Steelers coach reflects as his 50th year begins
BY JIM WEXELL
For The Tribune-Democrat
LATROBE ó Itís a milestone heís been hoping to reach, but since Dick LeBeau ďtakes it one snap at a time,Ē he never counted on it.
But, itís here.
After 14 years as a cornerback for the Detroit Lions, and 35 years as a coach with Philadelphia, Green Bay, Cincinnati, Buffalo and Pittsburgh, the Steelersí defensive coordinator is a month away from starting his 50th season.
He sat down for a reflection of those years, as well as a peek ahead.
Q: You were a terrific player, you coached the Bengals against Joe Montana in a killer Super Bowl, you coached in three other Super Bowls. Does anything stand out the most?
DL: No, not really. Weíve been to four Super Bowls; weíve only got one championship ring. We played really well out in Arizona against a great Dallas offense. When you go that far and donít win, those are tough losses but itís always a tremendous honor to represent your conference and go that far. Yeah, thereís some disappointment when you donít win, but when you go to the Super Bowl youíve got to reflect back as a pretty successful season. So all those four years are definitely highlights, but just really for me, working with the men and teaching, still seeing them respond and paying attention to me, thatís quite an honor for me.
Q: Was it the playing days? Was it the coaching? What was your favorite part of the 50 years?
DL: Oh, playing. We all want to play. It keeps us young. When you canít play anymore youíre old, but Iíve enjoyed coaching. Problem-solving, I like that. Youíre trying to make a situation better. If itís good, you want to make it better. If itís bad, you sure want to make it better. Itís something thatís active every day, and you take your exam every seven days. A lot of times in a lot of jobs, youíve got to wait six months before you find out if youíre on the right track, but in this business you wait six days and youíre going to get a little bit of a clue what alley youíre walking down.
Q: I canít take ups and downs, but a coach obviously has to. Whatís the key to being able to shake off a Joe Montana cutting out your heart?
DL: You reflect back and try to learn in the game. I remember that game specifically and we had them second-down-and-18 on that last drive. Boy, weíre going to get off the field here. We had the lead. And we had worked on a defense two weeks there that really took Rice out of the play, and I thought this is the play to make them go somewhere else, so I called that defense and we had so many guys around Rice they knocked themselves off and Jerry caught the ball and ran about 45 yards. Thatís how they got down in there, and we almost held them there. But as a coach, you feel like you had them in the right defense, but for whatever reason the cards just didnít fall.
Everybodyís playing this Texas hold íem poker now. I was watching on TV the other night, and the guy had 10-4 diamonds and the other guy had Ace-King, well the 10-4 went all in. Heís got no chance. The Ace-Kingís got all the cards, got all the odds, but they flopped 10-10-4, so the 10-4 got a full house and won the tournament. So, those things happen and you just feel, well, I had them in a good defense and it didnít fall our way. If you can say that as a coach, itís a lot easier to sleep at night than when you know you didnít put them in a good defense, and that happens too.
Q: Whatís your secret to the fountain of youth?
DL: Itís a good gene pool, no question about that. My momís 95, bless her heart. My dad lived to be 88. On my dadís side, all of his uncles and aunts were up into their high 80s or low 90s. My dadís sisters all made it into their 90s, so we are blessed with a pretty good gene pool.
Q: Was the high point winning the Super Bowl in 2005?
DL: I think thatís safe to say, yes, definitely from a coaching standpoint.
Q: Was it a relief after 47 years?
DL: Well, it was almost serendipitous because I thought, ĎMan, Iíve had those three shots; weíve been there with good teams; itís probably not going to happen because the clock was ticking.í And, you know, I had made myself a promise after the other Super Bowls. I was so involved with what was going on that I forgot to just sit back and look around and watch the crowd a little bit and say, ĎHey, this is the Super Bowl.í So when we went to Detroit this last time, I enjoyed every second of everything, and sure enough, we won it. So that was a very special moment.
Q: Your son told me you gave him your party pass and you went up to watch the Golf Channel?
DL: Thatís not totally true. I did go up to watch the Golf Channel later. My TV doesnít know thereís another channel out there but the Golf Channel, so thatís nothing new about that. But that was one party we wanted to be in for awhile. That was a great night.
Q: Did you just stare at the TV and smile?
DL: Yeah, it was probably three months before the smile went off my face.
Q: Do the 50 years all come together and form what youíre putting on the field now? Is it all percolating?
DL: I hope so. I hope the mistakes have added to knowledge. I think that has helped to make me a better coach; I hope it has. And I try to stay current, see whatís going on in the league, add their ideas to mine and see if we canít get our guys in good positions. Thatís the challenge of the job and thatís really what I enjoy the most.
Q: Does your experience help you more with play calling, dealing with players, or adding twists to schemes?
DL: Iíve always had one thought in calling plays: I want to have a reason for what Iím calling. A lot of times, after the fact, it was a very poor reason. But if Iím sitting and my thought process says ĎThis is the thing to do at this time,í I can live with that. When it comes to grab-bagging, pulling things out of the hat, then I have a hard time with that. So I try to prepare myself through the week to know what I want our guys to do and what I want to call in what situations, and then Iíll try to react to whatís happening in the game situation. Thatís been the thing thatís enabled me not to second-guess myself, because, letís face it, anybody thatís calling the plays, offensively or defensively, heís going to be wrong sometimes. Hindsightís 20-20.
Youíre going to be able to be second-guessed and sometimes you just have to say to yourself, ĎThatís pretty dumb.í But I think all of thatís given me longevity. I can live with that and learn from it and really try to have a good, sound reason for what I did. Now, it mightíve been a stupid thing but at least at that time my thought process said, ĎYouíve thought this out. This is the way to go.í
Q: The first practice this year at camp, the blitzes were coming from everywhere. Are you going to blitz more this year?
DL: These guys are very good blitzers. Some of our young guys are showing a penchant for blitzing effectively. We like to try to give them an opportunity to do what we do well and Iíve never been averse to putting a little pressure on the quarterback.
Q: So you expect those sacks numbers to go back up?
DL: Well, the number that I really like is No. 1 in defense, and weíve been that two of the past four years, and one of the two that we werenít, we were the worldís champions. So those are the numbers that weíre really focusing in on, playing good, effective defense. And pressure is sometimes reflected in total sacks and sometimes it isnít. We led the league last year in (fewest) yards per pass attempt against us. Itís the first time weíve ever done that around here, and you have to have pressure to do that. So do we want more sacks? Absolutely. But we want pressure thatís effective pressure that allows us to play good defense.
Q: Is Lawrence Timmons one of those young blitzers you were talking about?
DL: Timmons is doing a good job. I think (LaMarr) Woodleyís going to do a good job. Iím looking forward to seeing what those guys can do, full go, in NFL game situations.
Q: That mixer defense on third down, do you expect that, in its second year, to improve?
DL: Yeah, I think we can grow from that, and I think we can be effective with that and cause some problems. Lord knows the offense causes us enough problems. We think we can maybe make them prepare for a little bit with that.
Q: Now 50 years. Youíve been waiting for this milestone. Might this be the last year for you?
DL: I did want to make 50 years, but weíre going to take it one snap at a time. Thatís what weíre going to do. Itís what weíve been doing for several years. If we play defense like we did last year, itís going to be hard to give it up. Weíll see.