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Jeff Kolpack, Published March 21 2012

‘Visionary’ Bison football coach Erhardt dies at 80

FARGO – Ron Erhardt, who took an upstart football program at North Dakota State University and turned it into a national power, died Wednesday morning near his home in Boca Raton, Fla.

News traveled fast to his former Bison coaches and staff, who reflected on a young coach who won two national championships at NDSU.

Longtime NDSU trainer Denis Isrow said Erhardt, 80, 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.

Erhardt was named the NDSU head coach in 1966. He was 61-7-1 in seven years, including three unbeaten seasons. He was 34-0-1 in one stretch from 1968-71.

“I compare him (Mudra) 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 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.

Ardell Wiegandt, who played and coached under Erhardt, saw him last month while he was in Florida.

“He looked good and was sharp,” Wiegandt said. “This is a tough one. He took over a program from Mudra and built it.”

Erhardt built it with a philosophy that demanded excellence from his assistant coaches and hard-nosed discipline from his players, Isrow said. Chuck Carney, who was the NDSU equipment manager in Erhardt’s final year with the Bison, said it wasn’t uncommon for players to play with a little pain.

“We had a few prima donnas, but for the most part, we had just … tough … guys,” Carney said.

Carney became president of the NDSU Team Makers booster club in 1989.

“He was a tradition builder,” Carney said of Erhardt. “That’s when the tradition started, and it’s just followed through. It was a great era.”

The tradition reached eight national championships in January, when NDSU won the Division I Football Championship Subdivision title. Erhardt returned to Fargo at times over the years, the last for a reunion of one of his national championship teams.

He left NDSU in 1973 – Carney literally helped him pack up his office – to become the offensive backs coach with New England. He was named the Patriots offensive coordinator in 1977 and head coach in 1979.

He was fired in 1981 and took over the Giants offense the following year. He was part of Super Bowl championships in 1986 and 1990. Later, he moved on to the Pittsburgh Steelers, where he helped them reach the Super Bowl in 1996.

He retired in 1998.

“He’s probably the smartest football coach I’ve ever been around,” Isrow said. “He knew football backwards and forwards. He always said, ‘Players win, coaches lose.’ He was strong in that philosophy.”

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Forum reporter Jeff Kolpack can be reached at (701) 241-5546. Kolpack’s NDSU media blog can be found at www.areavoices.com/bisonmedia