TAMPA, Fla. – He is a master of disguise, so perhaps it’s not surprising that Pittsburgh Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau once was actor Michael Caine’s double in a movie.
LeBeau’s Steelers often go out of character, too – showing one look but doing something unconventional after the snap. One of the intriguing games-within-a-game during the Super Bowl on Sunday will be LeBeau’s maneuvering against Arizona Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt, the former Steelers offensive coordinator and one of LeBeau’s best friends.
Then again, almost anybody LeBeau works with becomes his friend, and a good one. LeBeau is the NFL’s oldest assistant coach at 71, yet his players rave about his fatherly presence, calm demeanor, steadying hand and non-confrontational style.
Is there another NFL assistant whose players call him Dad? Or who developed a defensive scheme because Bobby Knight, his former Ohio State classmate, influenced him with his pressure tactics in basketball?
“I think he is the best football coach I’ve ever been around,” safety Ryan Clark said. “Just as a person and for the liveliness he brings to work every morning. The first thing he says is, ‘It’s great to be alive.’ For a man to be 71 and that lively, doing push-ups on the field and talking about how good he is at golf, it’s just awesome.”
In a fortunate coincidence for them, the Steelers reached the Super Bowl in LeBeau’s 50th NFL season – 16 as a star cornerback, 34 as a head and assistant coach. Being center stage in Tampa allows them to lobby for the Hall of Fame induction of the former star cornerback and the inventor of the zone blitz defense.
His players already feel as though they’ve won in Tampa: LeBeau told them he plans to return next season, scuttling rumors he was weighing retirement if the Steelers win a second Super Bowl in four seasons.
“I could barely walk before he came here,” All-Pro safety Troy Polamalu said. “He has everything to do with the success of everybody on this team. He does a great job of putting the right guys in the right situations to be successful.”
LeBeau gets along so well with players that the choice to return next season was easy. He was chosen by NFL coaches, players and executives as The Sporting News coordinator of the year.
“They keep me young, there’s no question about it,” LeBeau said. “As long as my health holds up and people want me to work, I think I’d be pretty foolish to leave these guys.”
The Super Bowl winner may be determined by how effectively LeBeau’s league-leading defense controls Cardinals quarterback Kurt Warner and playmaking receivers Larry Fitzgerald, Anquan Boldin and Steve Breaston. The offense is much like the one Whisenhunt, and top assistant Russ Grimm, once ran in Pittsburgh during practices against LeBeau’s defense.
“I know we’re going to see some things that Coach Whisenhunt’s done before, we’re going to see some things he hasn’t done,” LeBeau said. “I know he’ll have some surprises. The thing that makes him so formidable are the people they have doing them.”
Conversely, Arizona must go against what may be the best Steelers defense since the Steel Curtain of the ’70s. The defensive linemen drop into pass coverage, Polamalu seems to cover an acre on every play, cornerback Ike Taylor is a tough matchup for any receiver and outside linebacker James Harrison is the defensive player of the year.
LeBeau has had two weeks to devise a game plan for slowing Fitzgerald, who has an NFL playoff-record 419 yards receiving in three games, and the occasionally turnover-prone Warner. Still, LeBeau’s players won’t be surprised if he revises much of it after the kickoff.
“He inspires everybody on that defense. He’s such a football mastermind for coming up with schemes and plays to stop the opposing offense,” defensive end Aaron Smith said.
LeBeau jokes his main job is “staying out of the players’ way,” but he doesn’t hesitate to remind them that his 62 career interceptions for Detroit are more than all of his defensive backs combined.
“Every chance he gets,” Hampton said. “Believe me, he tells stories about that all the time.”
What other NFL coach would recite from memory “ ’Twas the Night Before Christmas” to his players each holiday season, a way to remind them that their lives aren’t entirely about football? He even stepped out of character in 1970, while playing for the Lions, to be a stunt double for Caine in the movie “Too Late the Hero.”