As the decades passed and Dick LeBeau was repeatedly left out of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, one of the best defensive players of his era began to believe he wouldn’t join the three other members of the Detroit Lions secondary who were already enshrined.
At least until a very persuasive group of lobbyists took up his cause. How’s this for a blue-ribbon panel to sway opinion: Troy Polamalu, James Harrison, James Farrior, Casey Hampton, Brett Keisel and Aaron Smith?
LeBeau’s 38-season career as an NFL head and assistant coach wasn’t supposed to factor into his candidacy – only his 14 playing seasons – but the key members of the LeBeau-coached defense that helped the Steelers win the Super Bowl twice in the past five seasons didn’t care. To them, a football hall of fame that excluded LeBeau wasn’t a true hall of fame.
So the players began wearing replica LeBeau No. 44 Lions jerseys to functions such as the Hall of Fame game in Canton, Ohio, and to road games where they felt their influence might be felt. Perhaps their best argument came when, relying heavily on the innovative zone blitzes LeBeau developed during his days as a Bengals assistant, the Steelers defense put together one of the most dominating seasons in NFL history as Pittsburgh won the 2009 Super Bowl.
“Dick LeBeau,” Polamalu said, “is the greatest coach of all time.”
No surprise then that when LeBeau’s bust is unveiled Saturday in Canton, one month from his 73rd birthday, his Steelers players will attend en masse to celebrate.
“He told the young guys in minicamp, ‘I don’t know if you know, but I’m going into the Hall of Fame,’ ” Keisel said. “The next day he said the same thing again. I think he’s extremely excited and we all think it’s very much deserved. It’s finally happening for him.”
Excited is a word that’s rarely used in describing LeBeau, whose ability to remain calm, poised and focused has been evident since his days at Ohio State. While he excelled in football, his influences extended beyond the sport to fellow Buckeyes athletes such as basketball player Bobby Knight and golfers Jack Nicklaus and Tom Weiskopf.
Knight and LeBeau spent hours talking about defensive theories and how they applied to multiple sports.
LeBeau was a fifth-round pick by the Browns in 1959, but was cut during training camp. He turned out to be one of the NFL’s biggest free agent steals, making the Pro Bowl three times during a career that ended in 1972. He started 171 consecutive games, a record for a cornerback, and he had more interceptions (62) than 15 of the other
20 defensive backs in the Hall of Fame. He had an NFC-leading nine interceptions in 1970.
LeBeau joins former Lions secondary teammates Dick “Night Train” Lane, Yale Lary and Lem Barney in the Hall of Fame.
But it was Hall of Fame linebacker Joe Schmidt, the former Lions coach, who first sensed LeBeau, the coach, could be just as good as LeBeau, the player. LeBeau himself had figured out by his sophomore year at Ohio State that he wanted to coach.
“Joe felt that way because he went to the general manager, Russ Thomas, and wanted him (LeBeau) to be a player-coach,” Hall of Fame tight end Charlie Sanders said. “He wasn’t the fastest or the quickest, so he worked on being the smartest by studying receivers and schemes. That’s why you knew he would come back and be a coach.”
After retiring, LeBeau coached for the Eagles, Packers, Bills and Bengals – he was Cincinnati’s head coach from 2000-02
– but his reputation as a defensive innovator largely developed as the Steelers defensive coordinator from 1995-97 and 2004-present.
His blitzes, known in the trade as fire zones, were inventive in that pressure came from anywhere and everywhere on the field.
Defensive linemen were expected to drop into pass coverage to compensate for the blitzers; safeties were expected to blitz as effectively as linebackers.
Something worked. Cincinnati twice made the Super Bowl with LeBeau on staff, and he’s gone there three times with Pittsburgh.
“He’s made me look like a swami,” Schmidt said.
LeBeau initially designed the defense to counter the effective West Coast offense.
“We looked down some wrong roads, but we eventually stumbled onto some right ones,” said LeBeau, who drew up the first raw diagrams of the zone blitz while doodling on an airplane. “It was opportunity meeting a situation of need. We came up with a couple of ideas that worked. It will continue to grow because you’ve got more and more people messing around with it.”
LeBeau’s effectiveness as a coach doesn’t stop at a chalk board and isn’t limited to a playbook. His game plans are textbooks in defensive strategy, but it is his ability to relate to and motivate players without screaming or intimidating that earns him respect and loyalty.
That loyalty goes both ways; he wore the jersey of each of his defensive players over age 30 for a day during offseason workouts.
“I can never remember, even after a loss, coming into work and not walking by him and him not smiling at me, being happy where he’s at and happy doing what he’s doing,” Keisel said. “To have a guy like that up in front of you every day makes you want to play hard. I don’t think too many coaches in this league are appreciated as a man the way we appreciate him.”
Not many coaches would dare use valuable preparation time each Christmas week to recite ’Twas The Night Before Christmas from memory for his players, but LeBeau does – partly to remind them while football is a way of life, it shouldn’t be an all-consuming life.
While his modesty and even temperament are ever-present, his players said, LeBeau also is a man of pride. He thought countless times over the years that he might never see the Hall of Fame and, now that his induction is near, he still can’t quite believe it.
“I still get up in the morning and pinch myself and count my blessings and say I guess I’m not dreaming,” LeBeau said. “I’ve always had a strong sense of history, and that’s the largest impact that it’s had on me, that I’m going to be a piece of National Football League history forever. That just kind of makes me shake my head a little bit. ... it’s 10,000 dreams come true.”
AP Sports Writer Larry Lage in Detroit contributed to this report.