Ron Cook: Dick LeBeau's career built on close relationships
January 12, 2015 12:00 AM
Peter Diana / Post-Gazette
Former Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau shares a postgame hug with linebacker Lawrence Timmons.
By Ron Cook / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
There has to be a good reason Dick LeBeau wants to continue coaching, why, at 77 and having just been pushed out by the Steelers after a long run, he wants to go to a new team and start over.
The easy guess is LeBeau is afraid of what comes after football. Joe Paterno had the same fear. Paterno knew that longtime coach and friend Bobby Bowden had said famously many times, "After you retire, there's only one big event left." He also knew that another legendary colleague, Bear Bryant, retired in December 1982 and died in January 1983 at 69.
There's also the competition factor. Anyone who knows LeBeau will tell you he will do anything to beat you. He loves to try to outwit offensive coordinators who have all the advantages because of NFL rules that are designed to promote high-scoring football. He has been doing it for years and years, decades and decades. You can't get that thrill, that sense of satisfaction when it happens, anywhere else.
But there's more behind LeBeau's plan to keep coaching. He will tell you the best part of his professional career is the relationships he has made over 56 NFL seasons as a player and a coach. No one has been more respected, more revered, more beloved in the game. It's hard to walk away from that. How do you walk away?
"I've been blessed," LeBeau said a few years ago. "The players are like family to me. What more could a man ask for?"
The players lovingly call LeBeau, "Coach Dad." Before each morning meeting, he would tell them, "Men, this is a great day to be alive." They believed it, at least in part because he was standing in front of them. That's the gift LeBeau has, even more than his knowledge of defensive X's and O's, which is vast. As longtime friend Bobby Knight put it in a 2006 interview with the Post-Gazette's Gerry Dulac, "He captivates your attention." LeBeau's players want to excel, not just for themselves and the team, but for him. They don't want to let him down. They will do anything for him. Literally.
"If he tells us to jump off a cliff, I believe we would do it," former defensive end Aaron Smith once said. "If he tells us to do anything, we do it because we know it's the right thing."
LeBeau's players -- some of the biggest, toughest and meanest the NFL has known -- weren't hesitant to show their love for him. Their greatest tribute happened before the final regular-season game in 2005 against the Detroit Lions. At linebacker Joey Porter's urging, 27 defensive players spent $300 each to buy LeBeau's retro No. 44 jersey from his playing days with the Lions and hung the jerseys in the lockers at Heinz Field. LeBeau cried when he walked into the room.
There were many other such moments.
The players wore the No. 44 jerseys to an exhibition game in Canton, Ohio, in 2007, a not-so-subtle message that LeBeau belonged in the Hall of Fame. He finally was elected in 2010. Of course, the entire team and coaching staff made the 2½-hour bus trip from Latrobe in training camp to attend.
In September 2007, on the eve of LeBeau's 70th birthday, the players gave him a gold-and-silver Rolex watch, prompting him to cry again and say, "This watch is worth more than my whole wardrobe." In November 2008, at a pregame tribute honoring LeBeau's 50 years in football, each of his players stood in a cold, hard rain to be a part of the ceremony. "I would have stood out there for an hour and froze my butt off if I had to for that man," Smith said later.
The Steelers played the Cincinnati Bengals the night of that 50-year celebration for LeBeau. Earlier that day, Bengals coach Marvin Lewis suspended wide receiver Chad Ocho Cinco for an incident in which Ocho Cinco allegedly disrespected offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski in a team meeting. Smith, asked what would happen if a player disrespected LeBeau, said, "For one thing, that would never happen with coach LeBeau. 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 just a small sampling of the impact LeBeau has on his players.
"He treats you with such decency," former defensive end Kimo von Oelhoffen said. "We've all heard the saying that it's not what you accomplish in life that's important, but rather the lives that you touch and change for the better. He epitomizes that. He changes people's lives. His teachings make you a better man."
It's hard to blame the Steelers for moving on without LeBeau. It had to be a painfully difficult decision -- though the correct one -- for Mike Tomlin and/or the Rooneys. "You can count me among the amazed group when it comes to Dick LeBeau," Tomlin said in 2008, not long before the Steelers won Super Bowl XLIII with a terrific defense.
But LeBeau's defenses slipped badly the past few seasons, although that's more because he didn't have the same quality players he once did than it is because the game has passed him by. It became increasingly more difficult for him to get younger players to buy into the team-first concept he so deeply believes in. Sometimes, a new voice is needed. It might come from longtime LeBeau lieutenant, linebackers coach Keith Butler. It might come from a coach from the outside. Change doesn't have to be a bad thing. It can be a good thing.
But it's even harder to blame LeBeau for wanting to continue coaching. To him, age is just a number. He still is in great health and has great energy. In his mind, he still has something very valuable to offer a team and its defensive players. He should get a new job very quickly.
Here's hoping LeBeau lands in the right spot, that he continues to scratch his competitive itch and that he delays that one big event after retirement for several years.
Here's hoping LeBeau builds many more great relationships that other coaches only can dream of building.
Ron Cook: email@example.com. Ron Cook can be heard on the "Cook and Poni" show weekdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on 93.7 The Fan.
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