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NorthCoast
01-29-2009, 10:46 PM
Rob Oller commentary: Steelers defensive coordinator is more complex than you might realize
Tuesday, January 27, 2009 3:11 AM
By Rob Oller

THE COLUMBUS DISPATCH


GENE J. PUSKAR | Associated Press
Ohio native and former OSU football player Dick LeBeau, 71, has been employed in the NFL as either a player or coach for 50 years.

One song ends and the next one begins as Dick LeBeau strums a guitar in the London home of his 95-year-old mother. He belts out bluegrass and Bob Dylan. Country. Rock. Fast. Slow.

"He knows everything," Beulah LeBeau said of her son, the Pittsburgh Steelers defensive coordinator who visits his mother frequently during the offseason, driving the interstate from his home in Cincinnati to Madison County.

As LeBeau sings, the session becomes one of those "If my friends could see me now" moments. The blitz-happy coach who built the powerful Pittsburgh defense is the same guy who sings tender ballads in his mother's living room? The hawkish coach who teaches players to go for the kill is the same one who sang peace-loving protest songs during the 1960s?

One and the same. Turns out LeBeau is a contradiction that way; in other ways, too. Even his last name, which in French translates to "beautiful," is at odds with the way Pittsburgh presents itself to the world. The Steelers are "le beau" only in their efficiency at emasculating opposing offenses. And the father of those cage fighters is the Pride of London, Ohio.

LeBeau is 71 -- but looks at least 10 years younger. He is emotionally low-key -- but lists his favorite movie as The Wizard of Oz. The Super Bowl on Sunday will mark the end of his 50th season in the NFL, 14 as a player and the past 36 as a coach who has always been able to relate to players.

But when LeBeau looks at his defense he sees only one player -- Orpheus Roye -- who had been born when LeBeau began his coaching career in Philadelphia in 1973. He followed that stint with stops in Green Bay, Cincinnati (where he was 12-33 in three seasons as coach), Buffalo and Pittsburgh, twice; first in 1992 for four seasons and then again in 2004.

Then there is this: Seemingly, the Steelers' defense ranks No. 1 in total yards, points allowed, pass defense and yards per play because it takes an aggressive approach that stresses physicality. Yet the designer of the defense leans toward nuance over Neanderthal.

During training camp, LeBeau calmly walked the practice field empty-handed, making mental notes while other clipboard-carrying coaches scribble onto legal pads. An invited guest asked what LeBeau was looking for.

"Seeing who can play my defense," came the answer. "Who fits in."

He is a thinker. Always has been. In high school, LeBeau made an immediate impression on London coach Jim Bowlus, who described him as having feet attached to his head.

"He has a unique way of looking at football," said Bruce Mahar, who played eight seasons with LeBeau in Detroit. "To me, he wasn't the typical rah-rah person you get in the game. Nothing goes through that guy's head without a lot of filtering."

Not that LeBeau couldn't be physical on the field. He was a 6-foot-1, 185-pound defensive back who played in 171 straight games with the Lions, still an NFL record for a cornerback. But smarts -- reading defenses, studying receivers -- are mostly responsible for him retiring from the Lions in 1972 as the franchise leader with 62 interceptions, which ties for seventh on the NFL career list. (And yet he is not in the Pro Football Hall of Fame; ridiculous.)

The guy has a heart to match his brain, too. He still helps raise funds for the London Country Club -- an avid golfer, LeBeau often plays the club in the summer, still managing to shoot his age -- and has done much good for the Madison County Hospital.

Pittsburgh players quickly pick up on LeBeau's love for the game, and for them. The feeling is mutual. In Pittsburgh's 2005 regular-season finale against Detroit, the defense hung retro Lions jerseys with No. 44, LeBeau's number, in their lockers before the game.

"That got to the old coach," said LeBeau's older brother, Bob, who lives in London.

Again, it takes a few hard head shakes to separate LeBeau the sentimental troubadour from the coach who is credited with creating the "zone blitz" that has helped teams combat spread offenses.

Not that separating the two makes any sense. If anything, it is refreshing to learn LeBeau studies Civil War history as much as NFL history. That he watches movies whenever he can. That as part of the Joe Schmidt Trio -- an eclectic threesome that included LeBeau, Mahar and former Lions player and coach Schmidt -- he cut a 45-rpm record whose B side, The Lonesome One, appeared briefly on Detroit charts.

"After we made that record we were legends in our own minds," Mahar cracked. "But, honestly, we sounded terrible."

The way Mahar tells it, LeBeau was the talent who wrote songs during long days spent at Lions training camp.

"He could pump a little bit on that guitar, but he was kind of laid back. Liked that protest music," Mahar said.

Protest wasn't part of LeBeau's package at Ohio State, where he played on the 1957 national championship team under Woody Hayes. LeBeau, who as a tailback scored two touchdowns against Michigan in '57, was the good soldier but the even-better observer. After finishing at OSU in 1958, he decided that if he ever were to become a coach he would listen to his players instead of wield power over them as Hayes did.

The results have been impressive. LeBeau might not know everything, as his mother claims, but he obviously knows something few else do. Smart guy. Good guy. A voice that should be heard.

http://www.dispatch.com/live/content/sports/stories/2009/01/27/oller27.ART_ART_01-27-09_C1_M8CMUV9.html

Some good stuff I never knew about LeBeau. It's not talk much about, but I think his eye for players who fit his schemes are what separates him from a lot of others. I would guess his opinions on defensive draft picks get a lot of sway.