Bill Arnsparger was inducted in to the Ky Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2010 is Pictured here with Miami Dolphins head football coach Don Shula
For a town of less than 10,000 people known for its famous Thoroughbred horse farms, Paris, Ky., holds an important if underrated place in the annals of football coaching.
We were reminded of this Friday when the news came that Paris native Bill Arnsparger had passed away at the age of 88.
Renowned as the architect of the “No Name Defense” of the 1970s that helped Don Shula’s Miami Dolphins to two Super Bowl titles — including the perfect 17-0 season of 1972 — as well as the Dolphins’ “Killer Bs” defenses in the 1980s, Arnsparger was one of the game’s greatest defensive minds.
He coached on teams that went to six Super Bowls. He won the 1986 SEC title as LSU’s head coach. Later, as athletics director at Florida, he hired Steve Spurrier as the Gators’ football coach before returning to the pro ranks to help the San Diego Chargers to the 1994 AFC title.
In the name of full disclosure, my late father and Arnsparger were friends that grew up together in Paris. My father took great pride in Arnsparger’s accomplishments. Everyone in Paris did.
Actually, this all goes back to another famous Paris coaching product, Blanton Collier. Arnsparger played both football and basketball for Collier at Paris High School before Collier went on to be the head coach at Kentucky and later the Cleveland Browns (where he won an NFL title in 1964 and earned a reputation as an exceptional teacher of the game).
“If Paul Brown is known as the organizer, and Vince Lombardi the motivator, then Blanton Collier has to be known as the teacher of record,” Paul Zimmerman, author and pro football writer for Sports Illustrated, once wrote.
In 1944, during World War II, Collier was sent to the Great Lakes Naval Training Station outside of Cleveland. Paul Brown, then coach at Ohio State, coached the base’s football team and noticed Collier would attend practice daily to watch from the sideline. When Brown learned the dedicated observer was a high school coach from Kentucky, he asked Collier to assist.
Then after the war, Brown became coach of the upstart Cleveland Browns and hired Collier as an assistant. As it happened, a young Don Shula played defensive back for the Browns in 1951 and 1952.
Meanwhile back in Paris, after a stint in the Marines, Arnsparger enrolled at Miami of Ohio where he played for Sid Gillman, George Blackburn and Woody Hayes. Bo Schembechler was a teammate. When Hayes left to become head coach at Ohio State in 1951, he brought Arnsparger and Schembechler along as assistants.
Three years later, Collier returned to Kentucky to succeed Bear Bryant as UK’s coach. He hired Arnsparger and later Shula as part of a historic staff that during Collier’s tenure included seven men — Collier, Arnsparger, Shula, Chuck Knox, John North, Leeman Bennett and Howard Schnellenberger — who later became NFL head coaches.
When UK did not renew Collier’s contract after the 1961 season, Arnsparger spent two seasons at Tulane before reuniting with Shula, then the Baltimore Colts’ head coach, in 1964, and one of the NFL’s greatest coaching tandems was born.
“I’ve known and competed against a lot of great coaches over the years,” wrote Shula in the foreword to Arnsparger’s 1999 book, Coaching Defensive Football, “Yet, even today, when I think of defensive coaches, the first name that comes to mind is Bill Arnsparger. He was special.”
It was Arnsparger who first used situational substitutions, who believed in versatile athletes — hybrids they’re called now — who could play multiple positions.
“I’ve never seen defenses like the one we’ve got,” Bob Brudzinski, a Dolphins linebacker in the 1970s, told Sports Illustrated. “Nobody else runs stuff like we do.”
After the Dolphins won the 1972 Super Bowl, Arnsparger was visiting family in Paris when he gave a talk open to the public. My father took me. I remember two things — the size of Arnsparger’s Super Bowl ring, and something my father said on the way home.
“Bill was tough,” he said. “But I never heard him say a bad word about anyone.”
On Friday, Chargers’ owner Dean Spanos called Arnsparger “a true gentleman.” In the Collier tradition, Arnsparger believed in sportsmanship and preparation, a coach nicknamed “One More Reel” for his incessant film study.
Dick Anderson, the great safety on those Shula/Arnsparger teams of the 1970s, told the Palm Beach Post on Friday that the closest current coach to Arnsparger is Bill Belichick, which makes sense on many levels — both coaches low key, devoted to detail with a genius for unique strategy.
“The man was brilliant,” said Anderson of Arnsparger.
And it all started in Paris.