In a statement released after the death of Bill Arnsparger at the age of 88, Miami Dolphins Hall of Fame coach Don Shula called his former defensive coordinator, “One of the greatest defensive coaches in football,” and added, “If there was a Hall of Fame for assistant coaches, he would be one of the very first inductees.”
Shula’s thought about Hall of Fame consideration for assistant coaches should not be dismissed. And Arnsparger isn’t the only assistant coach due more recognition for his role in cranking out Lombardi trophies. Arnsparger did more than his share to put two of them in the Dolphins trophy case, just as Richie Petitbon did more than his share to put three of them in the Redskins trophy case.
Isn’t it about time to recognize men like Arnsparger and Petitbon for their contributions to the game?
The two of them had interesting intersections over the years. Though Petitbon was injured and didn’t play in Super Bowl VII, he played his 14th season in the NFL on that 1972 Redskins team that lost to the Dolphins on Super Bowl Sunday in Los Angeles. Were it not for Garo Yepremian’s famous gaffe that led to the Redskins only score, the Miami defense likely would have pitched a shutout that day. The defense, engineered by Arnsparger was one of the first to have a nickname. Years before “Steel Curtain” came to identify the Pittsburgh Steelers defense, that Miami group was known as “The No-Name Defense.”
Of course, when the Dolphins repeated as Super Bowl champs the following year, the names of Nick Buoniconti, Manny Fernandez, Jake Scott and Dick Anderson became well known in football circles. Scott, in fact, was the MVP of that Super Bowl win over the Skins.
Ten years later, the Redskins and Dolphins would again meet in the Super Bowl in Los Angeles (actually Pasadena at the Rose Bowl. The first meeting was at the Coliseum). This time Petitbon was the Redskins defensive coordinator and Arnsparger was back on the same job for Shula and the Dolphins after an unsuccessful run as head coach of the Giants. He was fired at 0-7 during the 1976 season with an overall record of 7-28.
Though the 27-17 Redskins victory is best remembered for John Riggins 4th and one, 43-yard touchdown run to put the Skins ahead for good, what Petitbon’s defense did was as important as anything else that day. After Miami had gone ahead 17-10 at the half with the help of a 76-yard touchdown pass from David Woodley to Jimmy Cefalo, Petitbon, always great at halftime adjustments, worked his magic again. The stats show Woodley and Don Strock (Shula played them both that season, earning the pair the nickmame “Woodstrock”) failed to complete a pass in the second half. The Dolphins had only two first downs and zero points in those last two quarters.
Funny thing is, Arnsparger had another defense with the nickname that year, “The Killer Bees.” The defense included six players with a last name that started with a “B”, Bob Brudzinski, Kim Bokamper, Doug Betters, Bob Baumhower and the Blackwood brothers at safety, Glenn and Lyle. But it was the Redskins defense that did most of the stinging that day.
Petitbon, who was the only assistant coach Joe Gibbs retained when he took over as Redskins coach in 1981, remained defensive coordinator during all 12 years of Gibbs’ first run. And Gibbs made no bones about Petitbon’s contribution to the three championships, later saying, “He allowed me to focus on the offensive side of the ball because I was always confident that our defensive coaching staff was prepared.”
Like Arnsparger, Petitbon was not successful as a head coach. He finished 4-12 in his one season on the job after Gibbs retired for the first time early in 1993. Despite plenty of offers, Petitbon never coached again.
There was some discussion about Petitbon returning to the Redskins as the defense struggled under head coach Norv Turner in the late 90’s. Ironically it was Arnsparger who came to Washington when things were going bad defensively in Dan Snyder’s first year of ownership of the Redskins.
In early October 1999, though the team was 3-1, they were giving up an average of nearly 30 points a game. There was a report that Snyder was frustrated with defensive coordinator Mike Nolan and left vanilla ice cream in front of his office door to let him know that he was fed up with his “vanilla” defensive schemes.
Arnsparger, then 72-years-old, was hired and given the title of “defensive specialist”. His job was to sit in the press box and give Nolan advice down on the sidelines. Whatever advice he provided, didn’t seem to do much good early on. Over the next five weeks, the Redskins gave up 38 to Dallas, 34 to Buffalo and 35 to Philadelphia – all losses. But as they got close to Thanksgiving, the defense did get better. And for the first time in seven years, the Skins made the playoffs, clinching the division at 10-6.
In the playoffs, they held Detroit to 13 and held Tampa scoreless for nearly three quarters, before losing a heartbreaker 14-13 after Dan Turk’s botched snap on a potential game-winning field goal attempt with just over a minute left.
Ray Rhodes replaced Nolan the following year and Arnsparger joined Petitbon in permanent retirement. And though neither will likely wind up in Canton, as Shula suggests they should, you could certainly make a Hall of Fame case for both. It’s very unlikely that Shula and Gibbs, who made nine Super Bowl appearances between them, would be in Canton without the contributions of Arnsparger and Petitbon.