A trailblazer at a storied football school who later became a fixture with a storied NFL franchise, Pittsburgh Steelers assistant head coach John Mitchell announced his retirement last month.
Mitchell will continue with the Steelers until the end of April. But it’s not like he is counting the days until he returns to Birmingham, Ala., where he owns a home, for good.
“I tell people today, ‘If you ever get a chance to work for the Pittsburgh Steelers, if you don’t take it you’ve made the biggest mistake of your life,’ ” Mitchell told me recently. “This was a special place to be.”
He has felt that way since Bill Cowher hired Mitchell in 1994 as a defensive line coach. When Mitchell joined the Steelers’ staff, Dom Capers was the defensive coordinator, Dick LeBeau was the secondary coach, and Marvin Lewis was the linebackers coach.
It was an exhilarating time.
“I looked forward to coming to work every day to be around Dom Capers, Dick LeBeau and Marvin Lewis,” said Mitchell, who coached the Browns’ defensive line for three seasons prior to arriving in Pittsburgh. “Every day you learned something new from Dick LeBeau. Every day. And that was a joy for me at that time being a young coach. We had a great staff. I was worrying, ‘Hey can I keep my end of the bargain.’ ”
History will show that he did.
Mitchell played a key role in the Steelers playing in four Super Bowls and winning two of them during his near-three decades tenure. He developed players of all pedigree. They included first-round draft picks like Casey Hampton and Cameron Heyward, small-school finds like Aaron Smith and late-round picks and undrafted free agents like Brett Keisel and Chris Hoke, respectively.
Smith stands out among all the players Mitchell coached, and I mean really stands out. Mitchell mentioned Smith in the same breath as Ernie Stautner, the first Steeler to have his jersey number retired, and Joe Greene, the greatest player in franchise history.
“He’s the best player I coached with the Pittsburgh Steelers,” Mitchell said of Smith. “People in this league knew how we played but he was probably the unsung hero. This guy played lights out every ballgame.”
One of Smith’s enduring legacies– and Mitchell’s – is the enduring excellence of the 33-year-old Heyward, who has made six consecutive Pro Bowls.
“When Cam Heyward came here, he didn’t play a lot (early) because you had Aaron Smith and Brett Keisel so where is he going to fit in?” Mitchell said. “The things that makes guys like Cam Heyward good is they watched how those guys practiced. They watched how they came into meetings. They watched how they took notes. They watched how they took care of their bodies. That’s why Cam Heyward is as good as he is. He watched Aaron Smith. He watched Brett Keisel.”
Mitchell, 71, has led a remarkable life, one that has transcended football. Mitchell broke a significant color barrier in 1971 when he became the first Black scholarship football player at the University of Alabama. He became an All-American and after graduating from Alabama, joined legendary coach Bear Bryant’s staff as a defensive line coach.
Mitchell had a well-traveled coaching career. That included a stop at LSU, where in 1990 Mitchell became the first Black defensive coordinator in SEC history. One conversation along the way helped shape Mitchell’s coaching career.
It occurred with Tom Moore, who coached on Chuck Noll’s staff from 1977-89. Moore told Mitchell that if ever got a chance to work for the Rooney family and Steelers to take it.
Mitchell did one better.
He joined the Steelers and never left despite opportunities elsewhere.
“I didn’t want to go anywhere. Why would you want to leave the best place you could be at?” Mitchell said. “A lot of guys they look on the other side and the grass is greener. I tell them, ‘Yeah, it might be greener, but it’s painted. It’s not natural.’ The great Mr. Dan Rooney was great to me. Art was great to me as well. To work here with the Steelers, the family-type franchise, is unbelievable.”
Mitchell had similar praise for Steelers coach Mike Tomlin.
“I learned a lot of football from Mike,” he said. “If you sit down with him for 30 minutes or an hour you’ll see how smart he is about when you start talking about football. I learned a lot of football from Mike. The players love him because he’s honest, he’s transparent, he tells it like it is. He doesn’t cut any corners and that’s what players want in professional sports. They want the coach to be honest, be transparent and tell them if they’re doing good, tell them if they’re doing bad, tell them what they need to do or the things they shouldn’t do. Mike Tomlin is one of the best motivators I’ve ever been around.”
Mitchell won’t be around Pittsburgh much longer.
The plan after returning to Alabama is to “sip” some wine and read books that Mitchell, a voracious reader, bought but has not had time to crack open. He will be a regular at Alabama football games, as he is a season-ticket holder. Sundays (and the occasional Monday and Thursday nights) will be reserved for the Steelers.
“I’m going to be in front of my TV every week,” Mitchell said.