Bowls with just Tom Brady.
While Belichick’s achievement is remarkable, it raises an interesting question. Who deserves the lion’s share of the credit for New England’s success, Brady and his talent, or Belichick’s systematic approach? While some may argue that an answer won’t come until Brady retires, we already have one clue as to what a Belichick coached team may look like without Brady. As mentioned earlier in this article, Belichick has suffered five losing seasons in 21 years, and as it happens, all five came with someone other than Brady at quarterback.
LEVEL OF COACHING COMPETITION
When determining a coach’s place among the legends of the game, we must consider the quality of competition each has faced. To that end, let us begin by examining a list of the other top ten coaches of all time to determine how many of them overlapped with Shula and Belichick’s careers.
|Coach||Regular Season Wins||Seasons Overlapping With Shula||Seasons Overlapping With Belichick|
|Total Season Overlapped||111||26|
As we can see from this chart, Shula’s career was not only filled with more of the NFL’s most successful coaches, but his time in the NFL overlapped theirs for the staggering equivalent of 111 seasons. By comparison, Belichick did not face any of the top four listed here, and his tenure overlapped the careers of the bottom four the equivalent of just 26 seasons.
While those statistics would lead us to conclude that Shula faced much greater coaching competition during his era, one could argue that long and successful careers are not the only measure of a truly great coach. So, with that in mind, let us also take into account coaches who have won multiple Super Bowls as well. As the chart below shows, here again, Shula’s era is loaded with many more elite coaches.
The Shula Era1991-1995
The Shula/Belichick Era1996-1999
Neither Coach was in the league2000-Present
The Belichick EraMultiple Super Bowl WinnersVince Lombardi
Bill ParcellsJimmy JohnsonMike ShanahanTom Coughlin*
*Both of Coughlin’s Super Bowl titles came at Belichick’s expense.
Given the fact that the former Dolphins coach faced superior opposition, and for a far longer period of time than Belichick, the overwhelming advantage in this category goes to Shula.
Needless to say, any attempt to rank great coaches must include some measure of how they did in head-to-head matchups, not only with each other, but against the other elite coaches of their era.
|Coach||Shula’s Record vs Coach||Belichick’s Record vs Coach|
|2-0 vs Belichick||0-2 vs Shula|
|58-35 .623 Win %||15-23 .394 Win %|
As we can see from this chart, not only did Shula go undefeated against Belichick, but he dominated the other great coaches of his era as well. In fact, his only head-to-head losing record came against Vince Lombardi, who was at the height of the Packer’s legendary dynasty when Shula became a rookie head coach. Belichick, on the other hand, has a very poor record against other top coaches. Thus, here again, Shula enjoys a huge advantage.
INTEGRITY AND CHARACTER
This is not a category one would normally expect to find in a comparison of this type. After all, the notion of picking apart Bill Walsh’s character in relation to that of Joe Gibbs or Dan Reeves would be absurd. Yet, in this case, such an analysis is not only apropos, but necessary.
That said, there is no point in dwelling on the details of Spygate, Deflategate, or any of the other possible transgressions involving Belichick and the Patriots. Those have already been covered a thousand times over. Let us, instead, delve into some of the accusations levied against Shula by Patriot fans immediately after the Dolphins’ legend referred to Belichick as “Belicheat” during an interview with Dave Hyde of the South Florida Sun Sentinel in 2015.
Among the allegations that were tossed about, two, in particular, seemed to gain traction on the internet. The first was that Shula had been caught cheating in the early 1970s, just after becoming the Dolphins coach, and the second, that he had somehow used his time on the NFL’s Competition Committee to manipulate rules in Miami’s favor.
Let us begin by disproving the rumor that Shula was punished by the NFL for cheating back in the 70s. While the Dolphins were, indeed, sanctioned by the NFL, it had nothing to do with Shula’s actions. Below is a step-by-step breakdown of what actually occurred.
- Dolphins owner Joe Robbie was interested in hiring Shula away from the Baltimore Colts, and to that end, called Colts owner Carroll Rosenbloom. Rosenbloom, as it happened, was unavailable because he was on a trip to Asia.
