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Former Patriots coach Ron Erhardt dies at 80

Posted by Steve Silva, Boston.com Staff  March 21, 2012 05:25 PM

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9/29/80. Coach Ron Erhardt talks with Patriots quarterback Steve Grogan

Ron Erhardt, former Patriots coach from 1979-1981, died in Boca Raton, Fla., Wednesday morning. He was 80.

Erhardt began his NFL career as the Patriots backfield coach in 1973, a position he held for four seasons before being named offensive coordinator. When Patriots coach Chuck Fairbanks was suspended by then-owner Bill Sullivan in 1978 for making a deal to coach the University of Colorado, Erhardt was named co-head coach, along with Hank Bullough, for the last game of the regular season.

Erhardt officially was named head coach of the Patriots on April 6, 1979. He guided the Patriots to a 9-7 record in 1979 and a 10-6 record in 1980 but missed the playoffs in both seasons. The Patriots fell to 2-14 in 1981 and Erhardt was dismissed at the end of the year. The 1980 Patriots scored 441 points, a record that stood until the 2007 team scored 589.

Bill Parcells was the Patriots linebackers coach in 1980 and retained Erhardt on his staff when he became coach of the Giants. Erhardt was on the Giants’ staff from 1982 to 1991, spending eight seasons under Parcells, and was the Giants’ offensive coordinator when they won Super Bowls XXI and XXV.

"The New England Patriots are deeply saddened to learn of the loss of Ron Erhardt, who served as Patriots head coach for three seasons from 1979 through 1981," the team said in a statement Wednesday.

“We’re all saddened by the unexpected news of Ron’s death,” said Giants coach Tom Coughlin in the Giants' statement. “I just sent him a note at the end of the season when he celebrated his 80th birthday (on Feb. 27).”

A native of Mandan, N.D., Erhardt was a successful high school coach after graduating from Jamestown College in 1953. Erhardt also won two college football championships while coaching at North Dakota State, where he had a 67-7-1 record in his seven years.

Former Globe reporter Larry Whiteside wrote about Erhardt in Feb. 1977:

His name is Ron Erhardt, and while there is still time I want to take credit for his discovery. Back in the '60s, long before Patriots coach Chuck Fairbanks ever thought of naming him offensive coordinator, I ran across this confident young coach out of Fargo, N.D., whose North Dakota State football club was trampling just about everybody it faced.

It was after a 71-0 drubbing of a Univ. of Wisconsin-Milwaukee football team that I asked him to explain the offense of his Thundering Herd. That's what the North Dakota State team that won the national college division championship in 1968 and 1969 was called.

Simple, he said. The Herd had only three plays. Stampede Left. Stampede Right. And the big one up the middle - Westward Hooooo! You don't forget a guy like that.

Well, all right. Maybe Fairbanks knew in 1973 when he hired Erhardt to coach the Patriots' offense backfield that Ron had the best record of any college coach in the nation.

Or maybe somebody had told Fairbanks that Erhardt had four times been college division (now Div. 2) Coach of the Year at a time when San Diego State was impressing the world because of a fellow named Don Coryell (now of St. Louis Cardinals). Maybe someone had told Fairbanks that Erhardt had been a part of a college football program at North Dakota State that had produced 90 victories in 100 games dating back to 1963.

But, I discovered him. And if Fairbanks had asked me about replacing Red Miller as offensive coordinator, my choice would be Ron Erhardt. Wonder why he didn't?

Maybe you don't think the title offensive coordinator is important. All you have to do is think back to 1972, the year before Fairbanks, Miller and Erhardt at Foxboro, and recall the miserable offensive lines and one of the worst running attacks in NFL history to appreciate the job done by the Patriots the last four years.

Miller's claim to fame could be that this year three Patriots started in the Pro Bowl: Leon Gray, John Hannah and Russ Francis. But in the Patriots' scheme of things,such honors are the result of coordinated efforts, and you must also praise aides like Ray Perkins (receivers), John Polonchek (quarterbacks) and Erhardt. They're a team. If Fairbanks hadn't hired Ron as offensive boss replacing Miller, don't doubt for a minute that Red would have taken him along to Denver.

Erhardt and Miller are alike in many ways. One percolates. The other bubbles.

"We worked well together," Ron said yesterday. "We both strive for perfect all the time. We believe in enthusiasm. He was certainly the finest offensive line coach I've ever worked with.

"We hope to keep that same kind of attitude among our people. Rather than be defensive on offense, we want them to be cutting, slashing and aggressive. I hope that Ray, John, the new line coach and I keep the rapport.

Some things about Ron Erhardt you need to know. Sam Cunningham thought so highly of him that Cunningham insisted that Erhardt be present at his contract signing last year. Cunningham used to try to bulldoze people. "We worked hard with Sam on developing his football reading skills, so that he could see and understand what the defense was doing as he carried the ball," Erhardt said. "We worked hard on developing pass catching skills, pass route skills, avoiding fumbles."

Andy Johnson and Don Calhoun are products of Erhardt's tutoring. "All our backs are doing a good job," Erhardt said. "They're well disciplined. They make few mental errors. They understand what we're trying to do."

Something else. In the 10 years Erhardt spent at North Dakota State, he had 20-25 players drafted by pro teams. He kept the best one for himself and the Patriots - linebacker Steve Nelson.

Erhardt could easily have gone to the Big Ten or Big Eight but instead joined Fairbanks in the pros. He has never regretted the decision.

"To me, it's intriguing," said Erhardt. "And it gives you an opportunity to work on strategy in almost every way. I find that in itself rewarding, and when you win it really becomes worthwhile. I've always felt that to stay in football, I had to be with the best. A higher level of college football was just more of the same. The big thing is Chuck Fairbanks. He wanted me and that doesn't happen very often to a guy from North Dakota State."

All right, Fairbanks made a hell of a choice in hiring Erhardt. But remember, I discovered him.

News, analysis and commentary from Boston.com's staff writers and contributors, including Zuri Berry and Erik Frenz.

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