Bill Austin, Lombardi’s successor as Washington Redskins coach, dies at 84


Bill Austin, head coach of the Washington Redskins, poses for a portrait on August 7, 1970 in Carisle, Pa. (Richard Darcey/The Washington Post)
June 1, 2013

Bill Austin, who became head coach of the Washington Redskins in 1970 as the handpicked successor of the ailing Vince Lombardi, and who later returned to the team as offensive line coach, died May 22 at his home in Las Vegas. He was 84.

The New York Giants, for whom Mr. Austin was an all-pro guard in the 1950s, announced his death. The cause of death was not disclosed.

Mr. Austin spent 11 years with Lombardi as a player and assistant coach before taking over the top job with the Redskins in 1970. The previous season, when Mr. Austin served as Lombardi’s offensive coordinator, the Redskins compiled a 7-5-2 record — the team’s first winning record in 14 years.

Lombardi had won three National Football League championships and two Super Bowls with the Green Bay Packers, but in Washington, the coaching legend never had a chance to improve on his promising start.

Stricken with colon cancer, Lombardi died Sept. 3, 1970, at age 57. Before his death, however, he anointed Mr. Austin his heir apparent with the Redskins. Mr. Austin had a mediocre record of 11-28-3 during three seasons as the Pittsburgh Steelers’ head coach from 1966 to 1968, but he had a long history as Lombardi’s protege.

After playing under Lombardi with the New York Giants for four years, Mr. Austin was the first assistant hired when Lombardi took the head coaching job in Green Bay in 1959.

As the Packers’ offensive line coach for six years, Mr. Austin was a principal architect of the team’s powerful running attack, which featured fullback Jim Taylor and halfback Paul Hornung. The linemen Mr. Austin coached included guards Jerry Kramer and Fuzzy Thurston and two Hall of Famers, tackle Forrest Gregg and center Jim Ringo.

Mr. Austin was credited with helping develop the Packers’ signature play, the power sweep, in which Kramer and Thurston pulled out of the line to lead the ballcarrier to daylight downfield.

“One thing we must recognize,” Mr. Austin told The Washington Post in 1970. “There was only one Vince Lombardi. I can’t hope to be him.” He did say that he could shout as loudly as Lombardi and added, “Naturally, some of his ideals, philosophy, and even mannerisms have rubbed off on me.”

Like his mentor, Mr. Austin was a strict disciplinarian who led his players through grueling two-a-day drills in training camp, each lasting more than two hours. Some players said they were so worn out by the practices that they couldn’t play their best in games.

In 1970, Mr. Austin’s sole season as the Redskins’ head coach, quarterback Sonny Jurgensen threw 23 touchdown passes, and running back Larry Brown rushed for 1,125 yards to become the first Redskin to gain more than 1,000 yards on the ground.

But the defense was porous, and the Redskins finished the season with a record of 6-8.

“The Redskins seem to have lost their spirit,” Washington Post sports columnist Bob Addie wrote in 1970. “It has been a traumatic year starting with the death in September of Vince Lombardi. It was too much to ask that Bill Austin assemble the stunned elements and mold them into a winning ballclub.”

It was Mr. Austin’s final job as a head coach. Counting his years in Pittsburgh, he finished with a career record of 17-36-3.

“Our problems are simple,” he said in 1970. “We have to get some better players.”

Both coaches who succeeded him — Chuck Noll in Pittsburgh and George Allen in Washington — were later elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

William Lee Austin was born Oct. 18, 1928, in San Pedro, Calif., and grew up in Woodburn, Ore. His father spent 26 years in the Navy. Mr. Austin was a starting guard at Oregon State University when he was 16 and was an all-Pacific Coast Conference player in 1948, his senior season.

He played with the New York Giants in 1949 and 1950, then coached football while serving in the Army during the Korean War. He returned to New York in 1953 and, weighing only about 220 pounds, was a starting guard on the Giants’ 1956 NFL championship team. Lombardi was the team’s offensive coach.

Mr. Austin retired as a player after the 1957 season, then coached for a year at Wichita State University before Lombardi summoned him to Green Bay.

After his season as the Redskins’ head coach, Mr. Austin stayed in the NFL as an offensive line coach, including five years with the Redskins under Allen in the 1970s. He was an assistant coach with five other professional teams before retiring in 1985.

Survivors include his wife of 56 years, Goodrun Udbye Austin; four daughters; five grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren.

Mr. Austin was a licensed pilot. His older brother was a Navy pilot who was killed during the Vietnam War.

In 1969, when Mr. Austin was an assistant coach with the Redskins, the team played in Pittsburgh. After the game, Mr. Austin roughly threw a Pittsburgh sportswriter, Pat Livingston, out of the Redskins’ locker room.

“He blames me for losing his job as the Steeler head coach,” Livingston said at the time. Others thought it more likely that Mr. Austin was dismissed because his team had a record of 2-11-1 in his final year in Pittsburgh.

At the request of the NFL commissioner’s office, Mr. Austin sent a letter of apology to Livingston. He left the letter unsigned.

Matt Schudel has been an obituary writer at The Washington Post since 2004.