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For Dick LeBeau, the Wait Is Over

Pittsburgh defensive coordinator finally gets nod to join legends in Pro Football Hall of Fame

Dick LeBeau takes no credit for his boundless energy or youthful appearance.

“I am blessed with a great gene pool,” says the 72-year-old defensive coordinator for the Pittsburgh Steelers. “People in my family have had great longevity.”

LeBeau also has had great longevity in the National Football League, having spent more than half a century as a player or coach. After waiting more than three decades, he will finally join gridiron greats when he is inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio, on Saturday.

Credited with creating the “zone blitz,” a defensive tactic in which linebackers rush the passer and linemen drop into coverage, LeBeau helped to coach the Steelers to two Super Bowl championships in four years (2005 and 2008 seasons).

“You could make a strong argument that LeBeau is the best defensive coach ever,” says ESPN analyst Ron Jaworski.

The waiting game

As great as LeBeau has been as an assistant coach, he made the Hall of Fame as part of its Class of 2010 for his work as a player. He was a cornerback for the Detroit Lions from 1959 to 1972, intercepting 62 passes, which ranks eighth-best in NFL history. But he still had to wait 33 years before pro football’s highest honor was bestowed upon him.

LeBeau never complained when, year after year, the football writers who vote on the Hall inductees bypassed him. He showed extraordinary patience, even if his supporters weren’t thrilled with the repeated snubs.

“As a player, he belongs,” says Rod Woodson, a Hall of Fame defensive back whom LeBeau mentored. “But look beyond that and consider his 50 years in the NFL and how valuable he has been to the league.”

LeBeau, who played for legendary coach Woody Hayes and led Ohio State University to the 1957 national championship as a running back and cornerback, credits someone else with inspiring him.

“Jim Bowlus,” LeBeau says of his high school coach in London, Ohio. “I could see the positive impact he had on me and all my teammates. I knew right then that I would be a coach one day.”

From player to coach

Coaching would wait, however. After Ohio State, his hometown team, the Cleveland Browns, drafted him in 1959. But in training camp the Browns cut the rookie, who proved them wrong after signing with the Lions. He started 171 consecutive games with the team, which is still a record for cornerbacks.

LeBeau has used the same consistent approach to his career with the players he coaches.

“He’s tough but fair,” says Steelers linebacker James Farrior. “He treats us like we’re all his sons.”

It is sentiments like those that explain why everyone connected with the team is rejoicing over LeBeau’s Hall honor. But he credits others with helping him earn football immortality.

“I am indebted to our players who took me to the Super Bowl and kept my name current even though it’s been a long time since I’ve played,” LeBeau says. “I’m grateful.”

But he’s not done yet. LeBeau is preparing for the 2010 season and another try for Super Bowl glory. The married father of five does enjoy his time away from football, playing acoustic guitar and reading. He shuns today’s technology, joking that he’s “older than old school. Half of the time, I have to call my son to get my TV on. … I’m not high-tech. I just try to keep my brain high-tech.”

LeBeau’s number one hobby is golf. He is an exceptional player who shoots in the 70s. “There is no great aerobic value in golf, but it does give you a good stretching of your entire core muscles,” he says. “With muscles, if you don’t use ’em, it doesn’t take too long before they atrophy.”

So what’s his secret for staying vibrant?

“Besides good genes, I’d say that I haven’t put a whole lot of poison in my body, ever,” he says. “And I enjoy interacting with young people—my players.”

Walter Villa is deputy sports editor at the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.