Why Steelers Chose Keith Butler to Succeed Dick LeBeau
The new defensive coordinator of the Pittsburgh Steelers is already proving that he's up to the task of replacing perhaps the most beloved coach in team history.
PHOTOS COURTESY OF PITTSBURGH STEELERS / KARL ROSER
It’s never easy to replace a living legend. Which is why the Pittsburgh Steelers’ succession plan for defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau was more than a year in the making — and why longtime linebackers coach Keith Butler was the guy all along.
“I probably worked more and spent more time with him in football than anybody in my professional life,” head coach Mike Tomlin says.
That type of familiarity and trust can mean everything when you’re trying to rebuild a defense that recently had become most identifiable by what it was no longer able to achieve — by past-their-prime veterans playing a once-revolutionary scheme.
Upon finally arriving at that coaching crossroads, Tomlin put his faith in his professional admiration for Butler, 59, that predated Tomlin establishing himself as a professional.
“I had his football card when I was a kid,” Tomlin says. “And one of the first times we met, when I first got hired at Memphis as a [graduate assistant], I said, ‘Man, you’re No. 53 from Seattle with the beard.’”
Butler had never intended to become the Steelers’ defensive coordinator, or any NFL team’s defensive coordinator, when his 10-year career as a linebacker for the Seahawks ended in 1987.
He eventually returned to the University of Memphis to complete his undergraduate degree and got into coaching.
“I wanted to keep my kids in the same area,” Butler says. “My plan was to coach at Memphis the rest of my life, go in as an assistant, become the coordinator, maybe one day be the head coach. In the meantime, along came Mike (Tomlin) and Randy Fichtner.”
Tomlin had coached receivers at the Virginia Military Institute for one season before he became a graduate assistant at Memphis in 1996. He absolutely remembered No. 53 from the Seahawks.
“He was full of questions,” recalls Butler, then the defensive ends, linebackers and special teams coach at his alma mater. “He wanted to know all about the NFL, how we did this, how we did that. He wanted to know everything about it.
“He took a personal stake in my growth and development,” Tomlin says. “It’s something our friendship was based on.”
Tomlin left in 1997 to become the wide receivers coach at Arkansas State, where he worked with Fichtner, who had worked as an assistant with Butler at Memphis from 1990-93 (Fichtner has been a Steelers’ assistant since 2007 and the team’s quarterbacks coach since 2010).
Those two convinced Butler to fill the defensive coordinator opening at Arkansas State in 1998, which commenced the type of nomadic coaching journey Butler had never wanted.
By 1999 Butler was coaching linebackers in Cleveland. Before he left for the same position with the Steelers in 2003, an enthusiastic coaching intern from the University of Cincinnati showed up at Browns training camp in 2000: Mike Tomlin.
“Mike was gung-ho about it,” Butler says. “And word got around that this young guy was up and coming.”
That eventually got Tomlin a job as defensive backs coach in Tampa Bay, which led to the defensive coordinator position in Minnesota and finally an interview with the Steelers when Bill Cowher retired following the 2006 season.
“Mike calls me up and says, ‘I think I’m just a token [candidate],’” Butler says. “I said, ‘Don’t act like you’re a token — because all the guys they’ve hired have been about your age.’”
At 34, Tomlin became the 16th head coach in Steelers’ history on Jan. 22, 2007.
LeBeau, the defensive coordinator upon Tomlin’s arrival, is a Hall-of-Fame cornerback, but he’s more recognizable for the “Zone-Blitz” defensive scheme he devised as an assistant in Cincinnati in the mid-to-late 1980s.
His Steelers’ defenses used what he had concocted to establish yearly standards of excellence.
LeBeau also might be the most beloved coach in Steelers’ history (his players called him “Coach Dad”).
But nothing lasts forever. After the 2013 season, the organization came to the decision that after 13 seasons (including the last 11 in succession), the 2014 campaign would be LeBeau’s last as defensive coordinator. LeBeau was 76 at the time; the Steelers were already paying Butler a defensive coordinator’s salary to coach linebackers, as a hedge against him eventually accepting an offer to coordinate someone else’s defense. The plan was in place and would have included LeBeau remaining with the organization in some capacity had he so desired.
Instead, LeBeau is coordinating the defense in Tennessee this season.
“It was great working with him, great being his roommate, great playing golf with him,” Butler says. “It wasn’t so great when he got mad at me because I wouldn’t give him putts, but man, Dick LeBeau is great people.
“I called him after everything went down with him and Mike; that was hard. I felt very awkward talking to him and I told him that. He said, ‘It’s the business we’re in, Keith.’”
Butler hasn’t scrapped LeBeau’s scheme, but instead has altered it with the help of Tomlin and the defensive staff.
There isn’t a name associated with what the Steelers now are doing defensively, particularly on passing downs, and nothing has been attributed directly to Butler. But a unit that couldn’t get 11 players on the field for every defensive snap at the outset of this season prepared to host Cleveland on Nov. 15 as the No. 8 scoring defense in the NFL (20.2 points per game) nine regular-season weeks into the Butler era.
“Everybody says, ‘What’s your stamp on the defense?’” Butler says. “I just wanna win.”
He has a new plan befitting his latest new position.
“Win a Super Bowl the next three years,” Butler says. “I have a three-year contract with the Rooneys. I aim to fulfill my contract.
“I have three sons, and I have two Super Bowl rings. I have to get one more. One of them’s gonna be pissed if I don’t.”