Bill Arnsparger, RIP: 1926-2015

Bill Arnsparger died on Friday at the age of 88. Arnsparger just might be the most important assistant coach in the history of professional football.

Bill Arnsparger was a critical branch of the Paul Brown coaching tree. He was an assistant to both championship-winning coach Blanton Collier and Hall of Fame coach Don Shula. He even coached defense for the Chargers from 1992-94, retiring after an appearance in Super Bowl XXIX. Arnsparger also gave a young coach named Marty Schottenheimer his first NFL coaching job, plus he was among the key figures in both widespread adoption of the 3-4 defense and the genesis of the zone blitz.

I have argued repeatedly that certain assistant coaches should be honored in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Three years ago, in an article on the Pro Football Hall of Fame's Biggest Snubs, I mentioned Clark Shaughnessy, Buddy Ryan, and Richie Petitbon as examples, along with PFHOF member Dick LeBeau, who technically went to Canton as a defensive back, but with a significant wink at his coaching accomplishments (in particular the zone blitz). So what might qualify Arnsparger for the same kind of honor?

Arnsparger grew up in Kentucky and met Blanton Collier in high school, where Collier coached football and basketball. Arnsparger served in World War II as a teenager, then attended Miami University — Miami of Ohio, as it's usually called today — the Cradle of Coaches that produced Paul Brown, Sid Gillman, and Red Blaik (mentor to both Gillman and Vince Lombardi), among many others. After graduating, Arnsparger stayed at Miami, working as an assistant with head coach Woody Hayes. When Hayes moved to Ohio State, he brought Arnsparger with him.

After three years, Arnsparger returned to Kentucky, and Collier: his old high school coach, following a successful apprenticeship to Paul Brown in Cleveland, was now coaching the Kentucky Wildcats. Arnsparger spent eight years at Kentucky, and two at Tulane, before another job opportunity arose, one that would shape his career.

Don Shula played seven seasons in the NFL, mostly for Paul Brown and Brown's former assistant Weeb Ewbank. When his playing career ended, Shula took a coaching job with another former assistant to Brown: Kentucky's Blanton Collier. On that staff, Shula met a bright young coach named William Arnsparger. Shula replaced his old boss Ewbank as head coach of the Colts, and in 1964, he hired Arnsparger to coach the defensive line. Baltimore went 12-2, its best record in team history, and led the NFL in fewest points allowed, 60 points fewer than the year before.

The Colts went 65-20-4 (.753) from 1964-69, and won the NFL Championship in 1968 before losing Super Bowl III, but Shula was fired. The Miami Dolphins quickly made him their new head coach, and Shula named Arnsparger his defensive coordinator. The Dolphins had allowed 332 points in 1969; in their first year with Shula and Arnsparger, that dropped to 228, the best in the AFC. The next year, Miami allowed 174 points and made it to Super Bowl VI.

In the 1972 preseason, injuries ravaged the Dolphins' defensive line. With only two defensive ends healthy, Arnsparger asked linebacker Bob Matheson to fill in. But when Matheson played defensive end, he didn't use a three- or four-point stance: he stood up, like a linebacker. Matheson could rush the passer, or drop back into coverage, and it baffled offenses. The Dolphins called it the 53 defense, after Matheson's uniform number, but modern fans would call it a 3-4. Within two years, Chuck Fairbanks and the New England Patriots were using the 3-4 as their base defense. Within 10 years, 21 of the NFL's 28 teams were running a 3-4. Within 15 years, 25 of the 28 had switched to a 3-4 base defense for some period of time. With necessity as the mother of invention, it was Arnsparger who began the trend.

So successful was Arnsparger that his unit became famous as the No-Name Defense: a group without stars, but one of the best in professional football. Dolphins beat writer Andy Cohen summed up the defense: "some of them were too short, some too slow, some didn’t exactly have a position to match their skill set." Of course, the Dolphins were so successful that stars did emerge eventually: Nick Buoniconti, Jake Scott, Dick Anderson, Matheson ... but Arnsparger's success earned him a head coaching job with the New York Giants. Unfortunately, the Giants were terrible. They didn't make the playoffs in any season from 1964-80, years during which they went a combined 84-156-4 (.352). Arnsparger didn't do any better: the Giants went 7-28 (.200) during his tenure. So unstable was the franchise that the Giants played in three different home stadiums during Arnsparger's three years. He was fired and returned to the Dolphins.

There is a proud history, in the NFL, of successful assistants who blew their only shot as head coaches. The most famous is LeBeau, who went 12-33 as head coach of the Bengals, but this also applies to Petitbon (4-12 in his only season as head coach), Al Saunders (17-22), Gunther Cunningham (16-16), and many more. The saddest, in my mind, are Petitbon and Arnsparger. Petitbon, a very good player and an excellent defensive coordinator, only got one season as head coach. Arnsparger got 2½ seasons, on a team without enough talent to compete. LeBeau certainly deserved better, but he was 65 when Cincinnati fired him. Arnsparger was 50, and he never got another shot. “I just don’t think I had the time to do the things that were needed. I wasn’t allowed to stay and complete the job I was hired to do.”

In his second stint with Miami, Arnsparger again oversaw a defense that earned a name known nationwide: the Killer B's. With Bob Baumhower, Doug Betters, Glenn Blackwood, Lyle Blackwood, and Kim Bokamper, the Dolphins' B's took the league by swarm. At times, Bokamper — a true defensive end — dropped into coverage while two linebackers rushed the passer. Arnsparger's strategy inspired LeBeau to create the zone blitz. Arnsparger left the Dolphins in 1984 for a head coaching job at LSU, where he led the Tigers to a 26-8-2 record, and three Bowl appearances (all losses) in three seasons. From there, he became athletic director at the University of Florida, where he rebuilt programs stifled by NCAA sanctions, in particular by hiring Steve Spurrier to coach the Gators' football team.

In 1992, Arnsparger returned to the NFL, as defensive coordinator for the San Diego Chargers. The team had four straight losing seasons and hadn't made the playoffs in a decade. San Diego was 4-12 in 1991, with 335 points allowed. In '92, the team allowed 241 points and improved to 11-5. By 1994, they were in the Super Bowl, and the defense featured young stars like Junior Seau, Rodney Harrison, and Chris Mims, as well as Leslie O'Neal, who had a career-high 17 sacks under Arnsparger's direction. Arnsparger retired following the '94 season. He was 68, and he had undergone prostate cancer surgery the year before.

Don Shula said on Friday that "if there was a Hall of Fame for assistant coaches, [Arnsparger] would be one of the very first inductees." Arnsparger coached on seven teams that played for an NFL championship, including the 1972 and 1973 Dolphins. He coordinated two famous defenses: the Dolphins' No-Name Defense in the '70s, and the Killer Bees in the '80s, plus the Colts in the '60s and the Chargers in the '90s. He led five defenses that allowed the fewest points in the NFL, and nine that ranked in the top three. The only time in his 45-year career that Arnsparger wasn't successful was the 2½-year stint with the Giants: a hopeless situation, but his only head coaching job in the NFL.

The football world lost someone important on Friday, a man who should have been an icon. He was a wildly successful defensive coordinator, maybe the most successful coordinator not to succeed as a head coach, and he was an innovator who shaped modern football.

R.I.P. Bill Arnsparger, 1926-2015

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