At 73 years old, Pittsburgh Steelers defensive mastermind Dick LeBeau is the oldest coordinator currently roaming the sidelines of the NFL.
But it’s best to keep from mentioning that to LeBeau.
When his brother, Bob, called on Sept. 9 to wish him a happy birthday, Dick LeBeau reminded him of a fairly recent family tradition.
“He’s 73, but he said, ‘we don’t count them anymore,’ and I told him no we don’t,” Bob said.
Despite his age, LeBeau continues adding to his growing list of outstanding achievements. At perhaps the top of that list sits an enshrinement in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Growing up in London, Ohio, his biggest dream was to one day be an Ohio State Buckeye.
“Ohio State was like Valhalla for football players in Ohio, and it was always a dream of mine to play in Ohio Stadium,” LeBeau said. “So when that dream came true, it was about as neat a thing as anything that has happened to me in my playing career.”
LeBeau was a starter on the 1957 National Championship team, playing two-way ball for OSU coaching legend Woody Hayes.
“Woody was one of the more successful coaches of his era, as everyone knows, so it was very rewarding for all of us that played for him,” LeBeau said. “He would always figure out a way to win, and that’s why we play the game.”
LeBeau was selected by the Cleveland Browns in the fifth round of 1959 NFL Draft. He was cut before the season began, giving the Detroit Lions an opportunity to sign him.
LeBeau played for the Lions for 13 seasons, setting an NFL record by starting in 171 consecutive games at cornerback. He is currently tied for seventh all-time in interceptions with 62.
“I’ve told him more than once, brother, I wish you still had some eligibility left and could play for Pittsburgh,” Bob said. “He had soft hands, and he was able to play the ball really well.”
After retiring from the gridiron in 1973, LeBeau switched gears and joined the NFL coaching ranks. Despite numerous stints with various teams, including an unsuccessful run as the head coach of the Cincinnati Bengals from 2000-02, his biggest coaching achievements have come recently in his second tour of duty with the Steelers.
Since becoming the Steelers defensive coordinator for a second time, the team has won two Super Bowls (‘05 and ‘08). A big reason for that has been LeBeau’s defensive schemes, including the fire, or zone-blitz, scheme. LeBeau is considered the architect of this defensive alignment.
“When the ‘run and shoot’ and ‘West Coast offenses’ were becoming popular, we needed a way of trying to contain these quick-hitting passes, while applying pressure on the quarterback,” LeBeau said. “It evolved in its earliest stages in 1984 and it was just time because of a necessity really to contain those offensive sets.”
Perhaps because LeBeau has become a legendary defensive-coaching mind, most football fans assume that he was inducted into the Hall of Fame as a coach. But that’s not the case, as he was inducted into the Hall of Fame as a player for the Detroit Lions.
Regardless of how he went into the Hall, it didn’t stop the entire Steelers organization, players and coaches included, from making the trip down to Canton to support their defensive coordinator.
“I’m just so indebted to coach (Mike) Tomlin and the Rooney family for enabling the team to take a day off of the training camp schedule and to travel. It’s like having another away game for them,” LeBeau said. “It was truly the highest compliment that’s ever been paid to me. It was just a tremendous experience and I loved it.”
While it’s been well-publicized that a mutual love affair exists between LeBeau and the Steelers players, rookie additions such as former Buckeye Thaddeus Gibson are also grateful for his tutelage.
“LeBeau teaches you how to be a pro,” Gibson said. “That’s why guys like (James) Farrior and (Larry) Foote have been around for so long, because those guys know how to be a pro.”
“Learning from coach LeBeau, who is a well-known player and a well-known coach … it couldn’t be a better position for me.”
Even with former all-pro Steelers cornerback “Rod” Woodson petitioning for LeBeau to be inducted, and current Steelers players supporting him by wearing his Lions throwback jersey in the locker room, the odds of making it into the Pro Football Hall of Fame are slim.
“Less than one-tenth of 1 percent of people who start in the NFL are inducted into the Hall of Fame, so to have that happen is just the epitome of anyone’s dream realization,” LeBeau said.
The Pro Football Hall of Fame wasn’t the only hall of fame honor that has been bestowed upon him lately. In 2009, LeBeau was inducted into the Ohio State University Athletics Hall of Fame for his contributions to the Buckeye football squad from 1956-58.
“I follow the team every year,” LeBeau said. “I just think that coach (Jim) Tressel is one of the most outstanding football coaches of all time. I think that the way he conducts his business, with professional and ethical excellence, is really a textbook for all of us in coaching. I regard him as more than an acquaintance, I regard him as a friend.”
LeBeau had similar praise in store for Gibson, as well as Will Allen, another former Buckeye on the Steelers roster.
“Will has done a really great job,” LeBeau said. “He’s going to give us quality depth and receive a lot of playing time. All of us here in Pittsburgh are extremely pleased with the acquisition of Will Allen.”
LeBeau is still going strong. During his Hall of Fame speech, LeBeau stressed the importance of living. “Life is for living” was one of his closing comments.
“I can’t even tell you how many people, some that I knew and some that I didn’t know, approached me after the ceremony and told me that my brother’s speech made a big impact on them,” Bob said. “They would tell me, that stuff about not letting age be anything more than a number, that had a big impact on me personally.”