Dick LeBeau: Renaissance man
Each time the defense gathers before practice, Dick LeBeau greets his players by saying something like this: "Men, it's a great day to be alive."
It's his way of telling them to seize the moment, and like everything else about the Steelers defensive coordinator, it comes from his heart.
"I believe that. Each day is a gift. Let's not waste too much time complaining about things," LeBeau says. "Every new day is a great day to get something done. Tomorrow is promised to no man."
First as a player and then as a coach, LeBeau, 71, has been getting things done on a football field for five decades in the NFL. He has influenced the game to the extent that just about every team's defensive game plan incorporates some of his ideas.
Not only have LeBeau's defenses regularly ranked among the NFL's elite, he has been on the sidelines of five Super Bowl entrants -- twice with the Bengals and all three times the Steelers have made the big game since the Chuck Noll era.
If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, LeBeau has the utmost respect of his peers. Consider the words of Brian Billick, who operated his own highly acclaimed defense when he coached the Ravens.
"Virtually every team in the NFL runs some form or another of concepts LeBeau initiated," Billick said. "You can't help but be impressed with LeBeau and how the Steelers operate ...Dick LeBeau is what every player, coach, scout, owner and fan should aspire to be. His love and commitment to the game [are] pure and unselfish."
Billick posted those comments on his blog after the Steelers honored LeBeau last season for his 50 years in the NFL. But they just as easily apply to the Dapper Dan Lifetime Achievement Award that LeBeau will receive this week.
A native of London, Ohio, in flat farm country about 25 miles west of Columbus, LeBeau played on a national championship team under Woody Hayes at Ohio State in 1957.
In the NFL, he was an All-Pro in the suffocating secondary of the Detroit Lions, intercepting 62 passes in 14 seasons and establishing an NFL record for games played by a cornerback with 171.
Teammates Yale Larry, Dick "Night Train" Lane and Lem Barney were headed to the Hall of Fame. LeBeau stayed in the game as a coach who has been countering offenses for 36 years.
After the 2003 season, finishing up a stint as the assistant head coach in Buffalo, LeBeau had four job offers. But he elected to return to the Steelers under Bill Cowher.
The Steelers failed to make the playoffs that year. But LeBeau had watched them defend every blade of grass against the playoff-bound Ravens in the final game, taking them into overtime before losing.
"I saw how hard that defense played. I thought, 'That's a great bunch of men right there. If I had an opportunity, I sure would like to be associated with them.'"
Defense has been a hallmark of the Steelers even in the years before they started winning. In LeBeau's playing days, the Steelers may not have won on the scoreboard, but they had a reputation of winning the physical battles.
Then came the Steel Curtain that set the standard for defensive excellence in the glory days of the 1970s.
Some coaches might shy away from being in the shadow of a dynasty. Not LeBeau.
"That legacy fuels us. Our guys are aware of that history, and they accept the challenge. We don't want to be the ones that take Pittsburgh out of being the city that's known for playing pretty good defense." LeBeau said.
In fact, after establishing themselves as the NFL's top defense during the regular season, the Steelers held the Chargers to 15 yards rushing, which was even stingier than the playoff record established by the Steel Curtain.
As ferocious as the Steelers are on defense, the soft-spoken coach who leads them is a Renaissance man. He recites poetry and quotes Frederick the Great.
Each year, he brings out the little boy in his players when he recites, by heart, Twas The Night Before Christmas.
Some influential women in his life -- his mother, Buelah, still going strong at 95, and aunts Evelyn, Martha and Miriam -- had taught him the powerful bond of family.
"Those four women made Christmas a joy and a blessing for me. I learned that poem just to let them know the spirit of Christmas had been passed on," he said. "At first, I said it for my immediate family. Then I began to do it for my extended family."
His second family may be comprised of brawny linemen, frothing linebackers and punishing defensive backs, but they are as rapt as choir boys when LeBeau speaks.
"Some people would say it's not good for coaches to get that close to their players. But I do regard them as family," LeBeau said. "For a good part of my career, the people in the game were like my brothers. Then they became more like my sons. In some respects now, they'd be more like my grandsons."
Christmas poetry has little in common with a zone blitz, except passion is at the heart of both.
People talk about his concepts -- rushing the quarterback from unexpected angles, defenders dropping back into coverage where they normally shouldn't be -- but his philosophy in a nutshell is to give everything you have on every snap.
"If there's one characteristic of our defense, they play hard," LeBeau said. "They play every minute they have left."
Speaking of his defensive philosophies during Super Bowl week, LeBeau quoted Frederick The Great: "He who defends everything, defends nothing."
Added LeBeau: "I think I know what he meant. He had a pretty good competitive record."
Previous winners of the Dapper Dan Lifetime Achievement Award are Arnold Palmer and Dan Rooney. It is by no means a farewell award for LeBeau.
"I still have a good competitive drive. I know I'm not going to get better at golf, but I'm still trying. It's the same thing in football. There are some things we can discover and get better. It's exciting," LeBeau said.
A couple of years ago, when the Steelers were playing in the Hall of Fame game in Canton, Ohio, the defensive players shelled out $300 apiece for LeBeau's No. 44 jersey. It was their way of saying they think it's a travesty that he's not enshrined.
For his 70th birthday, he was presented with a gold Rolex watched. The inscription on the back was from the '07 Defense.
"I told them, 'Guys, you're working with someone from London, Ohio, here. This watch is worth more than my whole wardrobe.' I asked them not to get me anything for my birthday this year. And guess what? They gave me a Super Bowl championship," LeBeau said.
He is the kind of man who appreciates the company he has been selected to join, but he hasn't lost a wink of sleep mulling over things like the Hall of Fame.
"It's a tremendous honor to win this award. It's more than I deserve, particularly when you talk about people like Arnold Palmer and Mr. Rooney. That's pretty heady company. I don't quite see myself in that circle. But I'm going to be in there, and I'm proud of it. That should be enough for any man," LeBeau said.
"To have our players treat me with the respect they do, to have my name in the category of people in this city who have won this award, that's honor enough for me. I'm not the type who spends his time ruing over what might have been or what could be. Let's face it. I've been blessed. We won the Super Bowl. We led the league in defense in almost every category. My players are like family to me. I've never had a better situation in my life. Ever. What more could a man ask for?"
First Published March 29, 2009 12:00 am