The Dick LeBeau story
Cold, Hard Football Facts for Jan 14, 2009
Pittsburgh defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau is a hero of the hard-drinking, football-loving Troll Set.
The general public doesn't know him. He doesn't appear on magazine covers or in Oreo commercials. But he's a celebrity in the seedy underground knitting club of online football analysis. Hard-core football people know him and dig him and, more importantly, respect him.
LeBeau is one of the cornerstones of the modern NFL, a guy who succeeded as a player and as a coordinator, who's consistently put great defenses on the field, who's walked shoulder to shoulder with giants of the game, and who has earned the eternal respect, it seems, of everybody who comes into contact with him.
You might remember the show of force his players put on for him three years ago, when Pittsburgh's defense showed up before the preseason Hall of Fame game in 2007 wearing LeBeau's old No. 44 from his playing days with the Lions, to protest the fact that he's not in Canton himself. It's hard for leaders to earn that kind of respect from the men under them. But LeBeau has clearly done it.
Our own Coach T.J. Troup is one of those fans of LeBeau. The two worked on the NFL Films "America's Game" series and have become pen pals over the years. So Troup chimed with his fact-filled thoughts and observations on one of the pivotal characters in the sporting theater scheduled for Sunday in Pittsburgh.
LeBeau was born on Sept. 9, 1937 in, like so many great coaches, the heart of the Gridiron Breadbasket. He's a native of the town of London, Ohio, just west of Columbus.
He starred for Woody Hayes on Ohio State's 1957 national title team, and then played for the Lions from 1959 to 1972, a member of some of the must suffocating secondaries in history.
But its with his accomplishments as an innovative coach in which he's secured his football legend.
LeBeau is largely considered the father of the modern zone blitz and his teams have consistently been among the best defensive squads in the league. His time as a head coach in Cincinnati was not successful: 12-33 in almost three full seasons. Though as Coach Troup noted, "nobody's been successful there."
Yet where he goes as an assistant, success follows as sure as the tides. The Bengals, for example, reached the only two Super Bowls in franchise history (1981, 1988) when he was an assistant, and his years in Pittsburgh have been marked by consistent success: if Pittsburgh wins Sunday, all three of the post-Steel Curtain Super Bowl appearances will have come with LeBeau on the sidelines.
He's been the defensive coordinator in Pittsburgh from 1992 to 1996 and again from 2004 through today. The Steelers have ranked in the Top 10 in scoring defense in all but one of those years (2006) and in the Top 10 in total defense all but one of those years (1992).
The 2008 Steelers, of course, topped almost every defensive indicator, including scoring and total defense and, perhaps most importantly, our ass-kicking Defensive Hog Index, in which they were absolutely dominant.
The Steelers also finished first in total defense and second in scoring defense last year. And, as we noted earlier this year, the 2008 Steelers stack up favorably against the legendary Steel Curtain defenses of the 1970s.
LeBeau shot hoops with hardcourt legends
LeBeau was an outstanding athlete at Ohio State – a two-way star (halfback and corner) on the school's 1957 national title team who scored two touchdowns in their pivotal win over Michigan that year. The Buckeyes ended the season with a 10-7 win over Oregon in the Rose Bowl.
He was such a good athlete, Troup said, that he was often invited to play pick-up games with a pretty good cast of basketball players: Bobby Knight, John Havlicek, Jerry Lucas and the core of the Ohio State team that would win a national title in 1960.
Paul Brown messed up
Cleveland's legendary coach Paul Brown made a lot of great personnel decisions throughout his career.
It looked like another when he drafted LeBeau in the fifth round (58th overall) of the 1959 draft. But apparently the coach didn't like what he saw: LeBeau was cut without ever playing a down for the hometown Browns.
He was picked up by the Lions midway through the 1959 season. He would spend his entire 14-year and (some would argue) Hall-of-Fame worthy career in Detroit.
LeBeau has a soft side
It's well known that the coach reads "'Twas the Night Before Christmas" to his players each year – which they often rave about in somewhat romantic terms as a great bonding experience. But LeBeau also plays guitar and loves the music from "The Wizard of Oz," said Troup.
So, in tribute to LeBeau's soft side, we show a bit of our own, with this beautiful little piece of movie-making Americana from Ms. Judy. In the midst of Depression and on the eve of global war, hope rang eternal in America. What a great song:
show video here
LeBeau was a turnover-making machine
As a defensive back in Detroit, Lebeau grabbed 71 turnovers in his career – 62 interceptions and nine fumble recoveries. He also turned four of those (three INTs, one fumble) into touchdowns.
Only six players in history have picked off more passes: Paul Krause (81), Emlen Tunnell (79), Rod Woodson (71), Night Train Lane (68), Ken Riley (65) and Ronnie Lott (63).
LeBeau played on some kick-ass defenses
LeBeau must have been pretty good, just to get on the field on some of the most star-studded defensive backfields in history. An all-purpose d-back, especially in his early days with Detroit, he often played safety and not cornerback to get playing time.
When he joined the Lions in 1959, they had just lost Hall of Fame defensive back Jack Christiansen, but still featured all-purpose defensive back and future Hall of Famer Yale Lary.
