LeBeau returns to scene of glory days

8-8-01, 3:00 p.m.

GEORGETOWN, Ky. _ _ Two-time Pro Bowl running back Corey Dillon won't soon forget the day he realized that LeBeau guy who coached the defense was a three-time Pro Bowler himself.

"I was sitting on my couch all balled up watching some ESPN Classics and I heard his name," Dillon recalled this week at training camp.

"And there was this skinny little dude out there and, yeah, it was LeBeau. I was laughing and then I kept watching and watching and he was making play after play, interception interception. I was saying, 'Man, LeBeau, he was a hell of a player."'

If an NFL player's career is five years, then Dillon is in the sixth generation of players since Charles Richard LeBeau last played cornerback for the Detroit Lions in 1972.

How long?

"Those guys are long, long, long gone," said Dick LeBeau, trying to explain why it won't be all that emotional when he returns to Detroit for the first time Friday as a NFL head coach.

Two his teammates, Hall-of-Famers Lem Barney and Joe Schmidt, are now Detroit businessmen. They noticed the Bengals are coming to town this weekend and who is their coach and they think he should be in the Pro Football Hall of Fame with them. They lived his Detroit-record 62 interceptions, NFL-record 171 straight games for a cornerback and how he hounded the best receivers of his era with mostly brains and some brawn at old Tiger Stadium.

"He was a master in the secondary," Barney said. "He wasn't that fast, so that tells you how smart he was. He gave me a lot of good tips when I broke in back in 1967, so I wasn't surprised when he became a coach."

"I can't ever remember him making a mental mistake," said Schmidt, the middle linebacker who was LeBeau's captain and later his head coach. "In his last season, I wanted to make him a player-coach, but (management) wouldn't go for it."

Which is pretty much how the sixth generation has found out about their Pro Bowl playing coach. Flicks of film. Snatches of stats. Asides. Stories.

How long ago was LeBeau's final and 14th season in Detroit?

Thank Thomas Edison or Steve Sabol or somebody for video. Dillon was born two years after LeBeau retired. Three players inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame this year (Lynn Swann, Mike Munchak, Jackie Slater) began their career after his last snap. LeBeau's son Brandon, who just graduated from Miami of Ohio, was born six years after Interception No. 62.

" It's a part of my past. It is something that I am very proud of," LeBeau said. "I am proud of the players that I played with and the franchise I played for. In that sense it will always be meaningful. My checks have been signed by the Cincinnati Bengals for a long, long time, so it is not hard for me to identify with Cincinnati."

Brandon LeBeau, a film major at Oxford, is working in the Bengals video department this season. His goal once he gets done with his stint is to hunt down a complete Lions' game tape

with his father at cornerback.

"I knew he played, but it wasn't until I was about eight years old that it dawned on me," Brandon LeBeau said. "I was in a baseball card shop and he was on one of those 35-cent cards. That was about the coolest thing Dad could ever do. He had his own card."

His players may not know the exact numbers on the back of the card. But they know they are good. And it is a major reason why observers feel LeBeau has struck a chord with his players.

The buzz word is credibility.

"How many? 63 interceptions? 62? OK, 62 interceptions, 14 years, those are quite the accomplishments," said cornerback Artrell Hawkins. "Coach LeBeau could arguably be in the Hall of Fame. Sure, those are great credentials. Your team is going to listen to you when you've had success like that."

"Something like 42?" said tight end Tony McGee, when asked if he knew how many interceptions LeBeau had. "Man, I knew it was a lot. The thing I like about Dick is he's got that I sat-on-the-back-of-the-plane-too attitude. He knows. He's been there.

" It's like guys will ask, 'Let's take the pads off.' And he'll say, 'You have to play in them, don't you?' A lot of guys would just say, 'Hell, no.' But he tells you in a way that makes you think he's helping you."

The defensive players seem to know LeBeau's numbers better. Hawkins knows about the 171 straight games because when he had a balky ankle a few years back, LeBeau just might have mentioned something about his streak during the week and, oh yeah, Hawkins played that Sunday.

When he was the defensive coordinator, LeBeau was known to make a point by announcing to the room, "I've got more interceptions than everyone in here put together."

