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Mitchell retires; leaves a lasting legacy
Assistant head coach John Mitchell announced his retirement after 29 seasons in black and gold
Feb 15, 2023

By Teresa Varley & Bob Labriola

Like many kids growing up in Mobile, Alabama, John Mitchell dreamed about attending the University of Alabama. But like so many kids growing up in his Mobile neighborhood at that time, he suspected it was most likely nothing more than a dream.

But from those beginnings, through a combination of hard work, talent, a little luck, and the support of some influential people, John Mitchell was able to live his dream. First as a student and football player at the University of Alabama, then as a college assistant coach with stops at Alabama, Arkansas, and LSU, and then a three-decade career in the NFL, first as an assistant under Bill Belichick in Cleveland and then 29 seasons under Bill Cowher and Mike Tomlin with the Steelers.

Mitchell retired today after 50 years as a football coach, a half-century that began with Paul "Bear" Bryant hiring him shortly after he graduated in 1972 and included two Super Bowl rings in four appearances with the Steelers as well as induction into the Alabama Sports Hall of Fame.

"I'm grateful to the Rooney family for the wonderful opportunity to coach and work for the Steelers for nearly 30 years," said Mitchell. "It was truly an honor. I'd also like to thank Coach Tomlin for giving me the opportunity to stay with the franchise when Coach Cowher retired. I will treasure my time in Pittsburgh and appreciate everyone affiliated with the organization."

Mitchell started as the team's defensive line coach, then served as assistant head coach/defensive line coach and promoted to assistant head coach in 2018.

"I'm not sure that I can offer sufficient praise and admiration for Mitch – as both a man and football coach," said Coach Mike Tomlin. "Mitch has been a central figure in the success of the Pittsburgh Steelers for nearly three decades. He has coached some of the best players in this franchise's illustrious history, and each one of them, to a man, would tell you their success was a direct result of not only Mitch's coaching acumen, but also his mentorship, leadership and character.

"Those traits were most evident when he chose to attend the University of Alabama. Mitch's path not only changed his life, but the lives of so many others. It's impossible to truly measure his impact on the game, but I'm eternally grateful for the 16 years we worked together and wish him and (his wife) Joyce the absolute best in retirement."

"Coach Mitch has been a pivotal member of the Steelers organization, in a variety of roles, for the better part of 30 years," said Steelers President Art Rooney II. "When you consider his path, as both a player and coach, Mitch created opportunities in football for young Black men that quite honestly didn't previously exist. He has left an imprint on this franchise, and the sport and culture of football, that will continue well beyond his retirement."

Mitchell was born in 1951, a time of segregation in Alabama and throughout the South that impacted every aspect of everyday life.

"It was pretty tough as a kid growing up, especially right there in Mobile and the state of Alabama," said Mitchell. "People talk now about confederate flags. At that time confederate flags were everywhere, in the stores, shopping centers. If they had a confederate flag in the window or outside the door, that was a sign that people of color were not welcome. At that time schools were segregated. There were black schools and white schools. Transportation was segregated. Black people would pay the same as white people but had to sit in the back of the bus. If the bus was crowded, they had to get up and give their seat to a white person. They had separate restaurants, shopping. Black people, if you went to the movies, you had to go through the back door to get in and then you couldn't sit in the front of the theater. You had to sit in the balcony."

As children are, Mitchell was inquisitive at a young age, and his questions often were about why things were the way they were.

"I asked my parents (John Sr. and Alice Mitchell) questions," said Mitchell. "They told me black people were treated a lot different than white people. You had to be aware of your surroundings and the things you did. Right there in Mobile, where I went to high school, there is a railroad track that goes right through the city. When I went to the other side of that track, if I was there after 6 o'clock, black people were arrested for trespassing because they were in a white neighborhood and most of the time, they said you had no business being there.

"My parents were cognizant of me not being where I shouldn't be at certain hours of the night. When I would go out as a young guy, dating in high school, they told me places I could go, places I shouldn't go. They would stay awake until I got home to make sure I was OK, that I came back the same way I left. There were a lot of things back then that were really, really tough for African-Americans, especially in the state of Alabama, especially in Mobile where I grew up."

Mitchell loved Alabama football, but with the Southeastern Conference still segregated in that era, he accepted a scholarship to Eastern Arizona Junior College, and after earning Junior College All-America honors, he caught the attention of USC Coach John McKay. On friendly terms with Alabama, McKay told his pal Bear Bryant about a talented junior college defensive lineman from Mobile named Mitchell who was going to be playing for the Trojans.

