Bill Arnsparger designed the first four Dolphins Super Bowl defenses — the No-Name Defense of the three 1970s Super teams and The Killer Bs that carried the 1982 Dolphins into the Super Bowl. Of the first eight Super Bowls, five had defenses with Arnsparger’s fingerprints.
The only assistant coach in the Dolphins Honor Roll and former University of Florida athletic director died Friday at 88 at his home in Athens, Alabama.
The Dolphins franchise called him “a seminal figure in Dolphins history” in a statement.
Over 14 seasons, Arnsparger did two turns with the Dolphins as what today would be called “defensive coordinator.” His first three seasons, he was the assistant coach in charge of defense and linebackers. In 1973 and from 1976-83, he carried the title “assistant head coach/defense,” a strong indication of his value, given that the coach was all-time NFL wins leader Don Shula.
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Nobody appreciated Arnsparger more than Shula, for whom Arnsparger served as an assistant for all but three of Shula’s first 21 seasons as an NFL coach.
“I was saddened to learn of the passing of Bill Arnsparger who I thought was one of the greatest defensive coaches in football,” Shula said in a statement released by the Dolphins. “He molded two championship units, the No-Names and the Killer Bs, and was innovative in the way he used personnel. He pioneered situational substitutions with the ‘53’ defense that changed the way the game was played on that side of the ball. If there was a Hall of Fame for assistant coaches, he would be one of the very first inductees. Mary Anne [Shula’s wife] and I want to extend our condolences to B.J. and the entire family.”
That three different franchises — the Dolphins, Baltimore Colts and San Diego Chargers — reached the Super Bowl with Arnsparger-coached defenses backs up Shula’s assessment.
“This is a sad day for the Gator Nation. Bill Arnsparger helped right the ship during a very difficult time at the University of Florida,” UF athletic director Jeremy Foley said Friday afternoon via the school’s athletic department website. “He, along with President Bob Bryan, hired coach [Steve] Spurrier, and he set us on a very good path.
“Personally, he was a mentor to me ,and I was fortunate to work alongside him. Our condolences to his wife B.J., his son David, and his daughter, Mary Susan, and for those that shared his life with him.”
But it was with the Dolphins that Arnsparger sparkled most. His Dolphins defenses ranked in the NFL’s top 5 five times, and twice were No. 1 — the 1972 17-0 Perfect Season and 1982.
That 1982 team won the AFC title by zeroing out the Jets 14-0 in an Orange Bowl with plenty of mud and interceptions. A.J. Duhe returned the Dolphins’ fifth interception of the day for a touchdown — 11 years after the 1971 Dolphins shut out Baltimore 21-0 in an AFC Championship Game featuring Dick Anderson’s 62-yard interception return touchdown.
A year later, in Super Bowl VII, the Dolphins achieved the first defensive Super Bowl shutout. Washington’s only touchdown in the Dolphins’ 14-7 win came on a fumble return of kicker Garo Yepremian’s bungling of a blocked field goal. The Dolphins’ didn’t let Minnesota score in Super Bowl VIII until they were up 24-0. That season, the Dolphins held Hall of Fame running back O.J. Simpson to 55 yards on 14 carries, his worst game of 1973, on his way to gaining 2,003 yards in 14 games.
If you don’t like the modern, pass-heavy NFL, throw some blame at Arnsparger. The No-Name Defense, Pittsburgh’s Steel Curtain, Dallas’ Doomsday Defense and Minnesota’s Purple People Eaters crushed offenses so thoroughly in the 1970s, that the NFL changed rules about downfield contact in 1978. This allowed the blooming of the West Coast offense and Don Coryell-designed pass offenses from which most current NFL offenses flowered.
Ironic that Arnsparger never carried the title of “defensive coordinator.” The distinguishing characteristics of an Arnsparger defense were well-coordinated personnel operating in unison. There’s a direct line from the “53 defense,” so named for the situational use of No. 53, linebacker Bob Matheson, as a fourth linebacker in the early 1970s to the modern 3-4 defenses teams began using later that decade.
Arnsparger joined the Baltimore Colts staff as defensive line coach in 1964, the season after Shula became the NFL’s youngest coach. While Hall of Fame quarterback Johnny Unitas remains the player most associated with those Colts teams, the defense allowed the fewest points in 1964 when the Colts reached the NFL title game.