Tom Cousineau - Defensive End - 1979-81 - Ohio State
Ohio State Lineman, 1979 NFL #1 rounder started career with Montreal
Coming out of St. Edward, Cousineau was one of the most highly-recruited football players in the country, along with being a state finalist in wrestling in both his junior and senior seasons. He was a three-year starter at Ohio State and a two-time All-America selection, being MVP of the 1977 Orange Bowl and ’79 Hula Bowl. He paced the Buckeyes in total tackles two seasons.
When he came out of Ohio State, Buffalo used the No. 1 overall pick in the 1979 draft to take him. It seemed like a good fit. The Bills were struggling and needed an infusion of talent. And playing in Buffalo, just three hours up I-90 from Cleveland, meant Cousineau would be close to home.
“I was incredibly flattered to have been drafted by the Bills and I looked forward to playing with them,” the now 47-year-old Cousineau said. “Chuck Knox, the coach there at that time, was a great coach. He was what they call a players’ coach. I just looked upon it as a great opportunity.” But that feeling lasted for only a few fleeting hours – if that.
“My relationship with the Bills got off into the weeds, and it happened almost immediately,” he said.
When Cousineau went to fly on draft day from New York, where he had been for the draft, to Buffalo for a press conference with the local media, he found when he got to the airport that there was no seat for his agent, Jimmy Walsh. On top of that, the flight was sold out.
After that matter was finally cleared up and Cousineau and Walsh arrived in Buffalo, they were supposed to go to dinner that night with Bills owner Ralph Wilson and general manager Stew Barber.
“We waited down in the hotel lobby for them, but they never showed up. They didn’t even call,” Cousineau said.
“I didn’t need to have my rear end kissed by the Bills, but the way they treated me was about as rude as it gets. For whatever reason, the Bills were playing hardball with me right out of the gate.
“Barber had played with the Bills, and I found out later that he didn’t treat any players very well. This was at a time when a lot of players were leaving Buffalo.”
Feeling insulted and with his and his client’s pride hurt, Walsh quickly called the Alouettes to see if they were interested in having Cousineau play for them. They did.
“By that evening, we had a deal,” Cousineau said.
“Buffalo went ballistic when they heard that. They were very unhappy. They thought I was bluffing.
“I wanted to play in Buffalo. I really did. I didn’t expect them to match the offer I got from Montreal, because it was very good. We told the Bills that if they were just close to that offer, I’d stay.
“But the Bills came back with an offer that was less than half that of Montreal’s. I didn’t want to make it about money. I really didn’t. Like I said, though, the thing just got off in the weeds right away and never came back out.”
So Cousineau went to the CFL and, not surprisingly, was a star there, too. He played with the Alouettes from 1979-81 and was generally regarded as the best defensive player in the league in a decade.
“They were very good to me up there,” he said.
But his heart was still in the NFL, and in April 1982, the Browns’ AFC Central rivals, the Houston Oilers (now the Tennessee Titans), made him an offer sheet. The Bills still had NFL rights to Cousineau and could keep him by matching the Oilers’ deal, and they did.
The Bills, however, had no intention of Cousineau ever playing for them. They quickly traded him to the Browns for Cleveland’s No. 1 draft pick in 1983, a third-rounder in 1984 and a fifth-rounder in ’85.
It was a steep price to pay, but the Browns, who were building a pretty good defense at the time, were convinced Cousineau was worth it. They thought Cousineau would be the player who could put their defense – and hopefully even their team overall – over the top.
The whole thing floored Cousineau.
“Coming to Cleveland was a total surprise to me,” he said. “I didn’t expect it.”
It was such big news that Sports Illustrated pictured him on the cover in the early part of training camp and ran a big story on his returning home to Cleveland.
As much as the Browns were thrilled to get Cousineau, he was just as thrilled to be with them.
“I enjoyed playing in Canada, but Cleveland is where I always hoped I would play,” he said in the Browns 1982 media guide. “Success, when you don’t have anyone to share it with, is a pretty meaningless experience.
“Now I’ll have people around me and at the game or watching on television who I care about, and that will help me play my best.”
Cousineau was right. He did play very well and helped the Browns defense take some big strides forward. The Browns made the playoffs when Cousineau was a rookie, in the strike-shortened 1982 season, and they barely missed going back the following year. After being picked to win the division in 1984, the team, because of offensive problems, struggled to a 5-11 finish. That caused coach Sam Rutigliano to be fired halfway through the season and replaced by Marty Schottenheimer.
That marked the beginning of the end for Cousineau’s time with the Browns. Even though Rutigliano made it clear he was an offensive-minded coach, Cousineau got along very well with him.
“I think the world of Sam Rutigliano,” he said. “We’re still great friends to this day.”
He likens Rutigliano to his college coach, the late Woody Hayes.
“I played all four years for Woody,” Cousineau. “His last game at Ohio State (the 1978 Gator Bowl against Clemson, after which he was fired) was my last game there.
“He was fabulous. His special ability to get you to buy into the team concepts was like no one else I ever played for. Jim Tressel is doing a real good job of that now down there.
“And Woody could deliver a pre-game speech like no one else. He would get you so pumped up that when you ran out of the locker room and onto the field, your feet weren’t even touching the ground.
“Sam was a little more subdued than Woody, but he was still a very powerful guy. He was very spiritual.”
But despite the fact Schottenheimer had been Cousineau’s defensive coordinator since the linebacker arrived in Cleveland, things didn’t click as well between them.
Cousineau lasted just a year a half with Schottenheimer, spending the last two seasons of his six-year NFL career, 1986 and ’87, with the San Francisco 49ers.
Cousineau was a valuable reserve with the 49ers and got to play against his former team one time, in a 1987 Sunday night nationally televised game won by San Francisco 38-24. The 49ers captured the NFC West title both seasons.