Ron Erhardt, who took an upstart football program at North Dakota State and turned it into a national power, died this morning near his home in Boca Rotan, Fla.
News traveled fast to his former Bison coaches and staff. Longtime NDSU trainer Denis Isrow said Erhardt was a visionary football coach who could see all 22 positions on the field at one time. He could also see the promise in the Bison program that Darrell Mudra started to turn around in 1963.
“I compare him to the Marines,” Isrow said. “The Marines go in there and get everything controlled and then the Army would come in. Erhardt was the Army coming into our program.”
Erhardt, who was 80, went on to a career in the NFL most notably as the head coach of the New England Patriots and offensive coordinator of the New York Giants.
In 1973, he became backfield coach of the New England Patriots, a post he served in for four years before being promoted to offensive coordinator in 1977. After missing the playoffs that year, the Patriots seemed ready to challenge for a Super Bowl berth in 1978 but Chuck Fairbanks announced late in the season he was leaving to coach the University of Colorado. The team suspended Fairbanks and made Erhardt and fellow assistant Hank Bullough co-coaches for the final game. The Patriots dropped that contest, then lost their opening round playoff matchup to the Houston Oilers.
Erhardt officially took the head coach position in 1979. Noting his 89% winning percentage at North Dakota State, Erhardt said, "I've never been a loser in football and I don't intend to start now." After nearly reaching the postseason in his first two years, the Patriots posted a team-worst 2-14 record in 1981. Citing the fact that Erhardt "was just too nice a guy," owner Billy Sullivan dismissed him at the conclusion of the 1981 season.
Erhardt was subsequently hired as offensive coordinator of the New York Giants by head coach Ray Perkins and continued to serve in that capacity under head coach Bill Parcells. The Giants went on to win two Super Bowls, with Erhardt working around a key injury during the run toward Super Bowl XXV. Quarterback Phil Simms had suffered a season-ending injury late in the season. Coach Erhardt guided his replacement, Jeff Hostetler, to navigate the team to its world championship title.
After Parcell's retirement, Erhardt moved on to serve as offensive coordinator for the Pittsburgh Steelers in 1992. Emphasizing the run, Erhardt ran the offense for four years, helping the team reach Super Bowl XXX in 1996. Erhardt left the the Steelers and returned to New York, and an offensive coordinator position with the Jets but eventually retired from coaching professional football in January 1998.
A step back in time, please. New York Giants versus Buffalo Bills in Super Bowl XXV: With the Giants sitting on a one-point lead, Buffalo made a run at them at the end, but Scott Norwood's field goal was wide. The Giants' offensive coordinator that day was Ron Erhardt. The offensive coordinator for the Steelers on Sunday...the same gentleman. "I was standing next to Billy Cowher on the sidelines," Erhardt said of the moment when Del Greco was ready to kick, "and I told him, 'He ain't gonna make it. It's the Super Bowl all over again.' "
If you're wondering why the Steelers are now tied with the Buffalo Bills and the Miami Dolphins for the best record in the AFC, consider that Pittsburgh's operation mirrors that of the Giants. No, we're not speaking of the Ray Handley Giants, the object of so much handwringing in New York these days, but of the Bill Parcells- Bill Belichick- Ron Erhardt Giants who won the Super Bowl two seasons ago.
Six days after Steeler president Dan Rooney hired the 34-year-old Cowher to succeed Chuck Noll last January, Cowher hired Erhardt to bring in the grinding, punishing hog offense that had been so successful for the Giants. Cowher had spent five years as an NFL linebacker and special teams wacko and then another seven as an assistant coach (two on special teams. live on defense). "Most defensive coaches favor a ball-control offense," says Cowher, who was the Kansas City Chiefs' defensive coordinator for the past three seasons. "It's in our blood."
Ron Erhardt from the New York Giants became the choice for the job of offensive coordinator. With the Giants for ten years, Erhardt had built an offense around a running attack that has won two Super Bowls.
“I think you have to be able to run the ball to win championships in the NFL," commented Cowher. "It's something Ron Erhardt's been able to do. He's also been able to take a quarterback like Phil Simms and develop him, and a guy like Mark Bavaro and develop him. He was the perfect person for the job."
With the head coach being defensively inclined, the role that Erhardt will be playing on offense is an important one. Vital enough for Bill Cowher to comment, "There's no question this will be Ron Erhardt's offense." Unlike the coach he is replacing, Erhardt saw success with the team he is leaving.