Game Face: The LeBeau Legacy
Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau on his 50-plus years as a player and coach in the NFL.
Many of the greatest coaches of all time in any sport didn’t much care if their players liked them as long as they respected them. Respect is rarely simply given. It is something that has to be earned. In his 50-plus years as a player and coach in the National Football League, Dick LeBeau has earned universal respect every step of the way. His warm and caring personality coupled with his unparalleled ability to draw up defenses has also brought about the ultimate feeling a player can have for a coach: Love.
It was that love that prompted former Steelers linebacker Joey Porter to suggest to his fellow defensive mates a few years back that they should buy throwback Dick LeBeau Detroit Lions jerseys to wear before the Hall of Fame game. The idea was universally embraced, and every player on that Steelers defense gladly doled out the $300, and gave his coordinator a moment he will never forget. It was the players’ way to protest the Hall of Fame’s failure to induct their leader. After all, LeBeau had given every player he had ever coached his respect as well as his tireless effort to make that person part of the best defense he could devise. "He’s not a real rah-rah guy," Steelers all-pro safety Troy Polamalu says. "He doesn’t have to give us some speech before the game, because we respect him on a day-to-day basis."
Intellect is another quality that sets LeBeau apart. There are very few modern-day football minds that lay claim to an innovation that had never been seen or executed in the history of the game. LeBeau has one of those very special football minds.
Because getting pressure on the quarterback is one of the primary goals of any defense, LeBeau sought to bring pressure without leaving his defensive backs vulnerable. Before LeBeau’s crafting of the Zone Blitz, bringing extra pass rushers meant somebody was left to cover a wide receiver man-to-man.
Now, much to LeBeau’s delight and amazement, he watches high school defenses attempt to use his greatest Zone Blitz – X-and-O revelation. "It’s a great compliment. You got an idea, and it’s a little far off the diving board," LeBeau reflects. "But to see what it’s grown to and to just hear people say, ‘You know, this does work,’" he says, serve as proof of the idea’s success. "I go to a high school game and see a ‘Fire Zone’ and I say, ‘Hey, this is kind of neat.’"
Of course, LeBeau certainly learned from some of the best. There was Woody Hayes at Ohio State and Don Shula who was his defensive coordinator for a couple of years in Detroit.
Before Pittsburgh prepared to face Baltimore in last year’s AFC championship game, Steelers safety Ryan Clark talked about LeBeau: "He’s like a mad scientist in a lab coat," Clark said. "Before every game we know that he will have several blitz packages that will be the difference in the game. We will come from anywhere and everywhere, and we have total faith in the defenses that he calls."
Says defensive end Brett Keisel, "He’s our X-factor. We can’t wait to get to practice to see what he has come up with."
Troy Polamalu kiddingly says he wants to blitz on every play, but LeBeau won’t let him. But Polamalu went on to emphasize how much he enjoys the moment when the defense LeBeau dialed up results in a game-changing defensive play at just the right moment.
Reflecting on his players’ perception of him, LeBeau says, "My guys call me the grandfather, but I’m still in the family." And then he reflects on the guys themselves, saying he looks forward to going to work every day with them. "I think if there is one common trait or thread with our guys, it’s that they play hard and it’s a thrill to watch them play."
Although many of the great coaches weren’t necessarily great players, LeBeau is a huge exception. Before his stellar NFL career playing for the Detroit Lions, LeBeau was a huge contributor for Woody Hayes’ National Champion Ohio State Buckeyes in 1957. "We had so many great athletes at Ohio State when Dick and I were there," said legendary basketball coach Bob Knight while attending a Steelers game last year. "But he was probably the best overall athlete on campus."
Sure, you’re a pretty big man on campus when you’re invited to shoot hoops with Knight, John Havlicek and Jerry Lucas and fit right in with the nucleus of the 1960 NCAA College Basketball Champs. You also get noticed when you score a couple of touchdowns against arch-rival Michigan State, which LeBeau did in 1957.
LeBeau intercepted a mind-boggling 62 passes during his 14-year career as a Detroit Lion. Only six players have more picks in the history of the league. He was an All-Pro and set an NFL record for games played as a corner with 171.
Those numbers and accomplishments alone should have punched LeBeau’s ticket to Canton, Ohio, and the Hall of Fame, but what he’s done as a coach for the past 36 years makes his omission dubious.
However, rather than waste any time worrying about the obvious slight, LeBeau immerses himself in his job, which affords him much satisfaction: "Just to go to work every day and be received by our players the way I am," LeBeau notes, is a thrill. (He also enjoys traditions at work, including his reciting "’Twas the Night Before Christmas" by heart at the Steelers’ annual Christmas party.)
The fire still burns bright for the 71-year-old coach who appears to be many years younger. LeBeau has been a part of every Steelers Super Bowl appearance since the run in the 1970s. In fact, when the Bengals made their two trips to the big game in 1981 and 1988, LeBeau was on their sideline.
While the innovation and the blitz packages are the hallmarks, the constants are the desire and the passion the players exhibit on every snap. LeBeau serves as an immeasurable source of inspiration. "I think when you’re looking to see if you still want to coach," LeBeau says, "you see how they go out there, the energy they create. You think you might have another year in you."
Steelers Nation and, more important, the Steelers defense hope there are plenty more years to come.
Paul Alexander brings more than 20 years of experience covering Pittsburgh sports. Alexander, who joined FSN in 2006, serves as the primary Steelers reporter. He worked for KDKA-TV and Radio as the morning anchor from 1998 until he moved to the sports department in 2001. In 2003, he added KDKA’s nightly radio sports call-in show to his TV duties. He is a graduate of Penn State University.