"Coach Bryant was visiting Coach McKay at USC, speaking at his clinic, and Coach McKay was bragging that he had a black kid from Mobile who was coming to Southern Cal," explained Mitchell of how it all played out. "Alabama never saw me play. Alabama had recruiters in the state. They called every John Mitchell in the phone book until they got my dad."

Two days later, Bryant had a couple of his assistant coaches visit the Mitchell family's home for the purpose of trying to dissuade John from signing that scholarship offer from USC.

"A white person wouldn't have any reason to come (to my neighborhood) unless they were looking for someone to do some work for them, cut the grass, things like that," said Mitchell. "But they came to my house. I visited with them and a week later I took an official visit to Alabama, met Coach Bryant, when it was my mom, my dad and myself."

The attraction of playing close to home was that his family would be able to see the games, certainly the home games and maybe make trips to some road games against SEC opponents.

Take a look at the best photos of assistant head coach John Mitchell through the years

"I wanted my family to see me play. When I went and visited, Coach Bryant sold me on going to Alabama," said Mitchell. "I wanted to go there. As a kid you knew Coach Bryant. Everybody knew Alabama football."

Bryant promised the Mitchells he would watch over their son, and Mitchell signed with Alabama and became the first black African-American to play for the Crimson Tide.

"The thing that eased my mind, and I can remember it like yesterday, is we sat in Coach Bryant's office and he (told my parents) if your son comes here, he's going to have some problems," said Mitchell. "The only thing I ask of him is if he does have a problem, come see me first. That is all I want. I want him to see me first. I will handle it. When I was there, I never had a problem."

Mitchell had some early doubts about whether he could compete at that level of football, but those were dispelled after he became the first black captain and first black All-American at Alabama. After graduating six months earlier than the rest of his class, Mitchell began plotting a path to his future.

"I wanted to go to graduate school, law school, and I called Coach Bryant," said Mitchell. "I told him I wanted to go to graduate school, but since I didn't have the money, I wanted to talk to him about getting a job around the Athletic Department, anything I could do to earn money and go to school. He told me to come see him.

"I can remember it like it was yesterday. Coach Bryant had a nice big office. He was at his desk with his glasses on his nose, and he never looked at me. He said, if I offer you a full-time job on my staff, would you take it? I'm 20 years old, I just got through playing for him six months ago. I'm standing there, he's not looking at me, and he says again, if I offer you this full-time job will you take it? I said, yes sir. He groomed me to be a football coach."

It was an opportunity to learn from a legend, and Mitchell took advantage and started to climb the ladder that landed him in the NFL in 1991.

"Everything I do as a coach came from Coach Bryant. Everything. When I was on his staff, I had the chance to ask him a lot of questions that as a player you wouldn't ask. He taught me how to become a coach. My players I coached here know because I talked to them about him."

When Dan Rooney hired Cowher in 1992 to follow Chuck Noll, the defensive line he inherited was not a team strength. After two seasons with Steve Furness as his defensive line coach, Cowher was looking to make a change there. Cowher chose Mitchell, who then had found his professional home.

The season before Mitchell's arrival, the defensive line was made up of nose tackle Joel Steed and ends Kenny Davidson and Donald Evans. In 1994, free agent signee Ray Seals replaced Davidson and Gerald Williams moved from backup nose tackle to the other defensive end spot. There would be more changes over the years, and Mitchell found himself working with high draft choices (Brentson Buckner, a No. 2 in 1994; Casey Hampton, a No. 1 in 2001; Cam Heyward, a No. 1 in 2011; Stephon Tuitt, a No. 2 in 2014), developmental prospects (Orpheus Roye, a No. 6 in 1996; Aaron Smith, a No. 4 in 1999; Rodney Bailey, a No. 6 in 2001; Brett Keisel, a No. 7 in 2002), as well as veteran free agents (Kimo von Oelhoffen in 2000).

Stopping the run long has been a focus and a matter of pride for the Steelers defense, and Mitchell's defensive linemen learned to contribute in that area if they wanted to see the field. During his 24 seasons as the Steelers defensive line coach, the defense ranked in the top 10 against the run 17 times, with 14 of those 17 times being in the top 5, and with 5 of those 17 being No. 1 overall.

"In my 24 years coaching the Pittsburgh Steelers defensive line, the things that I coached were the things that I learned at Alabama," said Mitchell. "I would tell my players that the things we're going to do here are not things John Mitchell thought about when he was lying in bed," said Mitchell. "These are things that were taught to me when I was at the University of Alabama. We had a lot of success. If you believe in them and work hard, you'll have success."

Just as John Mitchell did.

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