Labriola On

Labriola on LeBeau

The really good stories have twists and turns in the narrative that come to be revealed over multiple chapters. And so it is with the story of Dick LeBeau and the Pittsburgh Steelers.

It was announced yesterday that LeBeau had resigned the defensive coordinator post he had held for the past 11 seasons, for 13 seasons overall in two separate stints in the job with the Steelers, and the occasion marked the end of an era.

"I want to publicly thank Coach LeBeau for his many contributions to the Steelers organization over 16 seasons," said Steelers President Art Rooney II. "He is one of the finest men who has ever been connected to the Steelers, and the NFL. His leadership has positively impacted so many players and other members of our staff. I will always be grateful for what he has taught us about the game of football and about life."


Photos of Dick LeBeau, the Steelers longtime defensive coordinator who resigned.

From his initial exposure to Steelers Nation as an assistant on Bill Cowher's first staff of assistants back in 1992 until his resignation yesterday, Dick LeBeau's two separate stints with the Pittsburgh Steelers coincided with the most successful era in franchise history outside the 1970s.

When Sam Wyche and his staff were fired by Bengals owner Mike Brown following a 3-13 season in 1991, LeBeau happened to be in the market for a job at the same time Cowher was assembling his defensive staff for a franchise about to experience life without Chuck Noll for the first time in a generation. Within the walls of  those meeting rooms inside Three Rivers Stadium, Cowher, Dom Capers, Marvin Lewis, and LeBeau constructed a defense that would render the run-and-shoot obsolete and come to be known as Blitzburgh. And based upon LeBeau's zone-blitz principles, the defense would become the prototype still being copied 20 years later.

After a couple of seasons spent figuring out scheme and personnel, the Steelers defense in 1994 cast itself as a dominant unit. Ranked second overall, the unit set a franchise record with 55 sacks while also recording 31 takeaways. In 16 games, the Steelers allowed 19 offensive touchdowns.

When Capers left following the 1994 season to become the first coach of the expansion Carolina Panthers, the move to promote LeBeau to defensive coordinator was one of the most open-and-shut of Cowher's tenure with the Steelers. LeBeau's first stint as the Steelers defensive coordinator, though, was marked by some incredible bad luck.

In the first game of his first season as the Steelers defensive coordinator – the 1995 season opener against the Detroit Lions – All-Pro cornerback Rod Woodson tore an ACL, and the secondary was a mess until Carnell Lake saved the day by being able to move from strong safety to cornerback. Then in the 1996 opener, All-Pro outside linebacker Greg Lloyd tore a patellar tendon and Chad Brown had to be moved from inside to outside in the team's 3-4 alignment.

Following the 1996 season, LeBeau left the Steelers for what turned out to be a lateral career move to an inferior Bengals team, a decision that was curious at the time and never completely explained. Over the next seven seasons, LeBeau would ascend to head coach in Cincinnati only to be fired, and the Steelers enjoyed some defensive success but by the end of 2003 they had become unable to deal with the way opponents were spreading out their 3-4 alignment and attacking it through the air.

Dick LeBeau was fired from his job as the Bengals head coach after the 2002 season, and he spent 2003 as a consultant with the Buffalo Bills. In early 2004, the Bills offered LeBeau a permanent position on Coach Mike Mularkey's staff, but when Cowher reached out to him to gauge his interest in a possible return to Pittsburgh, the decision became an easy one.

The 2004 Steelers finished No. 1 in the NFL in total defense, No. 1 in rushing defense, it recorded 41 sacks and 32 takeaways, and the fact it allowed just under 16 points a game paired nicely with the emergence of rookie quarterback Ben Roethlisberger for a 15-1 regular season record and a spot in the AFC Championship Game.

Armed with a whole new set of talented players to deploy in his increasingly refined zone-blitz concepts, LeBeau's Steelers defenses were on the precipice of an amazing run of success that would help the franchise to three Super Bowl appearances and two wins during the six seasons from 2005-10.

Where once it was Rod Woodson and Carnell Lake and Greg Lloyd and Kevin Greene and Ray Seals, LeBeau's new cast included Troy Polamalu and Joey Porter and James Farrior and Aaron Smith and Casey Hampton and then James Harrison. The defenses were tough against the run, aggressively got after the quarterback, punished the opponent physically, and made plays on the football.

