Dick LeBeau was a great football player. During his 14-year career as a cornerback for the Detroit Lions, he recorded 62 interceptions, returning three for touchdowns, and he added another nine fumble recoveries to total more than 70 takeaways and four total defensive scores during his playing career.
It may have taken a while, but it eventually landed him in the Hall of Fame. Many believe that he should be in the Hall of Fame twice, both as a player and as a contributor, as a great defensive mind credited with pioneering and popularizing the zone blitz, which continues to be a staple of the game decades later.
The thing is, the two are intertwined. As he said during an interview on SiriusXM, he had 24 years of playing experience to call from—two in junior high, four in high school, four at Ohio State, and 14 in the NFL—by the time he ‘retired’.
And then he would spend the next several decades coaching, which by no means came to him as a surprise. “I had the advantage of knowing that I was going to coach. So as I played my career—it went so much longer than I thought that it might—the younger kids that were drafted and came in, I spent a lot of time with them teaching them stuff that I’d already learned”, he said.
“I could see their development was expedited by some of the things that I was telling them”, he continued. “You have to tailor what you’re teaching to the anatomy and physical skills of the guy that you’ve got in that classroom. And I saw our players at Detroit that I was working with, I could see him getting better, so I was kind of laying the groundwork for how I was going to teach”.
LeBeau’s coaching career began with a three-year stint as a special teams coordinator for the Philadelphia Eagles in 1973. From there, he coached the Green Bay Packers’ defensive backs for four seasons before taking the same role in Cincinnati, where he would move up to defensive coordinator in 1984.
His first stint with the Pittsburgh Steelers lasted from 1992 to 1996, first as defensive backs coach, then as coordinator. He would return in 2004 after time again with the Bengals and then one year in Buffalo, embarking on an 11-year period marked largely by dominance, and three Super Bowl appearances, which was simply the culmination of what he always wanted to do.
“That was just always really my goal”, he said of coaching. “You can call it altruistic if you want to, but I just wanted to help other people who are very gifted athletes, equally gifted, and most of them better than me, even, but I could shortcut their learning process, because I’d been out there through the school of hard knocks and learned it the hard way”.
“What good’s it do to accumulate this notebook for 14 years if you go to work at Sam’s Delicatessen and you never see another athlete?”, he joked. “So, I was going to coach, and that’s what I wanted to do”.
And we’re all grateful that he did.