In the mid-1980s, “Miami Vice’’ was one of the biggest shows on television. Don Johnson was one of the show’s world-famous stars. He also was a football fan. Johnson went out to watch the Miami Dolphins practice one day. In the end, one of the media relations staffers took Johnson to introduce him to coach Don Shula. Legend meeting legend, but which was bigger?
The answer is in the following anecdote. Johnson stuck out his hand and said, “Hey, coach, I’m Don Johnson from Miami Vice and I’m a big fan’’. Shula embraced the handshake and said something like, “I’m a big fan of all you guys. You’re putting your lives on the line for us every day.’’
Johnson, not quite recognizing the situation said something like, “Would you like to come out on a shoot with us sometime?’’ Shula responded with, “Oh, no, no. You guys are professionals. I’ll leave that up to you. That stuff is too dangerous for me.”
Yep, Shula was so intense about football that he didn’t know who Johnson was or what “Miami Vice’’ was.
Perhaps he was blind to the rest of the world. But maybe that’s what helped make Shula one of the best coaches ever in the professional and collegiate ranks. Let’s take a look at the best 14 coaches to ever run an NFL franchise or a college football program in the state of Florida and we’ll talk only about their stint in the Sunshine State.
1. DON SHULA, MIAMI DOLPHINS
I would take Shula over any coach and that includes Bill Belichick. Shula did his job with class and within the rules and left as the winningest coach in NFL history. Shula was one of my heroes growing up and he didn’t disappoint in person as some people do. I spent an hour with him on a Hawaiian beach talking about his son Mike, the former offensive coordinator for the Bucs. Shula remains the only modern-age coach to lead his team to a perfect season.
2. BOBBY BOWDEN, FLORIDA STATE
Bowden made Florida State into a national powerhouse while coaching the Seminoles from 1976 through 2009. He won national titles in 1993 and ’99. Officially, he was 377-129-4 in his career. But the NCAA vacated 12 wins and did not count his 22 wins at South Georgia State College.
3. STEVE SPURRIER, UNIVERSITY OF FLORIDA
“Save our School” or Steven Orr Spurrier. The colorful and confident coach built one of college football’s best rivalries with Florida State. Spurrier was at Florida from 1990-2001 and probably never should have left for the Washington Redskins. At Florida, Spurrier won a national title in 1996 and eight SEC East Championships.
4. JIMMY JOHNSON, UNIVERSITY OF MIAMI AND MIAMI DOLPHINS
Johnson coached the Hurricanes from 1984 through ’88 and made the program into one of the most feared and flamboyant programs in the nation. They won a national title in 1987. Johnson left Miami to jump to the Dallas Cowboys in 1989. He won two Super Bowls there. He returned to Miami to coach the Dolphins from 1996 through ’99 but never was able to duplicate the success he had with the Hurricanes or Cowboys.
5. URBAN MEYER, UNIVERSITY OF FLORIDA
Meyer coached the Gators from 2005 through 2010. You have to respect the two national titles, Meyer won at Florida, but that’s all I respect about the man. He’s not a good human being. He ran a renegade program and spent much of his time getting his players out of trouble. Orlando Sentinel columnist Mike Bianchi continually refers to Meyer in print as Urban Liar and I don’t disagree with the nickname.
6. TONY DUNGY, TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS
Dungy took over the lowly Buccaneers in 1996 and made Tampa Bay into a consistent playoff contender. He did it with class and dignity. The only thing he couldn’t do with the Buccaneers was win a Super Bowl despite having one of the best defenses in NFL history. He later won a Super Bowl with Indianapolis.
7. JON GRUDEN, TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS
The Buccaneers fired Dungy and went out and traded for Gruden. He promptly won the Super Bowl in the same year. Although the Buccaneers remained relevant, Gruden’s later teams were inconsistent. The team still hasn’t won a postseason game since the Super Bowl.
8. DENNIS ERICKSON, UNIVERSITY OF MIAMI
Erickson took over for Johnson in 1989 and remained with Miami through 1994 before jumping to the NFL’s Seattle Seahawks. He won two national championships at Miami and only helped strengthen “the U’s’’ reputation as a powerhouse.
9. JIMBO FISHER, FLORIDA STATE
Fisher coached Florida State from 2010 through 2017. His teams went 83-23 and won the final BCS National Title in 2013. Under Fisher, the Seminoles won the ACC three times and finished in the top 10 of the AP poll four times and had four bowl victories.
10. RAY GRAVES, UNIVERSITY OF FLORIDA
Graves went 70-34-1 with the Gators and went 4-1 in bowl games. He was SEC Coach of the Year in 1960 and is a member of the College Football Hall of Fame.
11. TOM COUGHLIN, JACKSONVILLE JAGUARS
Famous for his old-school coaching style, Coughlin made the expansion Jaguars relevant almost overnight. He had Jacksonville in the AFC Championship Game in just its second season. Coughlin coached the Jaguars from 1995 through 2002, putting together a .531 winning percentage and making four postseason appearances. He later led the New York Giants to two Super Bowl wins.
12. HOWARD SCHNELLENBERGER, UNIVERSITY OF MIAMI AND FLORIDA ATLANTIC
Schnellenberger started Miami’s run before Johnson came along. He coached the Hurricanes from 1979 through 1983. His final team at Miami won a national title. He went 41-16 in his Miami years. He returned to South Florida in 1998 to build Florida Atlantic’s new program, producing a winning season in his third year.
13. FRAN CURCI, UNIVERSITY OF TAMPA AND UNIVERSITY OF MIAMI
People forget the University of Tampa had a football team, but it had a very good one under Curci from 1968 through 1970. The Spartans went 25-6 under Curci. After a victory over Miami in the Orange Bowl, Curci was hired away by the Hurricanes. But he lasted just two seasons as Miami went 9-13.
14. JOHN MCKAY, TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS
McKay had a simply stellar career at Southern California. But he struggled mightily with the expansion Buccaneers in 1976. The team started 0-26. McKay’s highlight with Tampa Bay came when he got Tampa to the 1979 NFC Championship Game.
Pat Yasinskas has covered the NFL since 1993. He has worked at The Tampa Tribune, The Charlotte Observer, ESPN and is currently with the XFL. Pat has been a Pro Football Hall of Fame voter. He is an editorial consultant and occasional columnist for Bucs Report.