SARASOTA, Fla. - Bud Carson, the innovative architect of Pittsburgh's "Steel Curtain" defense who later coached the
Cleveland Browns, died Wednesday. He was 75.
Carson, who had been ill with emphysema, died at his home.
Carson was the Steelers' defensive coordinator from 1972-77, and shaped a defense led by Joe Greene, Jack Ham and Jack Lambert into one of the best in NFL history. During that time, the Steelers won two Super Bowl titles under coach Chuck Noll and would go on to win another two after Carson left.
He then became defensive coordinator of the Los Angeles Rams, who lost to the Steelers in the Super Bowl after the 1979 season. He coached the Browns in 1989-90, posting a 11-13-1 record in 1 1/2 seasons.
"He was a great, great coach here," Steelers chairman Dan Rooney said Wednesday. "In fact, I might say he coached the best defense that ever played in the National Football League — and I told him that one time after he left. They were a phenomenal team."
The Steelers didn't win the Super Bowl in 1976, but Carson's defense had a sustained run that may never be equaled. After quarterback Terry Bradshaw was injured during a 1-4 start, the Steelers had five shutouts — three in a row — and allowed only 28 points while winning their final nine games.
"That was quite a feat," Rooney said.
That 1976 team failed to win a third consecutive Super Bowl after its two 1,000-yard running backs, Franco Harris and Rocky Bleier, were hurt in a 40-14 playoff rout of Baltimore and couldn't play in an AFC title game loss in Oakland.
After Carson became a head coach, Cleveland won the AFC Central in his first season, beating Buffalo 34-30 in the playoffs before losing to Denver 37-21 in the AFC championship game. He was fired the next year when the team got off to a 2-7 start.
"Bud was an eccentric guy that we respected very much and as a result we played hard because we liked Bud," said former Browns wide receiver Brian Brennan. "We had an older team and Bud treated us like men, and because of that he got the most out of us."
Colts coach Tony Dungy, a Steelers rookie defensive back under Carson in 1977, recalls marveling at how Carson could make major adjustments in personnel and strategy in the middle of a game or a season.
Dungy believes that the widely copied Cover 2 defense, in which a cornerback hands off coverage of a receiver to a safety, came from Carson.
"We're still doing stuff that he was doing 30 years later and everyone thinks it's innovative," Dungy said.
Carson also coached Georgia Tech from 1967-71, posting a 27-27 record, including a win in the 1970 Sun Bowl and was defensive coordinator for the
New York Jets from 1985-88.
"You look at what he established when he was with Pittsburgh, the style of defense they played in the championship they won," said Marty Lyons, a defensive tackle with the Jets during Carson's tenure there. "Wherever he went, he always had that aggressive style. He didn't want to let the offense feel like they had an upper hand on the defense. It was always an attack mode."
Carson had some of the best defensive players in NFL history in Pittsburgh, but he didn't hesitate to motivate them. He pulled future Hall of Fame cornerback Mel Blount from the AFC championship game against Oakland in January 1975 because he felt Blount wasn't playing up to his ability.
The Steelers were so uncertain about Blount's future after that, they drafted defensive back Dave Brown of Michigan in the first round and put him at Blount's position.
Blount responded by making 11 interceptions in 1975 and winning the NFL Defensive Player of the Year award, and Brown wound up with the expansion
"He would take guys and mold them into really good players," said Dungy, who said news of Carson's death "hit me hard."
Carson's work in Pittsburgh was praised even after he left the Steelers, which rankled some holdover members of Noll's staff. Woody Widenhofer, who became the Steelers' defensive coordinator in 1979, said the defense was better after Carson left because it was more complex and relied more on blitzing.
"This isn't that little architect's defense," Widenhofer said. "He didn't know anything about defense until he got with Chuck Noll."
Still, the Steelers were so concerned about Carson's knowledge of their defense before the Super Bowl in January 1980 that they rotated linebackers Loren Toews and Robin Cole on every play so Carson couldn't steal their defensive play calls from the sidelines. The Steelers won 31-19 for their fourth and final Super Bowl victory.
Carson was a defensive back at North Carolina from 1949-51 before spending two years in the Marines.
Carson is survived by his wife, Linda; daughters Dana and Cathi; a son, Clifford; a stepson, Gary Ford; three brothers, Guy, Harry and Gib, and two grandchildren.
Visitation will be Monday night at Toale Brothers Funeral Home in Sarasota with services Tuesday at First United Methodist Church.