History finds LeBeau


Dick LeBeau coached 45 games as Bengals head coach from 2000-2002.

GEORGETOWN, Ky. - Dick LeBeau was cool when cool started with Elvis in the '50s and Heisman Trophy winner "Hopalong" Cassady gave him his locker at Ohio State.

He stayed cool in the red-hot '60s and '70s of change when he retired as the NFL's third all-time interceptor with 62 and along the way got hippie actor Dennis Hopper into his Lions locker room and had conversations with screen sirens Myrna Loy and Donna Reed. He once irked Reed's husband at a Hollywood bash when she was introduced under his name and LeBeau made the dry-as-Ohio River-crack, "You look like Donna Reed."

LeBeau stayed as cool as cyberspace in the rampaging '80s and '90s of software when he changed the coding of football by inventing the zone blitz in Cincinnati and perfecting it in Pittsburgh. But the guy that golfed with Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and Tom Weiskopf still played with his barber in Montgomery, Ohio.

He stayed cool when in the first days of the new century, just two weeks after he turned 63, he became the head coach of the Bengals and the oldest rookie head coach in NFL history, and when No. 44 visited the 44th president of the United States with the Super Bowl Steelers and Barack Obama called out the old coach, he looked to his father in the skies and said, "Sarge, we've come a long way from the cornfields of Ohio."

So shouldn't the coolest moment happen in one of those Ohio cornfields for Charles Richard LeBeau?

On Saturday night in Canton, Ohio, in the stadium next to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, this lover of history finally wins it to become the man who spent the most time with the Bengals to join the Hall of Fame.

"Once all of us are gone, somebody's grandkid from London, Ohio, will be in there with his great grandson and will say 'here's a guy from our hometown is there.' " LeBeau says. "I still have a lot of friends (in London). Small town Midwestern virtues are what I am."

Paul Brown was already in the Hall when he founded the Bengals. Anthony Muñoz played 13 immaculate seasons at left tackle before his 1998 induction. During his two sints that included 45 games as head coach from 2000-2002, LeBeau coached 18 seasons in Cincinnati and still keeps his home there.

Still cool? He still thinks he could be a Bengal. It is not lost on him that four months after he didn't return as head coach in 2003, the Bengals took quarterback Carson Palmer with the first pick in the draft.

"I think if I would have had Carson Palmer," LeBeau says, "I think you might still be speaking to the coach of the Cincinnati Bengals."

Instead, LeBeau is scheming to stop Palmer twice a year as the Steelers defensive coordinator. A month shy of 73, he's a student of history who has become a lesson in how the past is always very much in the present.

Since he has left he has helped the Steelers to two Super Bowl titles. But like all historical figures there are still strong strands of LeBeau at this Bengals training camp even though there are no players left who played under him with the same name. Only The Ocho is left from that '02 club that went 2-14 and cost LeBeau his job.

Yet he helped mentor head coach Marvin Lewis when Lewis broke into the NFL in 1992 when they were both in Pittsburgh. In fact, LeBeau encouraged Lewis to take the Bengals job about a week after LeBeau lost it and even would have worked for Lewis in Cincinnati.

"Since we were friends, he called me; I would not have called him," LeBeau says of his conversation with Lewis. "He called. Our record wasn't very good but I think we had made some positive strides and had pieces in place. I thought we needed to do some things, but we just ran out of time. I told him the Browns were very good people to work for. Very knowledgeable and that you could win because we had been to two Super Bowls. I knew very well you could win there, and Coach Marvin has done a great job."

Among those Lewis brought in this season to help coach is the guy that beat LeBeau to Canton, Rod Woodson, the current third-leading interceptor of all-time.

See what Dick LeBeau's history does?

Woodson, the cornerback LeBeau coached in Pittsburgh and later finished as a safety in his last years, knows exactly how cool LeBeau is.

"He's got ice water in his veins," Woodson says. "He always told me I couldn't say anything to him until I had more than 62 (interceptions). When I passed him I called him and he said, 'But I got all of mine at cornerback.' "

Woodson believes it's a shame that history has played a trick on one of its great favorite sons.