During the run to the Super Bowl XL championship, the Steelers went 4-0 against Cincinnati, Indianapolis, Denver, and Seattle, which represented four of the NFL's top seven offensive units that season while allowing just 62 total points.

The 2006 season had the Steelers suffering from a Super Bowl hangover, and Bill Cowher would resign in January 2007. After the coaching search ended with the hiring of Mike Tomlin, who had cut his teeth in the NFL as a defensive assistant schooled in the art of the Tampa-2, a fundamental change in the way the Steelers played defense seemed imminent.

But Tomlin assessed the situation and showed uncommon maturity for a rookie head coach in his mid-30s. He stuck with LeBeau and the 3-4 instead of switching to the 4-3 with which he was most familiar.

"That decision was very easy for me," said Tomlin at the time when asked about the move. "To me, that's all ego-driven when people come in and believe they have to put their stamp on things. Why would you fix something that's not broken? That's just me. I'm more interested in winning than anything else, and that allows us to win. We have great players, we have a great system, we have great coaches. The story doesn't have to be me, what I do. The story has to be what we do, and what we're capable of doing as a team."

The Steelers defense finished No. 1 in the NFL in 2007, 2008, 2011, and 2012, and it was No. 2 in 2010. The 2008 unit in particular was a statistically dominant one, and it included Defensive Player of the Year James Harrison, who had 16 sacks and capped it all off with a 100-yard interception return for a touchdown in Super Bowl XLIII.

The success of the Steelers defenses brought a lot of attention to LeBeau, and starting in 2005 some of his higher-profile players began a not-so-subtle campaign to have the man they called Coach Dad inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. They paid tribute to him with throwback Detroit Lions' No. 44 jerseys during the regular season finale in 2005, and they resurrected them when the Steelers were tabbed to play in 2007's Hall of Fame Game to open that preseason.

LeBeau was a nominee of the Seniors Committee in 2009, and he ended up being voted in as a member of the Hall of Fame Class of 2010. For the induction ceremony, the Steelers boarded buses at their training camp site in Latrobe, Pa., and traveled over six hours round-trip to share the moment with a man who had become so much more to them than just their defensive coordinator.

"I'll leave you with one thing: Life is for living, folks," said LeBeau from the stage that night in Canton. "Don't let somebody tell you that you're too old to do this or too old to do that. Stay in life. Life is a gift. It's a joy. Don't drop out of it. Don't let somebody else tell you and don't let your mind tell you.

"If I would have gotten out of my life's work at 65 or 67, when they say is the age of retirement, here is what I would have missed, folks: I would have missed not one but two World Championship football teams that I got to be a part of. I got to be a part of a No. 1 defense that statistically had the lowest numbers in the last 35 or 40 years. I had my number retired from my high school. Had a building named after me in my hometown. I made the Detroit Lions 75th Anniversary team. I was accepted into the Ohio State University Athletic Hall of Fame. Now tonight I guess when I sit down, which I'm gonna do, I'll be in the NFL Hall of Fame. My mother always said, 'Onward and upward, age is just a number.'"

Dick LeBeau defied Father Time by coaching into his late-70s, but he never lost the down-home sensibilities he learned as a boy in London, Ohio. His annual recital of "'Twas the Night Before Christmas" made grizzled football players feel like children again, and it wasn't only on special occasions where LeBeau's humanity was revealed.

For the annual game in Cleveland, the Steelers board buses for the round-trip, and during the 2011 season the game was played there on New Year's Day. Upon returning after a 13-9 win, players and staff found their cars covered with a layer of snow and ice. The process of scraping the windows was tedious, especially after a long day spent working on a national holiday.

I was less than halfway finished with my car when an SUV pulled up alongside. Out hopped Dick LeBeau with an ice-scraper in his hand, and he started working on the other half of the windshield. The job went quickly from there, and when it was done, LeBeau jumped back into his vehicle, wished me a 'Happy New Year,' and drove off into the night.

That's the Dick LeBeau I knew. The man I'll always remember.

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