Death of coaching icon hits close to home
MADISON – When the death of Don Shula broke on Monday, most football fans probably thought of it as the loss of an icon of the game.
To James Clemens assistant football coach David Arnsparger, it meant the passing of the man he knew as “Mr. Don.”
Shula and David’s dad, Bill Arnsparger, had a friendship that started in the 1950s when they were assistant coaches at Kentucky. It lasted through the NFL glory years in Baltimore and Miami when Arnsparger was Shula’s defensive coordinator for Super Bowl championship teams, including the undefeated 1972 Dolphins.
“Don and Dad had an amazing working relationship,” David Arnsparger said. “Obviously, it was a good working relationship. It’s just hard for me to think of him as being gone. He was always there and you expected him to always be there.”
The Arnspargers and Shulas lived on the same street in Miami. David and Don’s son, Mike, were close friends growing up. They would often spend the night at each other’s house.
“I can remember being the first one up in the morning at their house and going to the kitchen,” David Arnsparger said. “Mr. Don would be there drinking his coffee. He would ask if he could fix me a bowl of cereal for breakfast.”
David Arnsparger and Mike Shula shared summer jobs working as ball boys at the Dolphins’ training camp.
“There was never any doubt about who was in charge,” David Arnsparger said. “Mr. Don would let you know when you did something right and really let you know when you did something wrong.”
The former ball boys followed their fathers into the coaching profession. Arnsparger coached in college before becoming head coach at West Limestone for seven seasons. He’s now a freshmen coach at James Clemens.
Mike Shula was head coach at Alabama from 2003-2006. He’s been an NFL assistant with seven different teams. He recently became the quarterbacks coach for the Denver Broncos.
The person responsible for the first Shula-Arnsparger friendship was Blanton Collier. He was an assistant coach with the Cleveland Browns when Shula played for the team in 1951 and 1952. Collier became Kentucky’s head football coach in 1954 when Bear Bryant left to become head coach at Texas A&M.
Arnsparger was an All-State football player for Collier in high school in Paris, Ky. He was on Collier’s first staff at Kentucky. Shula joined the staff in 1959.
In 1963, the Baltimore Colts named Shula head coach. One of the first hires to his staff was Arnsparger.
“Collier and his coaching staff got fired at Kentucky,” David Arnsparger said. “My dad got a job at Tulane coaching wide receivers for one year. The next year he’s coaching in the NFL.”
In 1970, Shula became head coach of the Dolphins. Arnsparger followed as his defensive coordinator. After the Dolphins beat Minnesota to win Super Bowl VIII in 1973, Arnsparger left to become head coach of the New York Giants. He was fired during the 1976 season after the Giants lost their first seven games.
“Two days after he got fired, Dad came in and told us he was going to Miami,” David Arnsparger said. “He was hired back to be the defensive coordinator. Something like that happening in the middle of the season was unheard of.”
Arnsparger stayed with the Dolphins for seven more seasons before leaving to become head coach at LSU. He coached the Tigers to one SEC championship and was named SEC Coach of the Year twice.
After retiring from coaching, Arnsparger lived his last few years in Athens. He died in 2015 at age 88 and was buried in Kentucky.
“Don called my mom after Dad died,” David Arnsparger said. “Mike came to the funeral in Kentucky. The Shulas are really special people. Mike is one of the best people I’ve ever known.”