But he admits he hasn't said much stuff like that since he became the head coach, and everyone knows anything he says about himself is always smothered in modesty because he's proven enough to be.

Linebacker Takeo Spikes caught one of his clips on ESPN and couldn't wait to bust LeBeau the next day.

"They were playing Cover 2 and he came up and got a big hit. He got up a little enthusiastic about himself," Spikes said. "I said, 'LeBeau, I thought you were just a cover guy.'"

Here's where Spikes lowers his voice to mimic LeBeau's gravelly driveway voice: "Spikes, I was a mean um' back there. I did so many good things, the camera just couldn't show it all. I used to hit, you know."

Good locker room banter. It plays well. But not like the 62 interceptions.

"Good? I guess he was good," Spikes said. "You don't get that many by screwing off. I think (his career) helps him with players."

"He played something like 13 years, right?" Dillon asked. "Doesn't he have something like the third most interceptions? That's unheard of.

"There's great respect for Coach LeBeau," Dillon said. "You already respect him as a man, but that makes you respect him more as a coach. He actually played the game and accomplished a lot. You got to love that man. It's instant respect."

Actually, LeBeau retired with the third most interceptions of all time. Now nearly 30 years later, he's tied for sixth.

He won't shy away from talking about his playing days for the Lions. He rules by being himself. He, more than anyone, knows who he is.

"I was a football player. It's what I am," LeBeau said. "I'm proud of it. It gives you credibility, yes, but you better know what you're doing after that. But I would say it does help you some with the players."

Thanks to video, there is no generation gap. Dillon thinks LeBeau looked like a 100-percent every down player. Hawkins got a much better appreciation of him when he recently saw a handful of LeBeau clips that led off ESPN's Bengals season preview. One of them had LeBeau knocking out a receiver.

"It's usually bad for a cornerback to be on the highlights," LeBeau said. "I've had players come up to me and say, 'Hey Coach, I saw you on TV last night back pedaling into the end zone.' You get a Raymond Berry highlight and you're in trouble."

But Berry, Johnny Unitas' Hall-of-Fame receiver, has said he can't remember beating LeBeau for more than one touchdown. The polite Berry would only say, "Dick was a talker," when in reality the man never stopped trying to get an edge. If that meant trying to flap the unflappable Berry, well then LeBeau could talk the blue streak for 60 minutes.

Here's some other LeBeau-Detroit stories for the sixth generation:

"It was a joy to come in and be an apprentice under those guys and Dick," said Barney, the corner opposite LeBeau who went to Canton with 56 career interceptions. "He was always ready, always studying receivers. He gave me a lot of tips.

"Route recognition. Knowing what a receiver was going to do after watching him a few plays," Barney said. "Or watching a team on film from two or three weeks before you played them and what they would try to convert to against you. Dick always had the great intellect."

Actually, the best LeBeau storyteller is LeBeau. Just go to any NFL coaches meeting and LeBeau is always surrounded at the cocktail party.

His favorite Lions moment is Thanksgiving Day, 1962. The Packers were on the way to the NFL title with a one-loss season. It came in Detroit on a day LeBeau figures the Lions sacked Green Bay quarterback Bart Starr about a dozen times.

"Late November, muddy field, didn't get a spot on my uniform," LeBeau said. "Didn't have to send it to the cleaners. I was never on the ground. Here is my favorite game and I just about backed up to the pay window. All I would do is go back to the huddle and say, 'Good rush, guys.'"

LeBeau loved that Lions' huddle.

"We played low-scoring games back then and we had a pretty good defense," LeBeau said of a team that went 26-13-1 from '60-'62. "A lot of times we weren't in favorable position, but that was probably my favorite part. Just being in that huddle, knowing they weren't going to score. That they weren't going to score."

Schmidt was in that huddle. He first played with LeBeau and then coached him, the kind of guy LeBeau and his teammates still call, "Cap," for "Captain."

"I'm going to write a letter to the Hall of Fame saying Dick ought to be in there," said Schmidt, who was elected in 1973. "We had some guys who overshadowed him. Dick Lane and Yale Lary were in the same secondary and they got in. Plus, I think if we had won a championship that would have helped him. I really should write one because I don't know if there are many left who saw him play."

Don't worry, Cap. The sixth generation knows. And Brandon LeBeau is making the movie.

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