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Steelers' LeBeau Earns Respect of Former Teammates and Current Players
"Some guys would go to the bowling alley," Barney said. "Some guys would get their Bible. Some guys would catch a movie. Dick would grab that six-string guitar. He had a good voice, and it was during the time of free expression. He was like Bob Dylan."
But instead of taking those Renaissance qualities and branching out after his playing career ended in 1972 -- after he had set the Lions' record with 62 interceptions and played in 171 straight games, still an NFL record for a cornerback -- he went directly into coaching.
"He loved the game, and he stayed with the game," Brown said. "He was fortunate enough that he was a student of the game, and someone always wanted him, wanted to use him."
That, now, includes Mike Tomlin, who took over as the Steelers' head coach before the 2007 season. At that point, it seemed natural the Steelers would change coordinators. Tomlin was only 34 and had run the Minnesota Vikings' defense. LeBeau had had his chance as a head coach, a nearly three-season stint with the Cincinnati Bengals, and he was in his second time around in Pittsburgh. Asked if the Steelers' defenders were worried they would lose their coordinator, Polamalu said "definitely."
Tomlin, though, sat down with LeBeau. The Steelers' defense ranked ninth in the league in 2006. LeBeau is widely credited with developing the "zone blitz" -- which helps cover up areas a blitzing defensive back or linebacker vacates by dropping a lineman into coverage -- and Tomlin wanted to hear his philosophy. LeBeau stayed, and Tomlin said this week it would take more time than he has to explain what that means to the franchise.
"Dick cares about people," Tomlin said. "He doesn't take that ingredient out of his recipe when he comes to work."
His players clearly appreciate that. Last week, the Steelers allowed the San Diego Chargers a bit of a fourth-quarter comeback when running back Darren Sproles scored on a 62-yard pass play. LeBeau reminded his players such lapses couldn't happen against Baltimore.
"I was like, 'My bad, Coach, I should've got Sproles on the ground,' " safety Ryan Clark said. "He was like: 'You're dang right you should've. But who cares? Now let's go.' "
But just as in his playing days, it is not all football, all the time. Each holiday season, LeBeau gathers his players for a performance of "The Night Before Christmas," which he recites from memory, taking on characters, changing his voice. Football players who might find it corny instead embrace it. Clark said he almost cried the first time he heard LeBeau's rendition.
"You're taken back to when you were 5 years old," defensive end Aaron Smith said. "You're just kind of shocked. . . . He does it with such flair that it's unbelievable."
What he won't do with flair is talk about himself. The players, too, appreciate that. Steelers owner Dan Rooney persuaded LeBeau to go along with a league-sponsored idea to honor his 50th season in the league before a November game against Cincinnati. LeBeau spent the time looking at his players, who had lined up in admiration.
"They told us to stay out there," Clark said. "But they didn't have to say that. All they had to do is tell me what the award was for, who it was for, and we all were going to be there whether it was zero degrees or 115."
There is but one honor LeBeau's former teammates and current players want for him: induction into the Hall of Fame. Last year, when the Steelers played in the Hall of Fame Game during the preseason, LeBeau's players bought throwback Lions jerseys with LeBeau's No. 44 to show support.
"It's unquestionable, man," Barney said. "I know DBs, man. I've seen them over the years. I've studied some great guys, seen some great guys. The credentials he has, Dick should've been in the Hall. He should've been in the Hall a long time ago."
With a trip to the Super Bowl at stake on Sunday, such status is not of concern to LeBeau. Rather, he spoke during the week of his fondness for his players, his pride in their accomplishments. He took shots at himself -- "I just try to get out of the way," he said -- but he knows his players won't buy that. These Steelers are the Steelers, the players believe, because after 50 seasons in the NFL, Dick LeBeau still loves football.
"I just be myself, and I hope that it gets across to them that I care about them and care about our performance," LeBeau said. "I just try to tell them what I think is necessary to enable us to be able to do that, and the way it's worked out, we're just a pretty close group."