The Heinz Field crowd for the Steelers-Cincinnati Bengals game Nov. 20, though late-arriving because of abhorrent weather conditions, still was sizable 20 minutes before kickoff when the Steelers honored defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau at midfield for his 50 years in the NFL. Dan Rooney was there. So was his son, Art II. But LeBeau only had eyes for No. 51 and No. 43 and No. 98 and the rest of his defensive guys -- every last one of 'em -- who were on the sideline to pay tribute to the man who has to be the most respected and beloved coach in all of football.
"I didn't see anybody but those players," LeBeau said the other day in a quiet moment.
It was quite a scene when they swarmed around LeBeau after the brief ceremony. One by one, they shook his hand and hugged him. What an odd way, it seemed, to prepare for a big game, a division game no less.
"I would have stood out there for an hour and froze my butt off if I had to for that man," defensive end Aaron Smith said.
This isn't the first time the defensive players have honored LeBeau. Late in the 2005 season, they each spent $300 to buy a retro LeBeau No. 44 jersey from his playing days with the Detroit Lions and hung them in the locker room before they played the Lions. LeBeau cried. Last season, they dug out those jerseys and wore them to their exhibition game in Canton, Ohio, a not-so-subtle suggestion that they think it's a tragedy LeBeau isn't in the Hall of Fame despite his 62 interceptions as a Pro Bowl cornerback and his long-time brilliance as a defensive genius. LeBeau cried. Then, on the eve of LeBeau's 70th birthday Sept. 9, 2007, they gave him a gold-and-silver Rolex watch. LeBeau cried.
Now, this 50-year thing.
"Sure, I can put it into words what it meant seeing them on the field -- everything. It meant everything to me," LeBeau said. "I'm trying not to cry right now..."
This season, LeBeau's defense is making opponents cry. Going into the game today at New England, it ranks first in the league in run defense, pass defense and total defense. That's one amazing hat trick.
Really, the players' strong performance is the best way to honor LeBeau, isn't it?
"They're playing as if they want me around for another year," LeBeau said.
"If he leaves, I don't know how much longer I would want to play," Smith said. "After him, I don't want to play for anybody else. I couldn't imagine this place without him."
Smith need not worry.
Even though LeBeau is 71 and the oldest coach in the NFL, he said he feels the way he did, well, 50 years ago. "The stress and strain of the job aren't any worse than they've always been," he said.
As for the Steelers, they seem pretty satisfied with LeBeau's work. "He's doing all right," coach Mike Tomlin said, grinning. No one has a job for life -- Joe Paterno aside, of course -- but LeBeau comes pretty close.
"You can count me among the amazed group when it comes to Dick LeBeau," Tomlin said.
LeBeau hesitated when asked what keeps him going in what clearly is a young man's game. Fortunately, Arizona Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt -- a former Steelers offensive coordinator -- did not when asked about LeBeau's longevity.
"I can tell you what keeps him going. I've played enough golf with him to know. He's got a competitive streak that's second to none."
That's it, sure. But there's much more to it. There's the joy LeBeau feels each day when he goes to work with a group of men to pursue a common goal. He loves being around James Farrior (No. 51), Troy Polamalu (No. 43), Casey Hampton (No. 98) and the rest as much as they love being around him.
"They're the greatest," LeBeau said. "I think anybody who comes in contact with them is struck by what good people they are. In today's athletic world, that's not always the case. I'm just so proud of them, on and off the field."
To LeBeau, great defense isn't just about getting sacks, forcing turnovers and preventing touchdowns. The beauty comes from 11 guys working as one. To him, football is the ultimate team sport.
"Our guys grasp that," he said. "I don't have to preach to them about it. They all have great skills and take great pride in themselves as individuals. But the pride in the group is even greater. Gosh, I love that."
The players will tell you it all starts with the man in charge of their unit.
"If he tells us to jump off a cliff, I believe we would do it," Smith said. "If he tells us to do anything, we do it because we know it's the right thing."
It seems funny now the Steelers picked the Bengals game to honor LeBeau. That day, Bengals coach Marvin Lewis sent star wide receiver Chad Ocho Cinco home for violating a team rule. The problem is believed to have started when Ocho Cinco disrespected offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski during a meeting the night before the game.
"For one thing, that would never happen with coach LeBeau," Smith said. "And if by some chance it ever did, the guy wouldn't make it out of the room in one piece. The rest of us would take care of him."
That's -- and this is a strange word to use with big, powerful men who play a brutally physical game -- love.
Can you blame LeBeau for crying?
Ron Cook can be reached at email@example.com . First Published November 30, 2008 5:00 AM