View Full Version : Steelers' LeBeau Has Been Around, And It Shows

01-17-2009, 01:22 AM
Steelers' LeBeau Has Been Around, And It Shows

http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/co ... id=topnews (http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/01/16/AR2009011601773_2.html?hpid=topnews)

Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 16, 2009; 11:29 AM

PITTSBURGH -- There is no way to tell this by looking at him, because he has his full head of hair, only flecks of which are gray; his face is not unusually creased or jowled; and when there is time, just before practice, he sneaks off to the side of the field and does pushups. Vigorously. But Dick LeBeau played for the late Woody Hayes at Ohio State back when players served on both sides of the ball. He played in the NFL with men who are now both legendary and late, from Lane the defensive back (Dick "Night Train") to Layne the quarterback (Bobby), at a time when players held offseason jobs to support their families.

Since he broke in with the Detroit Lions in 1959, that franchise has churned through 15 head coaches and just hired a 16th, and the league has added 20 teams. When he began his coaching career as an assistant with the Philadelphia Eagles in 1973, only one of the players he is responsible for as the coordinator of the Pittsburgh Steelers' defense had even been born.

And yet there he was in the week leading up to the AFC Championship game, in which the Steelers will host the Baltimore Ravens today, talking as much about the future as he does about the past.

"You will find, my friend, when you become a septuagenarian," he said, "you'll say, 'Where the hell did it all go?' "

The better questions for LeBeau might be, "Where the hell is it all going, and when will it stop?" Add it all up, and he is 71. He played in the NFL for 14 years, has coached 36 more, and that's a grand total of a half-century. Hardly a question is asked of him that doesn't include a phrase such as "given all the quarterbacks you've seen" or "in 50 years of watching offenses . . . " And his credentials this season are unmatched, because the Steelers have the league's top-ranked defense -- in total yards, points allowed, pass defense and yards per play. As star safety Troy Polamalu said, "You can't get ranked higher than No. 1."

"We've been blessed," LeBeau said. "If our defense wasn't as good as they are, I probably wouldn't have the 50 years. You get good players, you're a pretty good coach. The players have kept me very interested in continuing to coach. These [players] are a special group, and because of their performance, I'm sure nobody's saying, 'Well, this is an old guy.' They're just saying, 'This is a veteran, experienced coach.' "

This is, though, a veteran, experienced coach with a few twists. The modern NFL is filled with driven, focused, sleep-at-the-office-lest-I-fall-behind climbers. The mindset can lead to a corporate environment. LeBeau's players, though, speak openly of their love for him. He is not overly crass. He is not overly critical. He does not berate them, though he does not allow them to shirk their responsibilities.

"He's our heart, he really is," Polamalu said. "Things have changed, you know, [since] when he first came in. Football, to him -- he doesn't approach it as a business, which I've heard that other people do. He's just friends with people. He's the Godfather, I guess. He's the Marlon Brando of our team."

Which is one way of saying LeBeau's players would do whatever he asks of them, just as he once did whatever Hayes asked. When the Buckeyes won the national championship in 1957, LeBeau scored two touchdowns against Michigan as a running back and stood out as a defensive back. He latched on with the Lions two years later, teaming with Lane as a cornerback, maniacally studying the game.

"Dick was recognized widely by me and a lot of other corners as a coach still playing," said Lem Barney, a Hall of Fame cornerback whose first six seasons with the Lions were also LeBeau's last six as a player. "He was that intuitive about the game. He taught me what offensive coordinators were trying to do, what they were setting us up for."

LeBeau, though, wasn't an all-football-all-the-time player. He has, at various times in his life, been nearly a scratch golfer. He devours movies. "We called him Ricky Nelson," said Roger Brown, an all-pro tackle with the Lions in the 1960s. "Those good looks, that singing. We used to tell him he should go into the movies."

LeBeau, to this day, plays guitar, and he would croon for his Lions teammates. Barney remembers that he and fellow defensive back Mike Weger would doo-wop behind LeBeau's playing.

"Some guys would go to the bowling alley," Barney said. "Some guys would get their Bible. Some guys would catch a movie. Dick would grab that six-string guitar. He had a good voice, and it was during the time of free expression. He was like Bob Dylan."

But instead of taking those renaissance qualities and branching out after his playing career ended in 1972 -- after he had set the Lions' record with 62 interceptions and played in 171 straight games, still an NFL record for a cornerback -- he went directly into coaching.