LeBeau did not become the full-time starting right corner until 1961. The left corner was none other than the great Night Train Lane, who manned that position for the Lions from 1960 to 1965. In 1967, rookie Lem Barney began his Hall of Fame career at left corner opposite LeBeau.
Over the next five seasons, Barney and LeBeau set an NFL standard with a tandem-record 65 INTs over a five-year span (a mere 70 games).
LeBeau earned three straight Pro Bowl trips as Detroit's right corner from 1964 to 1966.
"He was just an excellent, fundamentally sound corner," said Troup. "Smart, tough and athletic."
LeBeau dabbled in Hollywood
Late in his career, LeBeau headed to Hollywood. He was Michael Caine's stunt double in the 1970 movie, "Too Late the Hero."
Triangulation is the key to the zone blitz
As most football fans know, the zone blitz is essentially a system where linemen might unexpectedly drop into pass coverage, while a linebacker or defensive back will rush the passer.
It looks like chaos, but here is a method to the madness, said Troup, who often hits up LeBeau for insight into his defenses. That method is building "triangles" of three defenders in any given area. Any receiver on the field should be in the crosshairs of three defenders, either in front or in back of him.
"He's a mad scientist who has spent all this time coming up with schemes, but there's a method to it," said Troup. "He creates triangles that fill in all the zones. That's what he taught me. It looks so bizarre, but it's really pretty simplistic."
LeBeau played for the best
LeBeau's playing experiences inspired the zone blitz
"If you look at the old Detroit Lions on film (when LeBeau played), you'll see that they blitzed a lot, so he was always in man coverage," said Troup. "He was a very good player, but when he became coach he didn't want to leave his corners out on an island all the time in man coverage like he was."
The zone blitz was his way of combating the problem, especially in an era that easily favored the receiver. At least back in LeBeau's playing days, defenders could rough up receivers quite a bit more and had a fighting chance in man coverage.
Lebeau is a team player
When Lebeau came to Pittsburgh in 1988, it was as secondary coach and Dom Capers was the defensive coordinator. They began working on the zone blitz together, but when Capers left for Carolina and LeBeau became DC, he "ratcheted it up even more," said Troup. "He's so good, he can work with people to create his defenses or do it on his own."
LeBeau was always a bridesmaid as a player
LeBeau just missed the Bobby Layne glory days in Detroit, which ended with the organization's last championship in 1957.
But the Lions consistently played in an anachronism called the "playoff bowl," which pitted the second-place teams from each conference in a consolation game played at the Orange Bowl throughout the 1960s. The Lions appeared in this game three straight years, the Shula years, from 1960-62.
"The 1962 Lions are probably the best second-place team in league history," said Troup. "They went 11-3 and lost to Green Bay by 2, the Giants by 3 and the Bears by 3."
The Lions lost out on the Western Conference championship that year to Vince Lombardi's greatest team, the mighty 13-1 Packers of 1962.
Green Bay's only loss that year was a sound 26-14 beating at the hands of LeBeau's Lions in Detroit.
Confirming his bridesmaid status as a player, LeBeau appeared in just one "official" postseason game: in fact, his
1970 Lions were the first wildcard team in NFL history, grabbing the NFC wildcard after a 10-4 second place finish to the Vikings in the NFC Central – and then losing 5-0 to Dallas in the playoffs.
LeBeau participated in a bit of Steelers history back then
The 1962 "playoff bowl" pitted the Western Conference runner-up Lions against the Eastern Conference runner-up Steelers.
The game was a milestone in Steelers history: it's the first time the team took the field in the now-familiar black helmets with the logo on one side.
(By the way, you should check out the Helmet Project, which shows the evolution of helmets for every NFL and major college team. Pretty neat.)
LeBeau played in one of Troup's all-time favorite games
The 1962 Lions ended the season in a game that Troup, an aficionado of defense, a Chicago native and a Bears fan, counts among his all-time favorites: Chicago topped Detroit, 3-0, in one of the greatest games he's ever witnessed.
Night Train Lane and LeBeau manned the corners for Detroit. Second-year tight end phenom Mike Ditka was the big weapon lined up opposite them, while the Bears defense was led by future Hall of Famer Bill George, the original middle linebacker in Chicago's long line of legends at the position.
The story behind the 1962 finale at Wrigley Field is pretty cool: Future Hall of Fame head coach Don Shula was the defensive coordinator in Detroit. Future Hall of Fame head coach George Allen was the defensive coordinator in Chicago.
As the season wound to a close, word leaked out that the Colts would can Weeb Ewbank after a disappointing 7-7 season. Shula and Allen were the hot young assistants of their day and were considered the leading candidates to replace Ewbank in Baltimore. So the Lions-Bears finale was considered something of an audition for the job.
The defensive whizzes put their best games forward and it was a bloodbath: the Bears won 3-0 on a fourth-quarter field goal in a battle that featured 10 turnovers.
Though Allen won, Shula got the Colts gig after fielding a defense in Detroit that surrendered just 177 points all season.
"Shula was probably a little better prepared for the job at that point," said Troup.
LeBeau most have had similar feelings this year, in a season in which the Pittsburgh defense, win or lose, has carried the load throughout the season. He might have similar feelings on Sunday, in a game that has all the earmarks of a defensive bloodbath like the one he played in 46 years ago.
He should feel right at home, said Troup.
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