John Sandusky dies at 80

Former Colts coach, `a great teacher,' oversaw five Hall of Fame linemen

Pro Football

March 07, 2006|By KEN MURRAY | KEN MURRAY,SUN REPORTER

John Sandusky's legacy included five Hall of Fame linemen, the NFL's best pass protection of the 1980s, and, perhaps surprisingly, a resonant singing voice.

Don Shula, beneficiary of Sandusky's football contributions in Baltimore and Miami, yesterday remembered the voice as well as the coach.

"He was part Irish, part Polish," the former Miami Dolphins and Colts coach said of Sandusky. "But the Irish part, he had that great Irish voice and he sang those great Irish songs like `Danny Boy.' Invariably when we went out together as a staff, John would burst out in song. And I never got tired of listening to it.

"John was a great teacher, and on top of that, he was just a wonderful human being."

His voice was one of many underappreciated qualities of Sandusky, 80, who died Sunday night at the Coral Springs (Fla.) Medical Center of complications from internal bleeding.

Of Sandusky's 43 NFL seasons as a coach or player, he spent 26 with Shula, earning a reputation as one of the league's best line coaches.

His Hall of Famer players were defensive linemen Art Donovan and Gino Marchetti and offensive tackle Jim Parker with the Colts, and centers Jim Langer and Dwight Stephenson with the Dolphins. Under Sandusky, the Dolphins led the league in fewest sacks allowed nine straight years in the 1980s.

"I think he had a unique ability to understand everybody's individual talent level," Gerry Sandusky, sports director at WBAL-TV, said yesterday about his father. "He didn't try to make a slow player fast, he tried to make a slow player get the most out of his abilities. He did it in ways that kept guys motivated and kept guys enjoying what they did."

Sandusky spent 14 seasons in Baltimore coaching either offense or defense, three with the Philadelphia Eagles and 19 in Miami with Shula. Yet for all of his success as a staff lieutenant, Sandusky received only a nine-game audition as a head coach in the 1972 season after Colts general manager Joe Thomas fired Don McCafferty.

"I think John is the greatest coach in the history of the league that never got a chance [to be a head coach]," said Ernie Accorsi, general manager of the New York Giants who served in the same capacity in Baltimore. "There is no better assistant coach in this league."

Before the Colts moved to Indianapolis after the 1983 season, Accorsi tried to bring Sandusky back to Baltimore as director of pro personnel.

"He was extremely intelligent and knew the game so well," Accorsi said. "When I offered him the job, he said, `I've got two people buried here [in Miami]; I can't leave.'"

Sandusky's first wife, Ruth, died in 1985, and one of his four sons, Joe, died in 1978 of complications from pneumonia.

Gerry Sandusky said his father was satisfied to be a teacher.

"He just wanted to coach young guys who loved football as much as he did," Gerry said. "He had far more passion for teaching and working with young players than the need for ego gratification."

Former Colts center Bill Curry was among those who most benefited from Sandusky's influence. Curry arrived in Baltimore in 1967 as a linebacker who had played with the Green Bay Packers. Under Sandusky, he became a two-time Pro Bowl center.

"He really encouraged me, along with Don Shula, at one of those critical times we all come to when my career would have [ended] or moved up," Curry said. "He gave me a chance to play and I've never forgotten it. I had a lot of problems with my footwork, and he totally rebuilt what I was doing with my feet."

Sandusky could be combative, too. Nicknamed "Spanky McFarland" from the popular Spanky and Our Gang television show, he had a similar effect on Colts defensive end Bubba Smith when he moved to defense. Smith was named to the Pro Bowl twice before leaving Baltimore.

The old Colts remained Sandusky's family to the end.

"The best way I can convey to people what really mattered to my father in life is this," Gerry Sandusky said. "I saw him cry three times in my life: when my brother Joe died, when my mother died and when John Unitas died. That's what mattered to my dad."

ken.murray@baltsun.com

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