First, there was former Pitt line coach Joe Moore, perhaps Pittsburgh's most revered football coach. "There are levels of goodness and levels of greatness," former Pitt tackle Jim Sweeney said after Moore's death in 2003. "Then, there's the level just below God. That's where I put coach Moore."
Then, there is Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau. His players adore him. "If he tells us to jump off a cliff, I believe we would do it," former Steelers defensive end Aaron Smith once said. "If he tells us to do anything, we do it because we know it's the right thing."
Now, there is Steelers offensive line coach Sean Kugler. He doesn't have Moore-status here just yet or LeBeau-status. But he was well on his way. "Every one of us would run through a wall for him," guard Willie Colon said last week.
Kugler shares a common trait with Moore and LeBeau. That is a big reason Texas-El Paso -- his alma mater -- reached out to him late last week to make him its head coach. Steelers coach Mike Tomlin sees it in Kugler, who will finish his season with the Steelers.
"The players know he's doing everything he can to make them better. When guys are trying to be the very best they can be and they want to stay in this business for as long as they can, they're going to respect any coach who works that hard trying to extend their career."
It takes most coaches years to build the relationship that Kugler has with his players, if they ever do. Kugler is in just his third season with the Steelers. He doesn't waste time.
Tomlin talked about Kugler's "demeanor and disposition being assets. ... His glass is always half-full." Colon talked about Kugler's willingness to "chop your head off when you aren't doing right, but he never does it in a way that embarrasses you. And he's always the first guy to pick you up." Kugler said it's just a matter of "being honest and upfront" with the players. "They want to be told what they have to do to be successful. If you are consistent with them, they're going to respond. I'm lucky. I never have a bad day with this group. They never complain, no matter what I ask them to do. And they always give me their best. I never have any doubts about that."
The latest example happened before the game Sunday against the Baltimore Ravens. Kugler asked All-Pro center Maurkice Pouncey to leave his comfort zone and move to left guard in place of the injured Colon. Backup Doug Legursky could have played left guard, but he is much better at center. "He never hesitated," Kugler said of Pouncey. "He said, 'Whatever you need for the team, coach.' I knew that's what he was going to say. That's the type of player he is. That's the type of person."
Somehow, the Steelers were able to beat the Ravens with Pouncey at left guard, Legursky at center and rookie Kelvin Beachum making his first NFL start at right tackle. Beachum became the third man to start at the position this season after injuries to Marcus Gilbert and Mike Adams. It didn't matter. He and the other linemen played a strong game, maybe their best of the season.
Juggling players is nothing new to Kugler. Last season, the Steelers started a different offensive line in each of the first seven games because of injuries or ineffectiveness. In 2010, they made it to Super Bowl XLV despite having only three linemen -- left guard Chris Kemoeatu, Pouncey and right tackle Flozell Adams -- play exclusively at one position. The projected line Kugler inherited before that season had left tackle Max Starks, left guard Kemoeatu, center Justin Hartwig, right guard Trai Essex and right tackle Colon. The line that started in the Super Bowl six months later was, from left to right, Jonathan Scott, Kemoeatu, Legursky, Foster and Adams.
That's some serious juggling.
"Nothing stops. The game goes on," Kugler said. "You've got to prepare and you've got to win. You've got to answer the challenge."
Starks said Kugler "makes the game simple" for the linemen. Tomlin talked of Kugler being a "very fluid communicator ... a great educator." Colon merely gushed. "[Kugler] prepares us like no coach I've ever been around. I've never gone into a game, asking, 'Is this the right scheme against this defense?' We believe in him and he believes in us."
Colon might be closer to Kugler than the other linemen. He called Kugler "my rock" when he missed all but the first game last season and all of the 2010 season with injuries. "He had the other guys to get ready and worry about, but he never turned his back on me. I would call him in the wee hours of the morning when I was feeling down. It was like he was my 24-hour hotline. He kept me going. He was my inspiration."
Kugler still is.
"He gives you everything he's got to make you better," Colon said. "He expects the same out of you. He demands so much."
Kugler gets it from his players, all of it. Since he's been with the Steelers, their line has been better collectively than the individual parts indicate it should be.
Moore got the same results from his linemen. "He could make you believe you were better than you were," former Pitt offensive tackle Mark May said.
Moore wasn't just respected by his linemen at each of his coaching stops. He was worshiped.
Kugler is getting there. Quickly.roncook