When Nick Saban was considering the LSU job in late 1999, he did so without ever having set foot on the campus.
But there was someone’s opinion he wanted to hear. So he called LSU senior associate athletic director Verge Ausberry.
He wanted Bill Arnsparger’s number.
So they talked football, Saban and Arnsparger, two tough-minded, NFL-hardened, defense-oriented coaches. Two kindred souls, born in the rural South (Arnsparger in Kentucky, Saban in West Virginia) who played their college ball in Ohio (Arnsparger at fabled coaching cradle Miami, Saban at Kent State).
There was no nonsense between the two, and you can be sure there was probably even less small talk.
Arnsparger, who spent just three years at LSU before escalating conflicts with then-athletic director Bob Brodhead left him seeking an exit strategy (Arnsparger became athletic director at Florida in 1987), told Saban coaching at LSU was the best job he ever had.
Saban took the job.
Arnsparger died Friday at 88 after a long struggle with Alzheimer’s disease. But though he had been gone from LSU nearly three decades, and though he left 14 years before Saban arrived and launched the program on its longest sustained period of success ever, it was Arnsparger who left the blueprint.
Be prepared. Be mindful of the small details that add up to big ones. And work every day to get better. Arnsparger was convinced if you didn’t, you were getting worse.
His style, his personality, was flinty, demanding, devoid of soft edges and sentimentality.
Yet his former players, like Ausberry, a freshman linebacker during Arnsparger’s last season at LSU in 1986, are unquestionably devoted to their coach. Their man.
“He was a tough guy,” Ausberry said. “He was tough to play for, tough to work for. But he cared for all of us and wanted us all to do well outside of football.”
Arnsparger took an LSU program that had lost some of its luster from Paul Dietzel’s late 1950s and early 1960s and Charlie McClendon’s early 1970s and restored the roar. In 1983, LSU was 4-7, 0-6 in the SEC. In 1984, LSU went 8-3-1 and returned to the Sugar Bowl for the first time since 1968.
The force of Arnsparger’s personality — demanding, tough as nails — was the galvanizing touch for a program filled with talent but lacking direction.
“Things he told us would happen in a game came true,” Ausberry said. “He was always prepared.”
His players feared him. And they loved him. He could be harsh. But it was always with the intent of making his players better.
“He was always on us about our weight,” Ausberry said. “He was concerned with our self-esteem, how we dressed. He worked on us about the little things. There was always repetition. We’d work on something until everyone got it right.”
Arnsparger’s reputation as an NFL defensive legend dwarfed that of someone like Saban. Or perhaps anyone else.
It was Arnsparger who was coordinator of Miami’s famed “No Name Defense” that was the bedrock of its unbeaten Super Bowl-winning team in 1972, and the Super Bowl champions that followed the next year. His later defenses before leaving for LSU after the 1983 season, defenses that featured former LSU standout A.J. Duhe, were known as the “Killer B’s.” Nine of Arnsparger’s 11 defenses with the Dolphins were ranked first or second in the NFL.
According to Sports Illustrated’s Peter King, it was Arnsparger whom current NFL defensive guru Dick LeBeau (now with the Tennessee Titans) learned zone blitzes from on a visit to Baton Rouge in 1984.
“Hugely impactful to modern football,” King tweeted.
While at Florida, he hired Steve Spurrier in 1990.
“Everything he touched turned to gold,” Ausberry said. “He knew what it took to win.”
Spurrier was at Duke at the time, and he could have been Arnsparger’s successor at LSU in 1987 had the administration not wanted to maintain continuity by handing the program to his boy wonder defensive coordinator, Mike Archer.
Archer won for two seasons, including an SEC title in 1988, then lost for two and was fired, replaced by Curley Hallman. Archer knew the Arnsparger recipe, but as a young coach (just 34 when he was hired), he didn’t have the maturity or the God-like wrath to drive people to the same deeds that Arnsparger did.
“I think if he’d stayed, we could have won one or two national championships,” Ausberry said of Arnsparger.
The last couple of years, Ausberry didn’t speak to his beloved coach. He kept tabs on him through conversations with Arnsparger’s wife, B.J.
Jerry Sullivan, a former Arnsparger assistant who is 42 years into a distinguished career as a wide receivers coach (now with Jacksonville), told Ausberry he went to see Arnsparger not long ago. The calculating mind — Dolphins.com writer Andy Cohen aptly wrote you could almost see the wheels turning as he stood stoically on the sideline under his headset — wasn’t the same anymore.
Remember him as he was, Sullivan told Ausberry.
Remember Bill Arnsparger as perhaps the best pure football coach LSU ever had.
Follow Scott Rabalais on Twitter: @RabalaisAdv.