In Shula: The Coach of the NFL’s Greatest Generation (Liveright, Aug.), biographer Ribowsky explores the life of Don Shula, the winningest coach in the history of professional football.
What about Don Shula attracted your attention?
It was surprising to me that it had never been done before. Shula is the winningest coach in NFL history and was behind the league’s only undefeated season. His life is an amazing story, almost Shakespearean—in spite of his success, he was haunted by the greater legacy of Vince Lombardi and the celebrity of Joe Namath after the Super Bowl III victory.
You write on transforming figures—either sports heroes or singers and musicians. What is the theme that links them for you?
I’m interested in writing about people of my generation, so baby boomers, and especially those who rose from nothing. I was attracted to Shula’s story because it’s an American story. He was the son of Hungarian immigrants, and his story is vastly unlike the world of NFL coaching now and the types of men who become coaches today. Many of the musicians I wrote about might have had more issues, more demons, than someone like Shula, but his story also has some darkness to it. Were it not for a few points difference in games like Super Bowl III, where Joe Namath and the Jets defeated Shula’s Baltimore Colts teams, it might be the Shula trophy, not the Lombardi trophy, and he was aware of this legacy.
How would Shula have reacted to some of today’s controversies, such as concussions and kneeling during the national anthem?
I think the league needs more men with Shula’s honesty. Shula very much embodied a working-class, “one of the guys” approach to coaching and worked for that relationship with his players. Shula would be more outspoken and direct, without worrying about having to protect a brand in the face of controversy.
How does Shula differ from today’s coaches?
While many of the older coaches, a Vince Lombardi or a Tom Landry, were akin to demigods, Shula was very much an icon of the blue-collar mentality, first in Baltimore with his great teams of the 1960s and then in Miami. Today, we might associate that city with sunshine and glamour, but those Dolphins teams, especially around the time of the 1972 perfect season, were very blue-collar. Many coaches today are ciphers, company men, with owners such as Jerry Jones being far more recognizable faces of their franchises and teams than his coaches are.