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5 for Friday: Mitchell made a lasting impact

The Steelers have had their share of longtime assistant coaches who have gone on to bigger things or been recognized for being among the best in the business.

It's not hyperbole to say that John Mitchell was arguably the best.

A man whose coaching history included working for the likes of Bear Bryant, Lou Holtz, Bill Belichick, Bill Cowher and then Mike Tomlin, among others, learned some stuff along the way. And Mitchell, who retired earlier this week after spending 50 years in coaching – the last 29 with the Steelers – got results.

Look at the players he developed into solid, if not spectacular, players during his career. From Joel Steed to Brentson Buckner to Aaron Smith to Brett Keisel to Chris Hoke to so many others, Mitchell would break a player down, rebuild him and turn him into a dominant player.

He could be brutal on rookies.

"I come in in '99. I go to camp and everything, the rookie camp, OTAs and camp. He's not really coming at me too much. And then the season starts and he's just devastating me," Smith said. "He made me get up early in the morning to meet with him. He made me stay after everybody else left to meet with him. If we had a down period in practice where there weren't any defensive players needed, he would pull me aside and have me doing extra drills. He's just coming at me.

"It was to the point where, if I saw him coming down the hall, I would try to hide. Now, I'm not a teenager. I'm a man. I'm thinking, how can I avoid this guy at all costs?"

Smith played just nine defensive snaps as a rookie. He wasn't ready to step into the field and play defensive linemen to John Mitchell's level.

"The whole offseason, he really invests in me and works with me," Smith said. "I showed up the entire offseason and we'd go out on the field and do cones and stuff, and he really just poured into me and taught me. The next year, we draft Kendrick Clancy from Ole Miss. He's just destroying him. I looked at one of the other guys and said, 'He just doesn't like rookies.'"

It wasn't so much that Mitchell didn't like rookies. He liked them enough to push the Steelers to draft or sign those players. But he was demanding. He expected his guys to play a certain way.

"That was just it, he would break you down and then build you back up to play the way he wanted you to play," said Hoke. "He had his way of doing things, but it worked. It was rough when you were young, because anytime you saw him, it didn't matter if you were at lunch or breakfast, anytime you saw him, he would be breaking down a play, 'Hokie, you have to do this when that happens.' There was no time off from it. Then, when you got older and he trusted you, it was more relaxed."

Mitchell had a drill-sergeant-like way of delivering his message to them. But behind the gruff way the message was delivered was a cultured man who enjoys art and wine.

Smith wound up playing under Mitchell for 13 years. And often, when a new young player would join the team, Mitchell would use Smith and his technique as a teaching tool. Do things the way Aaron does, and you'll be successful.

But to Smith, it was all about the original messenger.

"You try to tell rookies this because you went through it yourself, you try to tell them because you see him unraveling them, 'Guys, just listen to him.' It's not about how he delivers the message, but if you listen to what he's actually telling you, you will get better," Smith said. "And then once you know him, you see how big his heart is and how much he cares. His roughness and how he is, gets taken out of context, like when I was a rookie. You just don't really know anything."

Smith is now a coach himself. After he retired after the 2011 season, he was an assistant football and basketball coach at North Allegheny. This season, he's the head boys basketball coach at Eden Christian in suburban Pittsburgh.

He channels Mitchell in his coaching.

"'I'm not saying I'm Mitch. I'm not at that level. But there are a lot of things I look at the same as he taught me," Smith said. "When I was in my first rookie camp, I'm sitting in the back because you kind of want to hide. Mitch comes in and he says, 'Where's 91?' He sees me and he says, 'What are you doing sitting in the back? You'd better sit in front.' I'll tell you, for 13 years I sat in the front of every meeting. I'm 13 years in the league and I'm still sitting in the front of every camp meeting, every meeting I could possibly sit in the front in. I still do.

"I tell my own kids and and players the same things. It's just the perception and you stay engaged. When you're a rookie, you think he's just being mean and he's putting you up there to babysit you. He knows what he's doing. He knows you have no choice but to pay attention and learn. There's just so many things he's taught me in life that I pass on to my children, not even players."

Once they got through that shock and awe portion of working with Mitchell, the players saw the other side. Mitchell was demanding, but he also had a soft spot for his guys.

"We were all like his sons," Hoke said. "After the 2004 season when I played a lot, he and I became really close. We still are."

It's the same for Smith and the long list of defensive linemen who played for the Steelers under Mitchell.

They know he has a heart of gold.

And, after 50 years in the business, they're glad he'll be able to walk into the sunset and enjoy life.

