In 2022, it is difficult to escape the hype that accompanies the buildup for a major sports figure on the verge of a statistical milestone.
In 1972, however, there appears to have been little buildup in Miami as Dolphins Head Coach Don Shula approached his 100th career victory. That’s not such a big deal now since 43 coaches have posted at least 100 NFL wins, but in 1972 that number was only eight. Of those eight coaches, seven would wind up being inducted into the Hall of Fame, as Shula would many years later.
Part of the low-key approach toward this milestone was driven by Shula himself. Earlier in the season, an unsuspecting sportswriter had asked the coach how it felt to be nearing 100 wins. Shula’s response was “I’ve got a few other damned things to think about before I worry about 100 victories.” This from a coach who had a perfect record at the time.
So, the looming milestone was not one of Shula’s favorite things to talk about, but there was a lot else vying for Miamian’s attention that week. The presidential election was that Tuesday, with incumbent Richard Nixon carrying all but one state and the District of Columbia in an old-fashioned blowout. One of the fallouts of that election was Colorado voting not to allow any state funds to be used in preparation for the 1976 Winter Olympics that had been awarded to Denver. This eventually resulted in them being held in Innsbruck, Austria.
Local football fans were watching the college football season wind down, paying attention to the coverage of the local University of Miami along with the University of Florida and Florida State University. At the high school level, Theresa Dion made her debut for the Mary Immaculate High School football team. The school’s homecoming princess attempted two extra points and missed both, falling squarely on her bottom after the first miss. She was believed to be the first female to play high school football in the United States, but not the last.
One thing Dolphins fans could not watch that week was the NBC television broadcast of the Dolphins game. Since they were playing at home, the game was blacked out within 75 miles of the Orange Bowl, as were all NFL home games at the time. That would finally change the following year, and one of the strongest influencers was the recently reelected President Nixon. It seems he had become a big Washington Redskins fan during his time in the White House and he was none too happy about not being to watch their home games.
The home game blackout was a boon to hotels and motels just beyond the 75-mile range since diehard fans would travel far enough out to rent a room for the day just to watch their home team’s game broadcast. The Miami Herald also featured ads for closed circuit broadcasts, which of course came with a price of admission in the days before satellite feeds were common in sports bars.
There would once again be a sellout of 80,010 paying customers cheering on their Dolphins and hoping to catch a glimpse of history. Their chances were excellent since the opponents would be the lowly New England Patriots. The Pats (also referred to then as the patsies, not very nice but rather accurate) had allowed the most points of any AFC team and scored fewer than any but Houston.
Miami could use somewhat of a breather at this point in the schedule. Along with quarterback Bob Griese’s long-term absence, the team had several key players banged up, but still able to play.
Linebacker Nick Buoniconti was nursing a sore shoulder. All-Pro guard Larry Little had been kicked in the ribs at Buffalo and was still sore. Defensive back Lloyd Mumphord was dealing with a bruised shoulder. The Dolphins backfield was also hurting; Mercury Morris had been poked in the eye in Buffalo and was dealing with an ankle injury, and Jim Kiick had his swollen left knee drained after that game.
The tone for the game had been set on Tuesday. The only state to cast their electoral votes for Democratic presidential candidate George McGovern? Massachusetts. That blowout was a prelude to their Patriots falling 52-0 to the Dolphins, the worst lost in their franchise history at that time. I suspect some of the fans back home wished the broadcast blackout had been in effect for the visiting team that day.
It only took Miami 1:58 to score all of the points they would need. Dick Anderson intercepted a Jim Plunkett pass and returned it to the Patriots’ four-yard line. On the next play, Mercury Morris scored the first of his three touchdowns on the day, running a pitchout around right end. The other two touchdowns, all coming before halftime, would come on the same play, just run to the left side. New England had no answers for anything the Dolphins threw at them.
Morris’ second score came on Miami’s next possession. After holding the Patriots to a three-and-out and getting a short punt, it took the Dolphins only four plays to go up 14-0 with 8:40 left in the first quarter.
The Dolphins lead swelled to 31-0 by the end of the half. New England managed only 96 yards, crossing midfield only once. On that drive, they attempted a 48-yard field goal that was blocked by Curtis Johnson. That was the highlight of an otherwise shaky day for Miami’s special teams. Garo Yepremian converted one field goal attempt but missed two, one of those getting blocked. Kick returner Charlie Leigh fumbled two kicks but was able to recover both of them.
With the lead 38-0 entering the fourth quarter, Don Shula substituted liberally. This gave backup quarterback Jim Del Gazio an opportunity to see the first significant playing time of his career against the team he grew up rooting for. The left-hander, a real oddity for a quarterback at that time, had spent 1971 on the Dolphins taxi squad. He made the active roster in 1972 and move into the backup role when Griese went down.
Del Gaizo threw his first NFL pass, and then five more. Shula wanted him to get the opportunity to do more than hand off to help prepare him in case something would happen to Earl Morrall. Del Gaizo had the time of his life, throwing touchdown passes of 51 yards to Marlin Briscoe and 39 yards to Jim Mandich. He finished with 145 yards on four completions. Del Gazio would only throw a total of three passes the remainder of the season and would not return to Miami in 1973.
Briscoe, seeing his first serious playing time since an early season injury, had earlier caught a 16-yard touchdown pass from Morrall. During a lull in the action, Dolphins radio announcer Rick Weaver urged the crowd to start chanting “Shula.” Many fans brought transistor radios to the games those days and listened to the broadcast, and they were happy to oblige. He also pronounced Patriots with the accent on the end-PatriOTS. Listening to highlights of that radio broadcast seared that into my brain and I suspect that’s the way I will refer to them for a while-I hope Bill Belichick doesn’t mind.
Also worth noting was the quarterback that replaced Plunkett after Patriots coach John Mazur mercifully sat him down in the 4th quarter. He was replaced by Brian Dowling, a star at Yale who was finally getting some occasional snaps in his third season with New England. If you are not fans of the classic comic strip Doonesbury, you may not know that one of the primary characters, BD, who was often seen wearing a football helmet, was modeled after Dowling. He bounced around the NFL, Canada, and minor league football for ten years, but 1972 was the only year he would complete a pass in the NFL.
Another noteworthy fact about this game was that the Dolphins gained more yards in the air than they did on the ground, 301-181, quite unusual for that team. For the fourth straight game, the No Name Defense held their opponent below 200 yards-an amazing streak.
After the game, captain Larry Little presented Shula with the game ball, saying “We know this isn’t the ball you want, but we want to give you this one too.”
The ball Little referred to was the one Shula would receive after winning the Super Bowl. Shula referred to that, saying “I’m proud to get 100 wins but it is only really meaningful if it happened in a year we get a world championship.” Shula had become the first NFL coach to win 100 games in his first 10 years. I wonder if anyone would have guessed he was not even one-third of the way through his legendary career.
Coming Next: Part 17 – Dolphins Survive Alley Fight, Clinch Division
In a game full of injuries and turnovers, Miami comes from behind twice to beat the New York Jets and clinch the East Division, moving to 10-0.
You can follow me on Twitter @jimjfootball.