TAMPA — In a hotel ballroom in Nashville, the Steelers are waiting for their final instructions. It is the night before their biggest game of the regular season, a late-December showdown with the Titans for AFC homefield advantage.
The offense has met. The defense has met. The special teams just finished their meeting. Now the entire team is bunched together, and the oldest coach in the NFL has one last thing to say.
"Twas the night before Christmas. …"
For several minutes, the room is silent except for the sound of Dick LeBeau. His voice changes pitch and tone. He whispers and shouts. And he recites the entire poem by heart. With heart.
"He should join the Screen Actors Guild," linebackers coach Keith Butler said. "He really is that good."
And this is the man the Arizona Cardinals should fear most.
A 71-year-old, guitar-playing, poem-reciting, golf fanatic who was a three-time Pro Bowl cornerback and just happens to be one of the most innovative and beloved defensive coaches the NFL has ever known.
LeBeau is the Steelers' defensive coordinator extraordinaire. In his second stint in Pittsburgh, LeBeau's defenses have been just shy of remarkable. The Steelers have been in the top three in the league in scoring defense in four of the past five seasons and, in 2008, were 60 yards shy of becoming the first defense since the NFL merger in 1970 to lead the league in rushing, passing, total yards and scoring.
"I have no clue how that man is not in the Hall of Fame," Steelers defensive backs coach Ray Horton said. "He has 62 interceptions. When he retired in '72, he was third in NFL history. He's still probably fifth or sixth now (actually tied for seventh). Look at the entire body of work as a player, as a coach. He's been to four Super Bowls, has two wins, is the inventor of a defense everybody uses. I don't know what more he has to do.
"Until Dick LeBeau is in there, the Hall of Fame is a sham."
The Hall of Fame might be able to ignore LeBeau when the committee meets this morning, but the Cardinals will have a more difficult time avoiding him on Sunday.
Few defenses have reflected their coordinator more than this one. LeBeau is considered one of the innovators of the zone blitz, and his wrinkles in the 3-4 scheme continue to confound offenses today.
Essentially, LeBeau has built a defense that has more versatility than any other. His inside linebackers can take on outside assignments, and his outside guys can go inside. His strong safety plays the run like a linebacker, and his defensive ends can drop into coverage.
And if you are unsure about the weight of his reputation, consider the decision made by Mike Tomlin when he was hired as coach two years ago. Tomlin was raised in the NFL in the Cover 2 defense of Tony Dungy and Monte Kiffin. That system helped get him a coordinator's job in Minnesota and his current position with the Steelers.
Yet Tomlin kept LeBeau on Pittsburgh's staff and kept the 3-4 in place.
Naturally, LeBeau says all of this system talk is overblown.
"I believe in a defense of really good players," he said. "That's what we have. They're what this defense is. They'd be great in any scheme."
He is right, but he is also underselling himself. Game plans aside, there is something special about LeBeau that has kept him continuously employed in the NFL since he broke in as a rookie with Detroit in 1959.
Meetings begin with a simple "Good morning" and a return response from players, as if LeBeau were a professor addressing a poli sci class. He is quiet and unassuming, and always on the verge of being late, but LeBeau turns into something a little more demonstrative come gameday. And for 30 years, players have responded.
"We'll fight, claw and scratch for that man," defensive back Anthony Madison said. "That's why you see guys play the way they do on this defense because we respect this man and what he means, not only to this team but to the game of football itself. That's who Dick LeBeau is."
Rumors had LeBeau retiring after the Super Bowl, but he says that's not the case. He is incredibly fit and looks years younger than his age. He coached Ross Browner in Cincinnati in the 1980s and now is in the same locker room as Browner's son, offensive tackle Max Starks. Instead of teasing, Starks says LeBeau looks at his cross-generational work as a badge of honor.
"I don't know how you're supposed to feel at 71," LeBeau said.
He pauses just a moment, and then with a grin picks up where the James Brown song left off:
"But I feel good … da, dada, dada, da."
John Romano can be reached at [email protected]