LeBeau enters 50th NFL season
By Joe Starkey
Sunday, August 10, 2008
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Steelers linebacker James Farrior just shook his head and laughed when somebody told him it was defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau's 50th year in the NFL.
"I can't imagine myself doin' nothin' for 50 years," Farrior said. "That's a milestone right there."
LeBeau, who turns 71 on Sept. 9, isn't the type to celebrate such milestones. When a reporter broached the topic, saying, "This is year 50, eh?" LeBeau smiled and said, "That's the rumor."
But forget 50 years. LeBeau estimates it has been 60 years since he spent a late summer doing anything but training for another football season. That would have been 1948 -- the year the NFL prohibited plastic helmets and equipped referees with whistles instead of horns.
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Yes, LeBeau is perhaps the only man in football who can make Dick Hoak feel young.
Hoak, 68, retired in 2006 after 45 years in the Steelers organization. LeBeau just keeps on trucking, still without a plan to retire, still at the top of his game.
"Unreal," says former Steelers linebacker Kevin Greene, a volunteer assistant at training camp. "The stuff he has seen. The changes he has seen. The changes he has caused in the league. It's incredible."
No age limit
LeBeau is the oldest coordinator in the NFL, edging Indianapolis Colts offensive coordinator Tom Moore, who turns 70 in November, and Tampa Bay Buccaneers defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin, who turned 68 in February.
A review of all NFL coaching staffs listed at nfl.com revealed that LeBeau and Moore are the only assistant coaches who were born in the 1930's. LeBeau's birth date is Sept. 9, 1937 - two years before the NFL's first televised game.
Like Moore and Kiffin, LeBeau wins a lot, excluding his three-year run (2000-02) as the Cincinnati Bengals' head coach, when he was 12-33. In his two stints as a defensive coach with the Steelers - 1992-97 and 2004-present - they are 118-60, including playoffs. Without him, they are 52-45-1.
The competition is what drives LeBeau, as one might expect of a guy who played under Woody Hayes at Ohio State and befriended a Buckeyes basketball player named Bob Knight.
"There's no age limit on competing," LeBeau said. "There are puzzles to be worked out, questions to be answered. That's still an intriguing part of the business to me."
LeBeau doesn't look a day over 50 and carries himself with a calmness rarely seen in football coaches -- or certain basketball coaches we've seen over the years -- yet commands the utmost respect.
Players young and old revere him.
"I only saw him get mad one time in a game - the AFC Championship game at Denver (in 2005)," Farrior said. "I forget which defensive backs were out there, but they were celebrating or something, and he went crazy. I never saw him like that, ever."
Listen to the 46-year-old Greene, who thrived in LeBeau's "Blitzburgh" defense: "I don't tell too many guys I love them, but I tell him I love him. He has a heart of gold, as genuine a guy as there is."
Now listen to 22-year-old Lawrence Timmons, a second-year linebacker: "Coming in last year, I was making mistakes, and he was very patient and straight with me. You can't beat a straight-up guy. Those are always the most respected. I guess that's why so many people love him so much."
Perhaps one key to LeBeau's longevity is that his life revolves around more than just football. He is an avid guitar player, a scratch golfer, a movie buff - he was Michael Caine's stunt double in the 1970 film "Too Late The Hero" -- and a natural, if understated, performer.
Each year in the locker room, players gather 'round LeBeau to hear him recite, from memory, "The Night Before Christmas."
Which is a long way of saying the man doesn't sit around and fret about how his 62 career interceptions (third all-time when he retired; ninth all-time now) with the Detroit Lions have yet to land him in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
The Cleveland Browns drafted LeBeau in the fifth round in 1959 (the year the Green Bay Packers hired Vince Lombardi as coach), then cut him. He spent 14 seasons in Detroit before retiring and immediately landing a job as the Philadelphia Eagles' special teams coach.
The biggest change he has witnessed since he broke into the league?
"The game is certainly more open, more pass-oriented," LeBeau said. "If you look around the country, high school kids are throwing it 40 times a game. Colleges very seldom huddle up. So, it's a pass-and-catch game, and it's challenged the defense to try to keep up."
The advent of the passing game, particularly the "West Coast" offense, is what spurned LeBeau to develop "fire-zone" blitzes, in which a defensive lineman or linebacker will drop back into a middle zone while another linebacker or defensive back - or both - blitz the quarterback.
Asked for the simplest definition of a "fire-zone," LeBeau flashed a sly grin and said, "We want to hold 'em by the nose and kick 'em in the (butt)."
LeBeau said the fire-zone concept has become rampant from high school to the pros, where every team uses a form of it. He got the idea before the 1988 season, when he was the Bengals' defensive coordinator and was scouting players at the University of Florida. The Bengals had a big, athletic safety named David Fulcher, but teams had begun to thwart his blitzes with short, quick passes to the middle.
Bill Arnsparger, architect of the Miami Dolphins' famed "No-Name Defense," was Florida's athletic director at the time. In Miami, Arnsparger had done some cutting-edge work in attacking blocking schemes and dropping linemen into coverage. LeBeau popped in for a visit and asked him about that.
Arnsparger's answer led to many a battered quarterback over the next 20 years.
"He said to me, 'I was just looking for a safer way to get pressure,' " LeBeau recalled. "That was the germ, that sentence right there. A safer way to get pressure. I had a flight after that to Seattle, I think, so I had plenty of time on my hands. I scribbled a lot of things out."
The Bengals went to the Super Bowl the next season and stifled the San Francisco 49ers' "West Coast" offense until quarterback Joe Montana staged a late game-winning drive. That was the closest LeBeau came to winning a championship in his first 46 years in the NFL.
The 47th year was the charm, ending with the Steelers' 21-10 victory over the Seattle Seahawks in Super Bowl XL. LeBeau had rejoined the Steelers that season, after a year as assistant head coach with the Buffalo Bills.
"I thought the possibility (of winning a Super Bowl) had kind of passed me by," LeBeau said. "We were running out of years."