50th Anniversary of a Team With Class
Sunday night the Miami Dolphins will celebrate the 50th anniversary of their 1972 team, the only team ever to go undefeated in the National Football League. That team remains unique after all these years, and on this anniversary, it is well to recall that it is distinguished for another quality. In a word - class.
It begins with the owner, Joe Robbie. He is the man who spent the money to acquire the best young coach in football: Don Shula. Shula had built the Baltimore Colts into a power. In contrast, the Dolphins had been one of the worst teams in pro football, but Shula recognized the nucleus for a winner and quickly made it one. He put together a great coaching staff and demanded his players realize their potential. The first year was 10-4, and South Florida began to take notice. So did our Gold Coast magazine, which we took over that year. We were trying to convert a social magazine (the original name was Pictorial Life) which featured people dancing for disease, into a broader appeal regional book. Sports stories were a natural addition.
The Dolphins got off to a fast start in 1971, winning seven of their first nine games. Fans began to get excited about their prospects, and we decided to jump on the bandwagon. It was past mid-season before we began hanging around practice sessions, picking the brains of the beat reporters, and went on the road with the team to Baltimore, where they won a tough game, and then to Boston. It was a cold day in Foxboro, and the Dolphins did not play well, losing 34-13. But the game provided two memorable moments. Power fullback Larry Csonka fumbled for the only time all season, and a Boston freelance photographer, whose name has been lost, took our all-time favorite photo in Gold Coast's 50 year history. It was Shula leading his team onto the field, the determination on their faces suggesting a charge to destiny. That came the following year.
That team won a second Super Bowl the next year, with essentially the same coaches and players. And what an organization they turned out to be. Owner Joe Robbie built a modern stadium with his own money. He had a checkered reputation, and some publicized family problems, not helped by a fondness for alcohol. But over their long association, he let Don Shula have a major hand in running the football business as one of the most successful in sports history. In that respect, he was a class owner.
Shula's reputation needs no embellishments. A control freak and hard driving coach, he was also fair. A Philadelphia sports writer said when it came to all aspects of the job, including tactful handling of the press, Shula was the best. He rarely said anything stupid, at least not for publication. He became one of South Florida's most respected figures. His assistants on the undefeated team reflected his example. The offensive coordinator Howard Schnellenberger went on to lead the University of Miami to a national championship, and later put Florida Atlantic on the football map, first as its founding coach, then as the fundraiser for a campus stadium. And he did it all with grace and class. Defensive coordinator, Bill Arnsbarger, went on to a long career as a coach and later athletic director at the University of Florida when the school's athletic program needed a strong reformer.
A number of players on the ’72 team are still considered among the best all-time at their positions, including Hall of Famers Larry Csonka, quarterback Bob Griese, receiver Paul Warfield, and linemen Jim Langer, Nick Buonoconti, and Larry Little. Many of that team left the area after their playing days, but those who remained were often in the limelight. Among them: Bob Griese as a sports announcer, Buonoconti as a business lawyer and philanthropist, fellow Notre Damer Bob Kuchenberg as an art dealer, and Earl Morrall as an assistant coach at the University of Miami and later mayor of Davie. Others still remembered are Csonka as spokesman for Alaska outdoor life and Mercury Morris for his affectionate support for Jim Kiick during his fight against football related brain trauma.
Keep in mind that this was a time before the huge sports salaries. A football player did not make more than an average crooked lawyer. The men needed to work after football.
Almost all of the team members were successful in later life. A prime example is a player not often in the press. Doug Swift was probably the least known member of the Dolphins “no name defense.” Most of the key players on the team were college stars, but Swift played at Amherst, known more for academics that sports. He reached the pros almost on a lark, when his college coach told him he might be good enough. He first went to Canada, where the coach did not have room for him, but suggested he try Miami, where Don Shula was building a promising team. Swift did, made the team in 1970 and was a starting linebacker for six seasons.
He had another career on his mind. Both his parents were physicians and he was one of the smartest and classiest guys on a team of smart and classy people. He took pre-med courses while playing football – quite a feat. He was the only player we really got to know. We ran a piece about this unique pro in Miami Magazine, which we owned at the time. It was remarkable for its candor. He described the feeling of being on the bottom of the pile and body after body thudding as they fell on top, and wondering what was the meaning of it all. And he spoke of resentment of the long prayers and political speeches before playoff games.
Little was heard from him after football, until the mid-1980s when Dr. Doug Swift got a brief mention in the Philadelphia papers for a former pro footballer being the anesthesiologist in the first heart transplant procedure in that city. It got no notice in South Florida, until we contacted him and he arranged for us to watch him in an open heart surgery at Temple University Hospital. If a story ever wrote itself, that one did. It ran in Tropic, the Miami Herald’s Sunday magazine.
Dr. Swift is expected to be among the men honored Sunday night for an historic first and only feat in football history. When those aging former players take the field at halftime, fans will salute more than just the men who made sports history. They will also be honoring class.