- Steve Rosenbloom, the owner’s son, as well as the team’s general manager, spoke to Robbie in his father’s stead.
- During a follow-up phone call, the younger Rosenbloom gave Robbie permission to approach Shula, and explained that he would relay that information to his father.
- Yet, as soon as Robbie hired Shula, the elder Rosenbloom complained to NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle.
- After investigating the matter, Rozelle ruled that Robbie hadn’t spoken to Carroll Rosenbloom directly, and as such, had not followed league protocols.
- As a result, the Colts were awarded the Dolphins’ first round draft choice in the 1971 draft.
As previously stated, Shula did nothing wrong and was not accused of anything by the NFL. The sanction levied against the Dolphins was due solely to Joe Robbie’s actions. So, with that matter settled, let us move on to debunking the ludicrous charge that Shula somehow manipulated league rules to benefit the Dolphins while serving on the NFL’s Competition Committee.
The Competition Committee is comprised of two owners, two team presidents, two general managers, and three 3 coaches appointed by the NFL Commissioner. The role of committee is to survey the league (players, coaches, etc.) and present any proposed rule changes to the team owners. The owners, in turn, vote on whether to accept or reject the proposals. In order for a change to be ratified, it must be approved by 24 of the 32 owners. Thus, there was no way for Shula, or anyone, to tinker with the rules in order to benefit themselves. If anything, Shula’s 20 year stint on the committee speaks to the tremendous respect he’d earned league wide.
Shula’s reputation as a man of integrity was built over many years, but there is, perhaps, one incident from the early 1970s that illustrates his character better than any other. As the story goes, the Dolphins were in Oakland to play John Madden’s Raiders when one of their players came across a Raider’s playbook left behind in the locker room. When the playbook was presented to Shula, rather than go through it to find a competitive advantage, he tossed it in the nearest garbage can for all to see. As such, it is no wonder that decades later, after breaking George Halas’all-time win record, he was named Sports Illustrated’s Sportsman of the Year, an award given to him, not just for the monumental feat he had achieved, but for the manner in which he’d done it.
While some New England fans saw Shula’s criticism of Belichick as the ramblings of a bitter old man, jealous of a younger rival approaching his records. In reality, nothing could be farther from the truth. According to Hyde, Shula had been referring to Belichick as “Belicheat” in private for years. As such, Shula’s denouncement of the Patriot’s head coach was born, not of jealousy, but of a fierce insistence on fair play.
"“I define it as respect,” said Shula, speaking to the Palm Beach Post’s Hal Habib about ten years prior to Deflategate. “That’s the key, is having respect for the people you’re competing against, the individual you’re competing against and the team you’re competing against. If you’ve got that respect, you do things the way they should be done. And that’s sportsmanship.”"
“I define it as respect,” said Shula, speaking to the Palm Beach Post’s Hal Habib about ten years prior to Deflategate. “That’s the key, is having respect for the people you’re competing against, the individual you’re competing against and the team you’re competing against. If you’ve got that respect, you do things the way they should be done. And that’s sportsmanship.”
While fans from both camps will likely continue to debate the integrity of their respective coaches for years to come, there are a few facts that appear irrefutable. Over the past decade or so, it was the Patriots, not the Dolphins, who were fined twice by the league for a total of $1,250,000 due to rules violations. It was New England, and not Miami, that was subsequently stripped of two first and one fourth round draft choices. It was Belichick, not Shula, who was fined $500,000 for attempting to orchestrate an illegal advantage against an opponent. That is why, despite his many astonishing achievements, it is difficult to imagine Belichick being offered a seat on the NFL’s Competition Committee any time soon, or much less, being named Sports Illustrated’s Sportsman of the Year.
That said, Belichick deserves to be mentioned among the greatest coaches ever. After all, his won-loss record is almost comparable to Shula’s, and while he is not a masterful mentor, or hasn’t fared well against many of his elite peers, there is no denying the success of his system, at least with Brady. As such, he merits the title of “Greatest Coach of His Generation”. An impressive accolade, to be sure, but one, as we have seen, that should not be mistaken for “Greatest Coach of All Time”. For that honor is the sole property of Don Shula, the one man in NFL history that achieved perfection, and in his own words, did it “the way it should be done”.