When Dolphin fans think about some of the team’s great trades, the acquisition of Paul Warfield before the start of the 1970 season may be first on the list. Other blockbusters, involving names like Nick Bouniconti, Larry Little and Irving Fryar, also rank high in Dolphin history.
But the best trade the team ever made didn’t involve anyone who put on a uniform. It brought to Miami the person who turned out to be the winningest coach in NFL history -- Don Shula.
On April 13, 1970, 44 years ago today, NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle gave the Dolphins’ 1971 first round pick to the Baltimore Colts as compensation for the signing of Shula by Dolphins owner Joe Robbie two months earlier. The Dolphins have had pretty good success with their first round picks over the years, selecting players like Dan Marino, Bob Griese, and Larry Csonka, among others, with their No. 1 selection, but the signing of Shula in exchange for a first round pick pretty much amounted to a steal.
All Shula did over the next 26 years in Miami was win two Super Bowls, put together the only undefeated team in NFL history, and suffer only two losing seasons, all the while building a record that eventually totaled more wins than any coach in NFL history. In fact, Shula’s success in Miami transcended pro football; his regular season winning percentage of .658 (257-133-2) over those 26 years was the best mark in all of professional sports during that span.
But all that never would have happened if Robbie didn’t go out on a limb in his pursuit of Shula. And while that pursuit eventually resulted in bringing Shula to Miami, it did come at a cost.
Robbie wasn’t happy after the 1969 season, when the Dolphins went 3-10-1 under head coach George Wilson, who had been hired by Robbie before the team’s inaugural season in 1966. Wilson was successful as the head coach of the Detroit Lions before Robbie hired him, but he wasn’t able to duplicate that success in Miami, so the Dolphins owner decided to make a change heading into the 1970 campaign.
But who to hire?
One thing about Joe Robbie -- he never backed down from a challenge and was willing to take risks if he felt the outcome was worth it. It was that determination that led him to build his own stadium more than a decade later, overcoming obstacles that might have stopped a lesser person. He now brought that same attitude to his coaching search.
Robbie talked to respected Miami Herald columnist Edwin Pope, who suggested he consider Shula, who had just finished his seventh season as head coach of the Baltimore Colts. During that time Shula posted a sterling 73-26-4 record with the Colts, including an appearance in Super Bowl III where they were defeated by Joe Namath and the New York Jets. Shula was one of the rising stars in the NFL, and Robbie thought he would be the perfect coach to replace Wilson. But he wasn’t sure how to do it. Any direct contact with Shula would be considered tampering, so Robbie went in a different direction.
In something unthinkable in this day and age, he went back to the Miami Herald for help, enlisting the aid of Dolphin beat writer Bill Braucher.
Like Shula, Braucher had attended John Carroll University in Cleveland and they knew each other through Braucher’s younger brother, John. So it was left to Braucher to make the first contact with Shula to let him know of Robbie’s interest. After opening the door, Braucher then stepped aside and let Robbie and Shula finish the negotiations that culminated with the announcement of Shula’s hiring on February 18th.
“This is a red letter day for the Miami Dolphins,” said Robbie in making the announcement that day, thrilled that he landed the big fish he was seeking.
Similarly, Shula was enthusiastic about his new surroundings. “I am convinced that Miami wants to go all out for a winner,” he said at the press conference, not yet knowing how prophetic his words would be.
There was one problem -- no one told Colts owner Carroll Rosenbloom he was about to lose his head coach, and he wasn’t happy about that. Rosenbloom complained to Rozelle that the Dolphins tampered with Shula, and on April 13th, Rozelle issued a statement backing him up, concluding the Dolphins violated the league’s tampering rule on three counts:
“First, by permitting a third party -- not an employee of an NFL team -- with their full knowledge to initiate contact with Shula.
“Second, by beginning what constituted direct initial negotiations without having contacted the Colts by confirming to Shula their interest in hiring him.
“Third, by failing to make direct contact with the Colts ownership until Feb. 18th, the day the hiring of Shula was announced.”
Rozelle made it clear that Shula himself had nothing to do with these infractions -- it was the club that was at fault. As a result, the commissioner announced that the Dolphins would have to give the Colts their first round pick in the 1971 draft, in effect trading that draft choice to Baltimore for the right to hire Shula as their head coach.
Shula immediately turned the Dolphins around, leading Miami to a 10-4 record in 1970 and their first-ever berth in the NFL playoffs. But the final act of the drama wouldn’t play out until a few months later, during the 1971 draft. The Colts used the first round pick they were awarded a year earlier to select running back Don McCauley from North Carolina with the 22nd overall selection.
McCauley went on to have a productive 11-year career with the Colts, gaining a total of 2,627 yards rushing and adding an additional 333 receptions out of the backfield.
And what did Miami get in exchange? Just the best coach ever to patrol an NFL sideline.
Not a bad deal for the Dolphins -- not a bad deal at all.