The View From Pluto: Don Shula's Legendary NFL Coaching Career Grew from Small Town Ohio Roots

May 6, 2020

Don Shula, the winningest coach in NFL history, died this week at age 90. He’s best known for his 347 career wins, most of those as coach of the Miami Dolphins. But his roots began in Lake County and his legacy carries on at John Carroll University in University Heights.

WKSU sports commentator Terry Pluto had the chance to learn more about Shula’s early years in Northeast Ohio that shaped his Hall of Fame career.

Humble beginnings in Grand River
Don Shula had a storied NFL career. He had just two losing seasons in his 33 years as a coach. He took his teams to the Super Bowl six times and won twice. He's the only coach to lead a team to a perfect 17-0 season, with the Miami Dolphins in 1972. 

But not much has been documented about his Lake County roots.

"They would always show these pictures of him with his chin jutted out and this steely face, like it should go on the Mount Rushmore of coaches," Pluto said. "But who's the person, and where did he come from?"

Pluto said he was put in contact with Shula's sister, Jeannette Moroz. Shula grew up in Grand River, a small town between Mentor and Painesville. "His father came from Hungary and immigrated here when he was six. He got married and had seven children."

Shula was born in 1930. "He was shaped by the Great Depression and then WWII," Pluto said. "Jeannette told me life was hard. 'We never had a lot but we always had clean clothes and we always had enough to eat.'"  

John Carroll University's football stadium is named after Don Shula.
Credit / JOHN CARROLL UNIVERSITY

Pluto said Jeannette also shared a story about finding Don's old high school report cards in a drawer. "It was all these As in calculus and trigonometry. This was a no-nonsense family. There were rules to be followed. They were strict Catholics and Don went to mass every day. In fact, he kind of coached his teams later on like that," Pluto said. 

A chance meeting that led to John Carroll University
As an athlete in high school, Pluto said Shula was "good but not great," and wasn't sure he was going to go on to college. "Just because you were smart back then didn't mean you went to college," Pluto said.

One day, Shula was at a gas station when he was approached by an area high school coach. "He asks him what he's going to do now," Pluto said. "Next thing you know, Shula is brought in (to John Carroll University)." He received a scholarship, majoring in philosophy and math. "And if you go to John Carroll, there is the Don Shula Chair in Philosophy in the department," Pluto said. 

'I think he felt without John Carroll, he was just another guy in Grand River or Painesville looking for a job in a factory.'

Learning from Paul Brown
After college, Shula was picked by the Cleveland Browns in the ninth round of the 1951 draft as a defensive back. He played under legendary NFL coach Paul Brown. "Shula is being tutored by Paul Brown and that opens these doors."

Pluto said Shula was only 33 when he began coaching for the Baltimore Colts in 1963. "He was very organized and took a lot of the disciplinarian stuff from Paul Brown and was very inventive and was able to incorporate that in a time where players, for the most part, did what they were told. Then as he got older, he was able to adapt to the times."

And Pluto said Shula's staying power is unheard of today. "He spent 26 years with the Miami Dolphins. The average NFL coach lasts about four years with a team now."

Shula's legacy is cemented at John Carroll. The football stadium is named after him. "I think he felt without John Carroll, he was just another guy in Grand River or Painesville looking for a job in a factory or whatnot. And there's a lot more that he did there that his name is not on that people don't know."