“A Farewell to Arns?”
That nugget, in the grand tradition of wise-acre reporters proposing punny headlines to fit looming storylines, was offered, as I recall, by Bergen (N.J.) Record football sage Vinny DiTrani.
The New York Giants had just lost their first six games of the 1976 NFL season. Their third-year coach—the increasingly dour and insecure Bill Arnsparger—obviously was twisting in the wind. Sure enough, one week and a 27-0 loss to Pittsburgh later, Arnsparger indeed was bid adieu by Giants management, the first (and still only) time in the team’s 90-year history that it dismissed a head coach during the course of a season.
Arns’ departure was not much lamented by disgruntled fans, frustrated players or our small band of beat reporters. During his 2 ½ years at the Giants helm, Arnsparger came across as a fellow lacking in both good humor and flexibility. His single solution to every situation, which didn’t seem to take into account the team’s considerable lack of talent, was simply a call for more effort. “W-O-R-K!” he said.
But now that we have come to his final good-bye—Arnsparger, 88, died Friday at his Alabama home—it must be noted that, during 40 years of coaching football (and another six as the University of Florida athletic director), his only period of professional disappointment was his brief time in New York. (He could not make it here, but he could make it anywhere else…..)
Widely proclaimed a “defensive genius,” Arns coached in five Super Bowls—one with the Baltimore Colts, three with the Miami Dolphins and one with the San Diego Chargers. He was right-hand man to some of the sport’s biggest names, Hall of Famer Don Shula in the pros, Blanton Collier and Woody Hayes on the college level. He was widely considered a tactical wizard whose game preparation was unsurpassed.
With the Giants, though, his teams won only 7 of 35 games. There were endless problems, several major ones not of Arnsparger’s making: His first New York training camp, in 1974, began with a player strike. The linebacker Arns had hoped to be his defensive anchor for the “53 defense” he created in Miami, four-year starter and former No. 1 draft pick Jim Files, retired suddenly, explaining that God no longer wanted him to play football. The start-up World Football League lured another five Giants to jump ship.
All that aside, Arnsparger hardly had inherited a juggernaut. The Giants were 2-11-1 the year before he signed on and, during his tenure, the team was dizzied by a revolving door or quarterbacks: Randy Johnson, Norm Snead, Jim Del Gaizo, Carl Summerell, Craig Morton and Snead again.
To Andy Robustelli, the former all-pro player who was the Giants’ director of operations at the time, hiring a tireless, studious football analyst such as Arnsparger was the perfect choice. “If a guy wants to come to New York to coach the Giants because he feels he can get into television shows and endorsements,” Robustelli said, “then that’s not what we’re looking for.”
And certainly not what they got. Arnsparger was something of a football monk; his passion was relentless, solitary study of film, not only of games but even practice drills, which earned him the handle “One More Reel.”
His bedside manner—detached and critical—was not one that typically gets the best out of well-paid, big-ego players. The one star Arns inherited, running back Ron Johnson, felt under-used and under-appreciated. (“I’m not a rookie. I don’t have to prove myself to a new coach.”) And less-proven players attended the coach’s meetings with dread. (“Arnsparger used to keep stopping the film, turning on the light,” defensive back Jim Stienke related after the coach was fired, “and saying, ‘You know, I can replace you very easily.’”)
Arnsparger once compared training a football player to training “a good mule.” Oddly, he treated his fellow Giants’ coaches as subordinates—there only to carry out his specific orders—in complete contrast to having been given a free rein when he had been an assistant.
“I have a pretty good system,” one member of his staff quoted him in response to a strategic suggestion. “What do you want to go and change it for?”
“It’s my football team,” Arnsparger said when asked about making all the decisions. “You wouldn’t walk out on your store and leave the cash register unattended, would you?”
Of course, it wasn’t his football team for long. But, two days after the Giants sent him packing, Arns returned to Miami to reassume his role as defensive genius. He later took the head coaching job at LSU and promptly won the Southeastern Conference championship and Coach of the Year honors, then went back to the NFL and helped San Diego to the Super Bowl.
I ran into him years later during an assignment related to University of Tennessee football. Tennessee was playing Florida and Arns, then the Florida A.D., approached to chat at halftime. He was personable. A bit chatty. Smiling. Not the fellow I remembered.
So, a possible (bad) headline for his farewell: New York Didn’t End the Arns Race.