By Dale Grdnic
LATROBE, Pa. — For those who played against him and battled against defenses that he coached, it’s probably little consolation that Dick LeBeau might have a different profession had fate dealt him a different hand early in life.
But it became clear to most who knew him at an early age that LeBeau was a football player. He was an exceptional cornerback for 14 years with the Detroit Lions, as well as a preeminent, innovative coach — with defense as his specialty — the past 37 seasons for more than five decades in the NFL.
LeBeau, the Pittsburgh Steelers defensive coordinator from 1995-96 along with the past seven seasons, was selected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame this year for his playing achievements. LeBeau officially will be inducted Saturday in Canton, Ohio. The Steelers players, coaching staff and management will attend.
“I played with Jack Nicklaus (at Ohio State), so that forced me to decide to concentrate on football,” LeBeau said. “If life had t aken me down a different road, I probably would have been a golf t eacher. Not a player like Jack Nicklaus or Tom Weiskopf.
“But I can make a par or two, and I love to teach. So, I probably would have been a golf coach. (But) I kind of knew from a pretty early age, certainly, at least, by my sophomore year in college, that I was going to go into coaching at some level.”
That’s not surprising, since those he teaches now, the Steelers defensive players, adore and respect the man. And his fellow coaches, like Steelers defensive line coach John Mitchell, admire him.
“Dick LeBeau’s the best thing since sliced bread,” Mitchell said. “He’s one reason why I’m still here. Dick is unbelievable. I learn something about football from him every day, something that I didn’t know. He’s the guy who can tell you about something you thought you knew, but you really didn’t know about it.
“He’s the same every day, and everybody loves him. The players and other coaches. I’ve been with Dick for a long time, and I’ve not seen one change in him. He’s a guy you just want to learn from. You want to coach with him and play for him. … I’d walk through fire for him, and the players would, too.
“I’ll have tears in my eyes when he walks across that stage, because it means so much to me to work with him,” Mitchell said. “Everybody feels that way. He’s the best guy I’ve ever worked with, and he’ll always be the best guy I’ve ever worked for. Just ask any of the guys. They all feel the same way. He’s the best guy to coach in this game, and I’m not the only guy to feel that way.”
It didn’t matter if it was a fresh-faced rookie or grizzled veteran like Steelers defensive end Aaron Smith, everyone was effusive in praising him.
“It’s certainly long overdue,” Smith said. “Dick LeBeau is a great coach, and he was a great player. And he deserves to be in the Hall of Fame. So, we’re very excited to have him as a coach and to be there for him this week. He’s a great person, a very special guy, and he’s well-loved by everyone.
“I mean, he’s 70-some years old, and you wouldn’t know it. There probably isn’t anybody his age in shape as good as him or look as young as he does. He’s just an amazing person, and he energizes me some days. He’s done nothing but help me, and he’s a great coach. It’s great to be around him every day.”
Brett Keisel, the Steelers other defensive end, was ready to cheer on LeBeau during his Hall of Fame induction.
“Obviously, he’s my favorite guy, ever,” Keisel said. “I love the guy to death, and I brought my Dick LeBeau jersey to wear (Saturday). … It’s been a long-time coming for him. I think it’s well-deserved. And I regard him very highly. I just think it’s his character.
“He’s been around here seven years, I think, and I can’t remember — even after a loss — a time when he didn’t smile at me as I walked past him coming into work. I just think he’s happy to be here and happy to be doing what he’s doing.
“So, that just makes us appreciate him even more. It makes you want to play hard for the guy. I don’t think there’s too many coaches in this league, although I’m biased because I haven’t played for anyone else, but I don’t think any other guy in this league is appreciated as much as we appreciate Coach LeBeau.”
“He told the young guys in mini-camp: ‘I don’t know if you know this, but I’m going into the Hall of Fame.’ Then, he said the exact same thing the next day,” Keisel said. “So, he’s extremely excited about it, and it’s something that we all think is much-deserved.”
It’s hard to believe that LeBeau didn’t get into the Hall before now, based on his 14-year playing career alone. He finished with 62 career interceptions, all as a cornerback, and played in a record for the position at 171 consecutive games.
“I’m very proud of that,” LeBeau said. “I think it’s reflective of the character of the i ndividual, but I think that everyone can identify with the fact that of all those games, there had to be several that you just didn’t feel too much like playing football. So, I’m just proud that I could go out there and do my job and play, and it was important to me to be on the field.”
In tribute to LeBeau, the Steelers’ defensive players have worn Detroit Lions throwback jerseys with his No. 44, to support him for induction. But year after year, he was passed over. Until now, however.
And to return the favor, LeBeau spent many OTA practices wearing his players’ jerseys. He started with captain James Farrior’s No. 51 and went from there.
“I was almost dumbstruck when they all came out in my jersey, so it sure was easy for me to put on there’s,” LeBeau said. “Coach Mike Tomlin, on the opening day of OTAs had all the 30-something players stand up, and we had a good nucleus of guys. We have a good blend of youth and experience among our players.
“And Mike spoke about the contribution of our older players, and he challenged the younger guys — many in their first Steelers meeting — to emulate the dedication and perseverance that these players had displayed in their careers. And to support the head coach, I decided to wear the number of the 30-something guys on our defense.”
Along with all the coaches and players that LeBeau has touched over the years, his biggest contribution to the league could be the innovation of the zone blitz defense while in Cincinnati. Now, many teams in the league use variations.
“It’s been often stated that necessity is the mother of invention,” LeBeau said. “We had a hole in our defensive concept in the National Football League where all pressures were all zero coverage. … When you blitz max, it means the risk of rolling the dice is a little higher. So, there wasn’t much blitzing when we also tried to play some area defense behind it.
“Sam Wyche, Cincinnati’s head coach, was an innovative guy. And he was more open-minded to this concept, which at the time was a deviation of the standard. (And) Sam said let’s take a look at it. We looked down some wrong roads, but we eventually stumbled onto some right ones. And it’s very common in the game today. So, it was opportunity meeting a situation of need.”
While LeBeau has waited a long time for this day, it might not actually hit him until he walks onto the stage to be presented his bust and say his speech.
“I still get up in the morning and pinch myself and count my blessings and say I guess I’m not dreaming,” LeBeau said. “This is really happening. But I’ve always had a strong sense of history, and that’s the largest impact that it’s had on me.
“That I’m going to be a piece of National Football League history forever, that just kind of makes me shake my head a little bit. So, I know I’m truly blessed.”
And so are everyone LeBeau has come into contact with in 50-plus NFL years.