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LeBeau's name should ring in Hall

Jason Cole
Yahoo Sports

TAMPA, Fla. – Despite 50 years in the NFL, 62 interceptions as a player, a record 171 consecutive starts at cornerback and perfecting a scheme that might be the defensive equivalent of the West Coast offense, Dick LeBeau still feels compelled every once in a while to show off his creds.

And the Pittsburgh Steelers defensive coordinator doesn't waste time doing it.

"He has no problem telling how many picks that he had back in the day," Steelers nose tackle Casey Hampton said, smiling as he described how the otherwise mild-mannered LeBeau talks trash to his players. "He had something like 62 or something like that. Believe me, he tells stories all the time about that.

"He'll tell the [defensive backs] to add all of their picks up and together they still don't have as many as him. If everybody on the whole team added theirs up, they don't have as many as him."

LeBeau flashes a sly grin when asked about it.

"That's what we call 'establishing credibility,' " he said.

The notion that LeBeau, 71, should have to establish anything seems absurd. His 14 years as a player and 36 more as a coach should be enough. Aside from his interception tally, which was the third most in NFL history when he retired and has dropped only to seventh in the nearly four decades since, this is the man who all but invented the zone blitz scheme.

Then again, how can you expect a bunch of 20-somethings who barely remember Franco Harris to recall LeBeau when he can't even get much respect from the folks who keep track of the history of the game?

You see, Dick LeBeau isn't in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. And he's probably not getting there anytime soon.

Certainly not Saturday, when the 44 Hall selectors meet to consider the 17 candidates for this year's class. LeBeau is not among those candidates. In fact, his 25 years of eligibility as a player already expired. If he's going to make it, it will have to be as a senior selection – and even then, there are some selectors who are dubious of the fact that LeBeau's career never included success as a head coach.

In other words, LeBeau still hasn't established enough credibility.

"They've been doing coach Lebeau wrong for a long time. It's not even a question," Hampton said. "He should have been [in the Hall of Fame] as a player a long time ago and definitely as a coach as well."

LeBeau developed the zone blitz scheme out of "necessity" when a team he coached was short on defensive linemen and had to use linebackers to substitute, but used zone defensive schemes in the secondary.

Prior to that, any team that blitzed generally used man-to-man defense in the secondary. In addition, LeBeau developed the idea of dropping defensive linemen into the short zones to further confuse the quarterback. The scheme has revolutionized the use of blitzes, as the zone blitz can from almost any angle or with any player.

"We talk about it all the time and we say that coach LeBeau must have been dirty back in the day or something," Hampton said. "He must have rubbed somebody the wrong way and he must have been a dirty player to get snubbed like that."

Not exactly. Instead, LeBeau forever has been caught in limbo. Was he really that great a player or was he simply surrounded by greatness, feeding off the three Hall of Fame defenders he played alongside [Dick "Night Train" Lane, Yale Lary and Lem Barney] with the Detroit Lions?

As for coaching credentials, how do you reward a man who wasn't a great head coach when it's so hard to get some of the best into the hall? Heck, it took 28 years for John Madden to get in and everybody knows him, especially the game-crazed players of today.

For his part, LeBeau doesn't seem to care. Certainly not right now as he prepares for his fifth Super Bowl as a coach.

"It would be pretty small of me to be concerned with that at this point in time," said LeBeau, who looks a good 20 years younger than his age of 71.

For others, the debate is interesting. And support exists.

"Absolutely there's a place in Canton for LeBeau," said Sports Illustrated football writer Peter King, who also is a selector. "He's seventh on the all-time interceptions list, played most consecutive games at corner than anyone in history, survived in a cutthroat league for 50 years and built a defense that everyone in the league is copying. He's the poster child, even at 71, for an all-around coach-player-contributor to the Hall.''

"From the standpoint of innovation, LeBeau is to defense what Bill Walsh and Clark Shaughnessy were to offense," Boston Herald writer and Hall of Fame selector Ron Borges said. "You have that and the fact that, arguably, he should be a Hall of Famer as a player. It shouldn't be a question, but this is where we are with a lot of people in a lot of different ways."

"Dick LeBeau is arguably the best ever to coach defense," ESPN analyst and former NFL quarterback Ron Jaworski said.

Or as Dallas Morning News NFL writer and hall selector Rick Gosselin put it succinctly: "No question, yes."

Part of what haunts LeBeau is that he was head coach for only once and was unsuccessful, going 12-36 over three seasons with Cincinnati.

"I absolutely believe there should be a place in the Hall of Fame for coaches – in fact, any contributor – who did not become head coaches or, despite significant contributions to pro football as assistant coaches, were not successful as head coaches," said Frank Cooney, another selector and longtime football writer. "Two hundred years from now, fans should be able stroll through the Hall of Fame and learn about people who made significant contributions to the history, the metamorphosis, the popularity, the drama of our great game."

Yet there are those on the other side who mostly examine LeBeau's chances through the prism of how the process works. It's not necessarily that LeBeau doesn't belong, but there are other people with credentials as well.

"An assistant coach has no shot whatever. Clark Shaughnessy, who more or less invented the T [formation] with man in motion, would be the most prominent example," wrote longtime Miami Herald columnist Edwin Pope, a Hall of Fame selector and one of three remaining writers who has covered every Super Bowl.

"I would say no," said Nancy Gay, the NFL columnist and Hall of Fame selector from the San Francisco Chronicle. "It's hard enough for successful head coaches to get in. Dan Reeves couldn't even make the semifinalist list, for example. Gil Brandt didn't make that list as a longtime administrator. There was a faction that did not believe Madden should be in."

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LeBeau gives his players instructions during a September contest.
(Gene J. Puskar/AP Photo)

As Borges noted, LeBeau's chances have also been thwarted by bad timing. After he retired in 1972, the hall had been enshrining people for only nine years and was backlogged with greats such as Johnny Unitas, Gale Sayers and Ray Nitschke. In addition, Lane went was elected in 1974, Lary followed in 1979, and Barney was picked in 1992. For some selectors, it was hard to justify so many players from a Detroit franchise that had so little success.

Thus, LeBeau's record as a player was minimized at a time when so many more modern-era players, such as Walter Payton, Kellen Winslow and Steve Largent, were being recognized. Throw in the fact that the zone blitz didn't become popular in the mid-1990s and you have a situation where LeBeau's achievements can't be properly measured within the scheme of how players and contributors are measured over time.

Finally, if LeBeau is going to be recognized as a coach, the point is that he's still working.

Where LeBeau seems to fit best is as a "contributor," a category reserved mostly for owners and former commissioners. In LeBeau's case, his contributions as a player and coach certainly fit the bill.

Or look at it this way: Among the 17 "contributors" who are currently in the hall, three were executives – Jim Finks, Tex Schramm and Hugh "Shorty" Ray. While Finks and Schramm were widely respected and were well-liked by the media, Ray's inclusion is interesting.

He only worked 15 years for the NFL as the head of officiating and was in charge of rules. While those are important tasks, how do they measure up to a man who played at a high level and revolutionized the game?

Shouldn't that be enough credibility?