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fordfixer
01-31-2009, 02:55 AM
Steelers' LeBeau deserves spot in Hall of Fame

10:55 PM CST on Friday, January 30, 2009

http://www.dallasnews.com/sharedcontent ... 01457.html (http://www.dallasnews.com/sharedcontent/dws/spt/columnists/rgosselin/stories/013109dnspogosselin.3f01457.html)

TAMPA, Fla. The NFL has a place for a 71-year-old defensive coordinator. The Pro Football Hall of Fame should, too.

Dick LeBeau celebrated his 50th year in the NFL this season, the fifth of his second stint as defensive coordinator of the Pittsburgh Steelers. He'll participate in his 769th NFL game Sunday the Super Bowl.

Longevity alone should qualify him for Canton. His career dates to 1959, when he became a fifth-round draft pick of the Cleveland Browns. He didn't make it out of training camp with the Browns but hooked on with the Detroit Lions.

LeBeau played six games in his rookie season and 179 more over the next 13 years with the Lions. He retired after the 1972 season and was hired by the Philadelphia Eagles in 1973 to coach special teams.

LeBeau has gone on to coach 583 games over the last 36 years with the Eagles, Packers, Bengals, Bills and Steelers. That's 50 consecutive seasons drawing NFL paychecks. At 71, he's the oldest coach in the NFL.

"There's something to be said about being the oldest," LeBeau said, "because it just beats the hell out of the alternative."

Not only is LeBeau still employed in his eighth decade, he's at the top of his profession at his advanced age.

For the third time in LeBeau's current five-year tenure with the Steelers, Pittsburgh led the NFL in defense in 2008, allowing the fewest yards and points. The Steelers also finished first in pass defense and second in run defense and sacks.

But LeBeau is more than a coach with glittering statistics. He's an innovator. He created the zone blitz when he was defensive coordinator of the Cincinnati Bengals in the late 1980s. It is now widely used throughout the league.

But for all his genius and success as a strategist he also led a conference in defense four other times in his career the door to the Hall of Fame is not open to him. Canton has never considered an assistant coach, much less enshrined one.

LeBeau also slipped through the cracks earlier in life as a player. Even though he retired almost four decades ago, he still ranks third all-time among true cornerbacks in interceptions with 62.

LeBeau went to three Pro Bowls and led the NFC in interceptions with nine in 1970 as a 33-year-old. The Lions named him to their 75th anniversary team last fall, acknowledging him as one of the greatest players in franchise history.

His statistics certainly qualified him for Hall of Fame consideration, but it never came. Enshrinement has always been an elusive quest for cornerbacks. There are only 10 pure corners in the Hall of Fame and just four who, like LeBeau, played the bulk of their careers before 1970.

But there was more working against LeBeau than his position. The Lions didn't win any division titles in his 14 seasons and lost the lone playoff game of the LeBeau era. Like so many players who have labored on bad football teams Floyd Little, Tommy Nobis and Ken Riley immediately come to mind LeBeau has been punished individually over the years for a lack of team success.

His 25-year window of eligibility for the Hall of Fame came and went with LeBeau never more than an afterthought. He has never been discussed by the Hall of Fame selection committee.

LeBeau needs to be discussed.

The Hall of Fame prefers to categorize each member as a player, coach or contributor. But in inducting John Madden in 2006, the committee gave a silent nod to his post-coaching impact for his work as an NFL television analyst and namesake of the Madden NFL video football game.

It's time the committee looks beyond the labels that LeBeau wears. His 50-year career does not need to be divided into two segments, playing and coaching, and judged separately. His 50 years need to be viewed as one as a five-decade contribution to the game.

The NFL was a better place with Dick LeBeau than without him. The Hall of Fame also would be a better place with LeBeau than without him.