Posted: 10 p.m.
Just as he finally got a shot at a head coaching job, former Bengals head coach Dick LeBeau finally became a finalist for election to the Pro Football Hall of Fame Tuesday as a senior candidate in what virtually assures his induction in the 2010 class 37 years after playing his last NFL season.
In each of the past two years, one of the two senior finalists has been denied election. But with LeBeau, 72, paired with the other senior candidate, former Broncos running back Floyd Little, both are seen as strong candidates. The other 15 finalists will be selected in the fall.
LeBeau appears poised to join franchise founder Paul Brown and left tackle Anthony Muñoz as Pro Football Hall of Famers with significant Bengals ties. He was the secondary coach on the first Super Bowl team, the defensive coordinator on the second Super Bowl team, and at age 63 in 2000 became the oldest rookie head coach in NFL history when he took over in the wake of Bruce Coslet's resignation.
"Whether he' going in as a coach or a player, it's well deserved," said Brian Simmons, a linebacker on that '00 team born two years after LeBeau's last season as a player.
Simmons had to chuckle Tuesday night when asked if he thought LeBeau was a Hall of Fame player. LeBeau's players knew his career best.
"Oh yeah, he'd let you know," Simmons said. "Sixty-three, 64 interceptions. And he had some great streak where he never missed a game. And he'd talk about his tackling. He'd say he'd come up there from the corner and hit you."
Wide receiver Charlie Joiner is also in the Hall, but only four of his 18 seasons were in Cincinnati after the Bengals acquired him in a 1972 trade from his original team, the Houston Oilers.
"I'm very enthused by the candidacies of both Dick LeBeau and Floyd Little. I think there'll be a groundswell of support for both and they'll both be elected. It was the strongest senior slate I've ever seen," said Rick "Goose" Gosselin of The Dallas Morning News, a Hall of Fame voter who is member of the Hall's nine-man Seniors Committee.
Gosselin, who grew up in Detroit watching LeBeau's Lions, fittingly makes the official presentation to the 44 voters next Feb. 6 in Miami, the day before the Super Bowl. Even that has a good vibe for LeBeau, since he wore No. 44 during 14 seasons he set a record for cornerbacks by playing in 171 straight games and retired in 1973 as the third all-time interceptor in NFL history with 62.
The voters can elect a maximum of two senior candidates and five other candidates for a class no smaller than four or larger than seven.
The irony is that LeBeau's coaching kept his playing career in the forefront when it was threatened with obscurity. The voters are supposed to judge LeBeau solely as a player, but they no doubt will be swayed by his stewardship as the Steelers defensive coordinator that has played such a major part of two Super Bowl titles in the past four years.
"It's the job of the seniors committee to resurrect worthy candidates -- players whom for whatever reason have fallen through the cracks," Gosselin said. "A player who ranks third all-time among pure cornerbacks in interceptions certainly is someone who has fallen through the cracks. Thirty-seven years was a long time for Dick LeBeau to wait for this chance at enshrinement. Too long. I thought he was the most worthy and deserving candidate on this year's slate."
Through mail vote, the 2010 senior nominees were reduced to a list of 17. Gosselin and four other members of the Seniors Committee met at the Hall in Canton, Ohio, Tuesday to finalize the two senior candidates, eligible for that category because their last active season is at least 25 years ago.
Bengals cornerback Ken Riley, who successfully staged a friendly competition to pass LeBeau on the all-time list when he was coached by LeBeau in Cincinnati, caught him with 65 interceptions and retired in 1983, making him senior eligible.
With vintage wry, deadpan humor, LeBeau met the Pittsburgh media Tuesday after the Steelers practiced.
"Senior is surely the category I belong in," LeBeau said. "It is very humbling. I am not sure that it has hit me completely. Coach Mike (Tomlin) announced it on the field. He called everybody together, and I must confess, that was the last thing I thought I was going to hear. It is a great honor to get this far, no matter what the final outcome is. I am humbled by it. I grew up in a very small town. You never expect to have a day like this. It was a pretty good day."
Asked if he'll ever get a sign on Route 71 South to Cincinnati, LeBeau offered, "I doubt it. You know what the pigeons would do with it if they did."
But LeBeau looks destined to be reunited in Canton with his fellow small-town Ohioan. Brown, the late Cleveland Browns head coach who picked LeBeau in the fifth round of the 1959 draft out of Ohio State, cut him that training camp before he and head coach Forrest Gregg hired him 21 years later as the Bengals secondary coach.
LeBeau can always be counted on to tell the story how Brown cut him and Tuesday was no different as he recounted the night in his hometown of London, Ohio when Brown made a speech at a golf course long after LeBeau was done playing.
"One of my friends stood up and said, 'Paul you have a great coaching record and you are supposed to be a master of personnel, but you let Dick LeBeau go and he played 14 years in the NFL where he had 62 interceptions, which was third all-time when he retired. How could you let him go?' Paul didn't blink an eye. He said, 'I have cut a lot better players than LeBeau.' That's how I got cut by Cleveland."
The 1980 season began the first of LeBeau's two stints in Cincinnati that covered a total of 18 seasons. He became head coach Sam Wyche's defensive coordinator in 1984 and after his departure following the 1991 season he moved to Pittsburgh as the Steelers secondary coach. Despite leading the Steelers defense to the 1995 AFC title as coordinator, he returned to the Bengals in 1997 to be Coslet's coordinator.
After Coslet left in 2000 at 0-3, LeBeau was credited with giving ballast to a dreadfully inept offensive team that finished 4-12. The Bengals started 2-0 and 4-3 in 2001, but then lost the next seven games by never scoring more than 14 points. After the worst season in franchise history in 2002 at 2-14, LeBeau was replaced by Marvin Lewis and he moved on to Buffalo as a consultant before rejoining the Steelers in 2004.
"I am proud of my longevity record and that I haven't missed any days as a coach," he said. "I am not so sure I did anything that I should be boasting about. I am proud of that. I am proud I have not had too many debts over my life, not too many lawsuits out against me and certainly no problems with the cops. That's enough for any man to hope for, I think."
Simmons said LeBeau's 51 seasons in the league as a player and coach say it all.
"I don't think there's any doubt he's a great coach," Simmons said. "But it's very rare that a great coach is great a person and Coach LeBeau is that. The proof is you talk to anybody who played for him for a year or 10 years and nobody gives him a thumb's down."
LeBeau has the vote of Hall member Ed Bouchette of The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. He's not concerned if other voters take into consideration his coaching record.
"It's not supposed to be, but if it makes up for all these years the league's third-leading interceptor with a streak of 171 games didn't make it, that's OK," Bouchette said.
If the vote does down like many think (he needs 80 percent of the panel), the induction speech on Aug. 7, 2010 from a guy that recites *The Night Before Christmas *to his players should be a classic.
Asked to say something about the 62 picks, he said, "I could get the ball."