"What gets lost about Coach LeBeau is how good of a player he was," Woodson says. "In recent years we've been talking about how good of a coach he is. How he was the godfather of the blitz zone and how good he was with the Bengals and Steelers and at the end of the day they forget he had 62 picks. Playing with Night Train (Lane) and (Lem) Barney, he got lost in the shuffle when it came to the corners. If they can put him in twice, put him in twice. He played in an era when they ran it about 70 to 30 percent and he got 62. And then he started the zone blitz and made it a trend, especially in a 3-4."

Woodson says the reason LeBeau is such a good coach is because of that playing career in which he set the record for most consecutive games played at cornerback.

"He doesn't ask you to do anything the body can't do," Woodson says. "He won't ask players to do that. He knows the limitations of the body. He's adapted with the change. He doesn't ask players to go outside of themselves. I think that's why he's a great coach and I think that's why the players love him."

LeBeau calls himself "The Old Coach," and you can tell Woodson has spent a lot of time around him. He offers the same deadpan needle when asked if LeBeau helped him get any of his 71 picks.

"A few," he says.

But seriously, he says LeBeau helped him with angles and where to make the catch. Even more seriously, Woodson says LeBeau belongs in a Hall of Fame for people.

"That's the one thing about Dick LeBeau," he says. "What great humility. At the end of the day, I think he taught us how to be good people. At the end of it, it's a game and he was a great man.

"But it wasn't like he had a bad day. He was like that every day of his life. Every day in practice. 'Great day to be alive.' And that makes you appreciate your life and where you're at in your life and how to be a better person. I've never seen him get mad at anybody and I've never seen him not show anybody respect."

Dick LeBeau's history is funny.

Paul Brown cut him from the Browns and yet hired him to coach his defensive backs 21 years later. "Paul knew I wanted to get back to Ohio," LeBeau says, and when LeBeau coached that 1981 secondary to the Super Bowl he says it was the first time as a coach "you could see it in their eyes" that they truly believed what they were being taught.

"PB liked me on his staff because he always liked me to go out to dinner and when he started talking about his Cleveland teams I was the only one who knew what he was talking about," LeBeau says with a laugh, recalling one of Brown's rubber chicken visits to London. "A friend asked why you could cut LeBeau. PB was understated when he could speak but was very sharp and witty. He just looked back and said, 'I've cut a lot better players than LeBeau,' and named them. It was a different era where there were only 30 guys on the team and five defensive backs."

LeBeau never coached under Brown the coach, but he adopted some of that understated style. He remembers that camp playing for him and there was a third-and-one that got completed on him and Brown whispered into his ear, "Everyone in the stadium knew they were going to throw it there buy you LeBeau," and "I told him I wish someone would have told me because there were 87 other routes he could run."

History played another trick when it worked out better in Pittsburgh than Cincinnati, but LeBeau has never sour-graped it. He calls the man who terminated him, Bengals president Mike Brown, a friend, and they talk when they can but he admits, "It's tough when you want to beat each other's brains in."

LeBeau will say he thought he had the right players on the way to make the zone blitz work in what he calls in old-fashioned speech "Cincinnata."

"We were starting to get there," he says. "We had Takeo Spikes, who was as good as linebacker that played anyplace. He could do anything you wanted to do. We had (Brian) Simmons who could run and drop him deep. We were starting to get the player who we wanted to have.

"Things have a way of working out. My experience in Pittsburgh professionally is one of the greatest things that ever happened to me. I've had some tremendous defensive players over there. The notoriety they have brought me and the world's championship they brought me. It may have been a rough road to get back to Pittsburgh, but certainly it was the right place for me."

He has talked to Joe Louis for 20 minutes and won what he calls the world's championship in the last breath of 60 minutes in that exhausting 15-rounder with Arizona, but he vows not to go past the allotted 10 minutes for Saturday night's induction speech.

"It's going to be 10 minutes of thanking people," he says.

Back in January, LeBeau didn't make the trip to Miami for the Hall selection announcement, and, you know those historians. Long memories.

"There were several years where I hadn't gotten that far and there was no guarantee I would get that far again," he says. "Never assume anything. If I didn't make it I didn't want it to be. It was tough enough waiting where it was. Superstition more than anything. It's never determined until it was determined. I was happy to do everything and anything once it was determined. I didn't want to jinx it, is that simple enough?"

Cool in another decade.

This article has been reproduced in a new format and may be missing content or contain faulty links. Please use the Contact Us link in our site footer to report an issue.

Related Content

Advertising