"He loved the game, and he stayed with the game," Brown said. "He was fortunate enough that he was a student of the game, and someone always wanted him, wanted to use him."

That, now, includes Mike Tomlin, who took over as the Steelers' head coach prior to the 2007 season. At that point, it seemed natural the Steelers would change coordinators. Tomlin was only 34 and had run the Minnesota Vikings' defense. LeBeau had had his chance as a head coach, a nearly three-season stint with the Cincinnati Bengals, and he was in his second time around in Pittsburgh. Asked if the Steelers' defenders were worried they would lose their coordinator, Polamalu said, "Definitely."

Tomlin, though, sat down with LeBeau. The Steelers' defense ranked ninth in the league in 2006. LeBeau, who is widely credited with developing the "zone blitz" -- which helps cover up areas a blitzing defensive back or linebacker vacates by dropping a lineman into coverage -- and Tomlin wanted to hear his philosophy. LeBeau stayed, and Tomlin said this week it would take more time than he has to explain what that means to the franchise.

"Dick cares about people," Tomlin said. "He doesn't take that ingredient out of his recipe when he comes to work."

His players clearly appreciate that. Last week, the Steelers allowed the San Diego Chargers a bit of a fourth-quarter comeback when running back Darren Sproles scored on a 62-yard pass play. LeBeau reminded his players such lapses couldn't happen against Baltimore.

"I was like, 'My bad, Coach, I should've got Sproles on the ground,' " safety Ryan Clark said. "He was like, 'You're dang right you should've. But who cares? Now let's go.' "

But just as in his playing days, it is not all football, all the time. Each holiday season, LeBeau gathers his players for a performance of "The Night Before Christmas," which he recites from memory, taking on characters, changing his voice. Football players who might find it corny instead embrace it. Clark said he almost cried the first time he LeBeau's rendition.

"You're taken back to when you were 5 years old," defensive end Aaron Smith said. "You're just kind of shocked. . . . He does it with such flair that it's unbelievable."

What he won't do with flair is talk about himself. The players, too, appreciate that. Steelers owner Dan Rooney convinced LeBeau to go along with a league-sponsored idea to honor his 50th season in the league prior to a November game against Cincinnati. LeBeau spent the time looking at his players, who had lined up in admiration.

"They told us to stay out there," Clark said. "But they didn't have to say that. All they had to do is tell me what the award was for, who it was for, and we all were going to be there whether it was zero degrees or 115."

There is but one honor LeBeau's former teammates and current players want for him: induction into the Hall of Fame. Last year, when the Steelers played in the Hall of Fame Game during the preseason, LeBeau's players bought throwback Lions jerseys with LeBeau's No. 44 to show support.

"It's unquestionable, man," Barney said. "I know DBs, man. I've seen them over the years. I've studied some great guys, seen some great guys. The credentials he has, Dick should've been in the Hall. He should've been in the Hall a long time ago."

With a trip to the Super Bowl at stake Sunday, such status is not of concern to LeBeau. Rather, he spoke during the week of his fondness for his players, his pride in their accomplishments. He took shots at himself -- "I just try to get out of the way," he said -- but he knows his players won't buy that. These Steelers are the Steelers, the players believe, because after 50 seasons in the NFL, Dick LeBeau still loves football.

"I just be myself, and I hope that it gets across to them that I care about them and care about our performance," LeBeau said. "I just try to tell them what I think is necessary to enable us to be able to do that, and the way it's worked out, we're just a pretty close group."

01-17-2009, 01:36 AM
Asesome article, thanks Ford Steeler!

How lucky are we that: 1) He came back for a 2nd stint, and 2) He and Tomlin decided he should stay?

Is there a rule that people can't enter the HOF as coordinators?

01-17-2009, 01:48 AM
Wow. Really. Think of what we are as a franchise. You are a fan of this level of greatness.



01-17-2009, 01:48 AM
He should be in the HOF as a player IMHO :tt1

01-17-2009, 06:44 AM
I worry that we'll win a SuperBowl and Lebeau will retire.

I've been wondering for the last few years, who will be the one to take over for Lebeau? Who is his apprentice that he's grooming to be the next great defensive mind in the game.

And the more I think about it, that young guy just might be Tomlin.

stlrz d
01-17-2009, 11:09 AM
I don't think he's going to retire Flip. He's never hinted at it, he's been at it for 50 years and he shows no signs of slowing down or of the game having "passed him by".