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Hall taps LeBeau

LeBeau was head coach of the Bengals from 2000-2002. (AP photo)

Updated: 8:40 p.m.

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. - Fifty years after Paul Brown cut him from his first NFL training camp and 30 years after he hired him as a secondary coach, former Bengals head coach Dick LeBeau on Saturday joined Brown in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

No. 44 was in full karma mode for LeBeau, 72, the current defensive coordinator of the Steelers. A day before the 44th Super Bowl the 44-member board of selectors gave the nod to LeBeau 37 years after he last wore No. 44 for the Lions.

Joining LeBeau in the Class of 2010 is the NFL's all-time leading wide receiver Jerry Rice, a man that broke LeBeau's heart with 11 catches a scant 10 miles from where the vote took place in the 49ers' win over the Bengals defense LeBeau coordinated in Miami's Super Bowl XXIII.

Also in the class that is to be inducted Aug. 7 at Canton, Ohio, are the league's all-time rusher Emmitt Smith, Jon Randle, Rickey Jackson, Russ Grimm and Floyd Little, LeBeau's fellow senior candidate who also wore No. 44 in Denver.

"I also told you three weeks ago that I hope the 44s are reunited," LeBeau told Little over the phone.

Snowbound in Pittsburgh, LeBeau did a conference call on the NFL Network with one of his players, Hall of Fame cornerback Rod Woodson conducting the interview. It was Woodson who pushed LeBeau's case during his own induction speech last year. 

"It's a lifelong dream, really. I just cannot imagine anything else that could be any more rewarding for any individual who has made football," LeBeau said. "I''ve been fortunate enough to make football my life pursuit. Now, to have my name alongside all those great NFL players throughout history is an incredibly humbling honor and one that I do not take lightly.

"I just can't believe it, to be honest, and I am so much indebted to our current players and to the players who took me to the Super Bowl and kept my name current even though it's been a long, long time since I've played. I'm so grateful to you guys and the plug you gave me last year. I'm sure it did not hurt anything, Rod. I've thanked you before, but I will thank you publicly again."

LeBeau joins Brown, the franchise founder, and left tackle Anthony Muñoz as Pro Football Hall of Famers with significant Bengals ties. During 18 seasons in Cincinnati, LeBeau was the secondary coach on the first Bengals Super Bowl team, the defensive coordinator on the second Super Bowl team, and at age 63 in 2000 he became the oldest rookie head coach in NFL history when he took over in the wake of Bruce Coslet's resignation and finished with a 12-33 record before not being retained after the 2002 season.

Although he devised the cutting-edge zone blitz in Cincinnati during the 1980s and led the Steelers defense to two Super Bowl titles in the 2000s, LeBeau's playing career is the only thing the selectors could consider for the vote.

Since he stopped playing more than 25 years ago, LeBeau had to be nominated by the Hall's senior committee in order to have his name in the finalist category for the first time since his 14th and final season in Detroit in 1973. His 62 career interceptions, tied for seventh on the all-time list, and his 171 straight games at cornerback, the position's best all-time, held up under its first scrutiny.

The key figure in LeBeau's candidacy was senior committee member Rick Gosselin of *The Dallas Morning News. *Gosselin led the charge to vet him in the senior selection and then he made Saturday's presentation before the vote. 

"It's well deserved. He was a splendid player," said Bengals president Mike Brown. "We've known him from when he started out with the Browns. He was a smart player and he made a lot of plays on the ball while it was in the air. And he was a willing tackler. He would always come up and hit you. A courageous player and an excellent one.

"I would think it would be hard not to consider his entire career in the league. He's obviously still a fine coach."

An informal sampling of the selectors reflected the same sentiment. Joe Reedy of *The Cincinnati Enquirer *called LeBeau's coaching career "the white elephant in the room," and *USA Today's *Jarrett Bell admitted it was hard to put it on the back burner.

"We were told we couldn't consider it, but who knows what you're thinking internally," said Ron Borges of The Boston Herald. "I did say what he did as a player is enough to get him into the Hall of Fame. You don't start 171 straight games at cornerback if you can't play better than your average duck. You can say all you want about playing with other good guys, but it is undeniable you can't play that many games at that position if you can't play."

LeBeau spends much of his offseason in the Montgomery, Ohio, home where he lived while coaching the Bengals. Unable to get a direct flight to Miami on Sunday out of Cincinnati, LeBeau drove to Pittsburgh on Friday and just beat a snowstorm, but he couldn't make it into the Steelers offices Saturday and took the Hall call while he was watching golf in his apartment.

He'll take an early flight out of Pittsburgh on Sunday to join the other inductees for the coin toss of the Super Bowl.

The laconic, laid-back LeBeau was clearly overcome by the moment and lost his signature cool cat demeanor.

"I talked to him for about a minute and a half and you could tell how much it means to him," said Brandon LeBeau, his youngest child. "It's a big day in his life and probably the biggest of his career."

LeBeau wanted to low key it in the weeks leading up to the vote. When someone mentioned at the Senior Bowl two weeks ago that he would soon be a Hall of Famer, LeBeau said,

"Honestly, I'm trying not to think about that."

Son and father didn't talk much about it this week, either. A notorious scratch golfer, LeBeau played a few rounds and after he shot a 70 Brandon said he marked on his scorecard it was the second time this year he broke his age.

Brandon did mention to him at some point that for the second year in a row there was some potential excitement Super Bowl weekend after last year's Steelers title.

"And he said, 'That's not a bad thing,' " Brandon recalled.

Dick LeBeau later admitted Saturday was a tough day and the snow didn't let him do very much.

"There were a lot of years you don't get this far so I didn't really start thinking about it until today and it's such an honor that it made today a long day," said LeBeau, who thought that his entire career probably helped him with the voters. "I'm proud of my longevity in coaching and the fact that I've been to five Super Bowls as a coach. That's two-thirds of my career."

LeBeau's desire to keep his home in Montgomery reflects how close he is to his Ohio roots and how big the Bengals are in his life. A native of small-town London, Ohio who went on to an All-American career at nearby Ohio State, he stayed extremely close to his family. His 96-year-old mother died last September and he said Saturday night his older brother Bob, 75, is going to present him at the induction.

"I'm a small-town Ohio guy at heart and I probably never would have left, but there are some things you have to do," LeBeau said. "The Bengals are a great team in a great city with a great organization and great ownership. I'm grateful to Paul Brown and Mike Brown that they kept me employed for almost 20 years. And I'll always remember that the fire zones had the beginning in Cincinnati and what we were a able to do there. I'll always have a fondness for Cincinnati."

Hearing that the Hall of Fame announcement was within the half hour, former Bengals linebacker Brian Simmons made sure he switched on his TV.

"Absolutely he deserves it. Just the numbers you're throwing out prove it," Simmons said. "He's proud of his career and he deserves to be. But if you look at everything he's accomplished in this game to go along with his playing, there aren't many people that have done as much as he has."

Reflecting on LeBeau's 45-game stretch as head coach, Simmons thinks it's cut-and-dried.

"Coach LeBeau treated you like a man and a professional and we just didn't have the locker room that could handle that mature approach," Simmons said. "And our personnel wasn't good, either.

"But nothing that happened then would stop me from wanting to play for him again. If he was starting a team up and I could, I would love to play for him again."

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