"When you compliment him, he'll get uncomfortable and compliment you to try to draw the attention off himself," Smith said. "That's just the kind of guy he is. I love the man. I spent 13 years with him. I came out of college as a young man who really didn't know much about the world. I thought I did. I don't have a father figure. A lot of things I learned were through him. That was the closest thing as we walked through life.

"I'm happy. I know he loves football. But Mitch has so many other interests. I would love for him to go and enjoy those other things."

• One thing Tomlin doesn't get credit for is his identification of coaches such as Mitchell as cornerstones to his initial coaching staff.

Tomlin not only kept Mitchell and Bruce Arians – along with Dick LeBeau – as holdovers from Cowher's staff when he took over as Steelers head coach in 2007, he elevated them.

Mitchell had been defensive line coach under Cowher. Tomlin made him assistant head coach/defensive line coach. Arians had been wide receivers coach. Tomlin elevated him to offensive coordinator.

LeBeau was already defensive coordinator, so he really couldn't be elevated.

Yes, all three men were Cowher hires, as was linebackers coach Keith Butler. But Tomlin had the forethought to retain them.

As we've seen over the years in the NFL, many coaches when hired simply bring their own guys in, regardless of the resumes of the incumbent staff.

• The Steelers hold the 17th, 32nd and 49th picks in the 2023 NFL Draft.

The last time they had two picks in the top 40 selections of the draft, they acquired Ben Roethlisberger and Ricardo Colclough in 2004 with picks 11 and 38. Prior to that, in 2001, they selected Casey Hampton and Kendrell Bell at picks 19 and 39, but moved around to do so, trading down in the first round and up in the second round.

In 2000, they earned picks No. 8 and 38 in the first two rounds and selected Plaxico Burress and Marvel Smith.

In 1992, they had picks 11 and 38 and acquired Leon Searcy and Levon Kirkland.

Of that group, Colclough would be the only one that truly didn't make an impact.

To find a situation such as this year's, where the Steelers have three premium picks, you'd have to go all the way back to 1989. That year, they wound up with picks 7, 24 and 34, picking up an extra first-round selection from the Vikings in exchange for Mike Merriweather.

They came out of that draft with running back Tim Worley, guard Tom Ricketts and safety Carnell Lake with their first three picks.

Worley and Ricketts didn't work out. Lake became a cornerstone of the teams of the 1990s.

The draft is an inexact science to be sure. But the more bites you have of the apple in those early rounds increase your odds of hitting on the player.

• In terms of immediate impact, that 2001 draft was a game-changer.

Hampton and Bell made all the difference in the world on the team's defense. The defense had been good in 2000 as the Steelers went 9-7 and just missed making the playoffs.

But it became dominant in 2001 and the Steelers went 13-3, posting the AFC's best record.

Roethlisberger made an obvious first-year impact, as well, but he was a quarterback.

• Dale Lolley is co-host of "SNR Drive" on Steelers Nation Radio. Subscribe to the podcast here: Apple Podcast | iHeart Podcast

Two defenders, right up the middle of the defense, took the Steelers from being a pretty good defense – they were seventh in yards allowed in 2000 – to a clear-cut No. 1 defense in 2001.

And they pretty much stayed in or around that spot for the rest of the decade.

• As frequent readers and listeners know, I'm no defender of NFL officiating. But I also understand there's a human element involved.

There's been an uproar this week about the defensive holding call on Philadelphia cornerback James Bradberry against Kansas City wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster that gave the Chiefs an automatic first down inside the 10 and allowed them to essentially run out the clock before kicking a Super Bowl-winning field goal.

Thing is, it was a hold. Replay showed Bradberry grabbing Smith-Schuster's jersey. Bradberry admitted to grabbing Smith-Schuster's jersey.

Whether he had gotten away with it at times earlier in the game was irrelevant. He got caught on this occasion.

Imagine the outrage from Kansas City fans if that hold goes uncalled and Philadelphia marches down the field for a game-winning score.

And spare me the stuff about officials should allow the players to settle the game. They did. The Eagles could have settled that game themselves by forcing the Chiefs to punt even once in the second half. They did not. The Eagles could have settled that game with their offense. They did not.

There are other sports where officials will swallow their whistles in the closing minutes of a game to "allow the players to settle things." It's not right in those sports and it wouldn't be right in the Super Bowl.

Officials should call what they see, regardless of when it is or the circumstances.

Imagine an official seeing a clear foul and saying to him or herself, 'Well, that was a foul, but I'm not going to call it because it would decide the game.' That, in fact, is the definition of the officials deciding the outcome of a game.