Near the end of December 1990, the New England Patriots hadn’t won a game for 100 days. “It’s been a long, hard year for everyone involved,” head coach Rod Rust told the Globe just before the final contest of a tumultuous season in which the team finished 1-15.
“We would all be fools to pretend there is no impending sense of relief,” he said as he reflected on what would turn out to be his one and only year on the job.
With some understatement, he added that the season “has been an advanced course in dealing with adversity.”
Mr. Rust, who had been the team’s defensive coordinator during its run to Super Bowl XX five seasons earlier, died in his Ocean City, N.J., home Oct. 23 of cardiac complications. He was 90.
A respected college head coach, he was considered an innovative, hard-working defensive coordinator in the professional ranks during his 51-year coaching career.
“Rod would never say it, but he was a football genius,” said Andre Tippett, a former Patriots Pro Football Hall of Fame linebacker. “I never went into a game unprepared because he made you become a student of the game.”
Tippett added that “the fans didn’t know him like we knew him. Rod was brutally honest in all aspects of his life, and he never took the easy way out.”
Mr. Rust, who initially followed in his father’s footsteps as a high school football coach in Iowa, coached high school teams for several seasons before moving to the college ranks, where he spent more than a dozen years. He was an NFL coach for more than two decades, and then coached in the Canadian Football League, including serving as head coach of the Montreal Alouettes. He retired at age 77.
“This is just a game. I don’t know if there are any geniuses in it,” he told the Chicago Tribune in 1986, just before the Super Bowl in which the Patriots lost to the favored Chicago Bears.
Patriots Hall of Fame linebacker Steve Nelson, who was coached by Mr. Rust and was on his staff in 1990, said that “he was on the cutting edge of technology. He was really ahead of his time, but also loved to have a lot of contact in practice and he would outwork anybody.”
Mr. Rust did not seek notoriety, but his Patriots’ experience made headlines.
In 1984, New England head coach Ron Meyer fired Rust as an assistant. That drew the ire of team general manager Patrick Sullivan, who then fired Meyer. Raymond Berry replaced Meyer as head coach and Mr. Rust was rehired — with all the moves taking place in a span of 24 hours.
During the brief time when Mr. Rust was fired, Patriots cornerback Raymond Clayborn said his dismissal “kind of hurt me a little bit because Rod was an excellent guy on and off the field. You could talk with him.”
“We had an extremely talented group of players and Rod had the ability to get the best out of them and bring them together as a unit,” Berry said of his former defensive coordinator. “He did a great job.”
Rust subsequently took over as head coach when Berry was fired in February 1990. As it turned out, New England’s only win that year came in the second game — a 16-14 victory over the Meyer-coached Indianapolis Colts.
By the time Mr. Rust was hired as head coach, several Patriots assistant coaches had left, and he had to rebuild his staff on short notice.
During his season leading the team, there was uncertainty about ownership’s direction; injuries struck; the NFL fined the team and three players after Boston Herald reporter Lisa Olson was sexually harassed in the locker room; and two players were involved in a nightclub incident.
“You can know football and how to teach it, but you can’t predict the future,” Berry said of Mr. Rust’s travails that season.
In early January 1991, newly hired Patriots CEO Sam Jankovich fired Mr. Rust. Globe columnist Dan Shaughnessy wrote that laid-back coaches like Mr. Rust “need good, veteran players, guys who can lead themselves. Rust didn’t have those kinds of players.”
Mr. Rust said that although the team’s 1-15 record was “a direct reflection on me,” he added: “Whether it’s my fault or not is a totally different subject.”
Raised in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, Rodney Arthur Rust was a son of Orville Rust and the former Betty Eno. He was a football letter-winner at Iowa State University, from which he graduated with a bachelor’s degree and a master’s in political science.
After he was cut by the San Francisco 49ers as a free agent center and linebacker, Mr. Rust began coaching high school football in Iowa and then served in the Army in Japan during the Korean War.
His first college jobs were as an assistant coach at the University of New Mexico and Stanford University. While serving as head coach at North Texas State University, his teams went 22-6-1 his first three seasons and won the Missouri Valley Conference championship in 1967.
One of Mr. Rust’s greatest players at North Texas State was tackle Joe Greene, the future Pittsburgh Steelers great and Pro Football Hall of Fame inductee who became known as “Mean Joe.”
They were reunited on the Steelers coaching staff in 1989, when Mr. Rust was defensive coordinator.
“A 30-minute meeting could last twice as long because Rod loved to tell football stories,” Greene said. “He made friends everywhere he went. He was a calm and cool guy who taught me the importance of practice, the right attitude, and how to get the job done.”
Greene added that Mr. Rust was trustworthy and “would always look you in the eye.”
Mr. Rust formerly was married to Marianne Lester, who died in 1972.
In 1976, while on the Philadelphia Eagles staff, Mr. Rust met Jean Guinn, a secretary at Widener College, where the team held its training camp. They married in 1982.
A service has been held for Mr. Rust, who in addition to his wife leaves his son, Jeff of Fayetteville, Ark.; his stepdaughters, Christine Mahoney of Huntington Beach, Calif., and Amy Burns of Ocean City, N.J.; his brother, Dr. Richard Rust of Seattle; eight grandchildren; and a great-grandson.
Jean said that despite the ups and downs, her husband enjoyed his years in Foxborough.
“He handled the situation in 1990 as best he could,” she said. “Rod knew the end was coming, though, and while he didn’t display anger, he was sad about it because I feel deep down he wanted a second chance with the Patriots.”
Nelson, the former Patriots linebacker, said that Mr. Rust had great humility, would not compromise on what he was passionate about, and was realistic about his profession.
“Rod once told me that you’d better have a real estate license if you’re a coach,” Nelson said. “I loved the guy. He was a great coach and a great mentor.”