August 02, 2010
As we come closer to the Pro Football Hall of Fame ceremonies on Saturday, Aug. 7, Shutdown Corner will have features on all the 2010 inductees. We begin with Dick LeBeau, the former great cornerback and current defensive coaching genius. This is Part 2 of a two-part interview; you can find Part 1 here.
If you want Dick LeBeau's Hall of Fame credentials as a defensive coach, don't ask the man himself - all he'll tell you is that it's all about his players. You'll want to ask the players themselves. Perhaps the most compelling testimony I've heard - among the greatest endorsements I've seen a player give his coach - came from current Steelers safety Troy Polamalu(notes) when I asked him about "Coach Dad" at a Nike 7-on-7 tournament in early July.
"There's no question that he is the greatest coach of all time," Polamalu told me, "and there's no question to me that he is the epitome of what a Hall-of-Famer should be. You're talking about a guy who played in the NFL and was very successful, with 63 interceptions - he reminds us of that all the time (laughs). He had the most consecutive starts at cornerback - over 100 games. He's been a special-teams coach, a coordinator, and a head coach. He's been part of the game longer than anybody who didn't own a team. So, to me, he's the most deserving guy ever, and the Hall of Fame people are lucky to have him as part of it."
One of the reasons that Polamalu thrived in LeBeau's defenses was the coach's ability to utilize his players in new and interesting ways. When he took over the Steelers' defense for the first time in the early 1990s, he brought on the "Blitzburgh" defense, with four amazing linebackers - Greg Lloyd, Kevin Greene, Chad Brown(notes), and Levon Kirkland. All different players, and LeBeau understood that these differences made for better defenses. From speed to power to unusual body types, LeBeau took it all in. And when he got hold of a do-it-all guy like Polamalu, anything could happen. Opposing offenses might see Pittsburgh's elite safety giving a blitz look and backing off to cover center field, or charging on a delayed blitz from deep thirds. As LeBeau developed his zone blitz concepts, anything was fair game. "It's a level of trust, communication and understanding," Polamalu said. "That's the relationship that Coach LeBeau and I have."
But you won't get LeBeau to say anything about himself. "Well, Troy and Carnell [Lake} and Rod [Woodson] are defensive coordinators' dreams. Troy probably has the most versatility of any of the backs I've coached - he can literally do anything. You ask him to blitz, he's going to be a great blitzer. If you ask him to cover [the opposing team's] best wide receiver, he's going to do a good job there. If you ask him to play in a linebacker area and chase down the runner, he'll do that well. And he can coordinate the coverage - he has a great knowledge of the defense. So, I couldn't really find a weakness in Troy, and that's a true blessing from a defensive coordinator's standpoint. He opens the playbook to pretty much anything you want to do - it's just a matter of how far off the diving board you want to go."
When LeBeau's career is over - and he hasn't even thought about retirement just yet - perhaps the most notable defensive call remembered will be the zone blitz at the end of the first half in Super Bowl XLIII. Linebacker/end James Harrison(notes) dropped back into coverage, Arizona Cardinals quarterback Kurt Warner(notes) didn't see it, and Harrison returned the subsequent interception off the short pass into the end zone 100 yards for a touchdown. That put the score at 17-7, and wound up being the difference in a comeback the Cardinals couldn't complete. It's typical of LeBeau that even when a concept he invented turned the biggest game of the season his team's way, he still wouldn't accept credit - -when I asked him about how the play was called, he immediately deferred all credit to Harrison.
"We teach our players to think on the field, and to be aware of the opponents' situations," LeBeau said. "James would tell you, if you were speaking to him, that he knew there was not enough time left in the half to run the ball and get their kicker on the field to kick the field goal. The area of probability was extremely high that they would try to throw the ball, and if that was incomplete, bring out the kicker. So, he engaged and looked for the passing lane. Warner never saw him, and James just made a tremendous play based on the odds of what the opponent was going to do. I'm just as proud of him executing in that situation as I would be if I had made the perfect call."
One way to get LeBeau to talk about himself is to ask him about the deep and abiding love his players feel for him through different eras. Tired of waiting for their brilliant defensive coordinator to receive his long-overdue Hall of Fame nod, several Steelers showed up at the 2008 induction week wearing replicas of LeBeau's old "44" Detroit Lions jersey. A year later, Rod Woodson used his Hall of Fame speech to stump for LeBeau's candidacy. "Seriously - I hope the voters get it right," Woodson said behind the podium. "First of all, he belongs in as a player. And if you don't want to put him in as a player, you put him in as a contributor. Because he did so much for the National Football league for over 50 years. He deserves it."
"It's probably been the most humbling experience of my professional career, the way my payers talk about me and the way this particular group of defenders treat me and react to me," LeBeau said. "It is absolutely the highest compliment I have ever had paid to me."
Has the newest compliment - that Hall of Fame induction - hit him yet? "It really hasn't, and I don't know when it will. I still get up in the morning and pinch myself. I could my blessings and say, ‘I guess I'm not dreaming - I guess this is really happening.' I've always had a strong sense of history , and that's the biggest effect it's had on me - to be a part of National Football League history forever. And that's the part that makes me shake a little bit, but I just feel truly blessed."
Every player he's ever coached, and every teammate he's ever shared time with on the field, and every coach he's ever worked with, can look back with a similar feeling about having known Dick LeBeau.
And that's why he's finally -- finally -- going into the Hall of Fame. The voters got it right.
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