LeBeau revisited

10-3-03, 12:05 p.m.

Dick LeBeau took the fat kid with the Red Sox hat and the kid from Detroit nicknamed "Goose," to Disney World.

By this time, the fat kid with the Boston hat and "Goose," were all grown up and were sportswriters covering LeBeau's NFL. They were in Florida because that's where the owners like to spend their spring break and since LeBeau was one of the league's 32 head coaches with the Cincinnati Bengals, he was invited to beat all the other coaches on the golf course that week.

"You and the Goose meet me in the lobby at 7 p.m. after my round," Coach LeBeau said. "I'm going to take you guys some place."

All day, the fat kid and Goose wondered what that international man of mystery, Charles Richard LeBeau, had up his sleeve. He's the only head coach in NFL history who could disappear for hours and then magically turn up in the head coaches' group picture without being seen walking through the lobby. He was cool before cool was cool.

The fat kid had LeBeau's football card way back with those of Yaz and Tony C. "Dick was a member of Ohio State's 1957 national championship team," it might have said on the back. And when the fat kid checked "Paper Lion," out of the Walsh Middle School library in the sixth grade, he read with fascination about LeBeau and his Detroit Lions and how they went to camp and studied like in school.

Goose didn't have to read about them in a book. He lived and breathed them in the papers and on the TV in his hometown. He knew the vitals of LeBeau and his teammates as if they sat around his table every Thanksgiving instead of playing the NFL's classic Turkey Day game.

Even though we were grown up, we saw a big part of LeBeau through our childhood and he never disappointed us. That's why he may be the most well-liked figure in the NFL.

Whether he's coaching a Hall of Fame defensive back like Rod Woodson, dispensing advice to a man about to take his job, inventing the zone blitz, or singing "Ho-ho-ho and a bottle of rum," while riding with the two big kids through the pirate den, he treats everyone the same.

Respectfully. Cordially. Humbly. He bought the two big kids burgers and fries and they soaked them up with ketchup and '60s' stories while the lights of the Magic Kingdom twinkled around them.

How about the time the wife of one of LeBeau's secondary mates with the Lions, Night Train Lane, serenaded the team on the bus on the way to the airport? LeBeau could still hear Jazz great Dinah Washington's voice wafting through the darkness.

That was magic enough for two kids from the '60s. We didn't need to ride through "Small World," after that. But Coach LeBeau took us through because he wanted to point out the detail. Something about the Nordic countries , maybe.

Imagine any other NFL head coach coming down from the pulpit into the small world of the writers?

"I'd like to meet the guy in the NFL," said Bengals radio analyst Dave Lapham," who is more universally liked than Dick LeBeau. A smart football guy and, on top of that, you won't find a classier act."

The tragedy, of course, is that it was never Disney World in Cincinnati. It was more like West World when the robots went haywire from the inside. After waiting 28 years to get his shot as a rookie head coach at age 63 in 2000, he won just 12 of 45 games and was gone at the end of last season after the worst year in franchise history at 2-14.

After releasing a typically spare statement the day he got let go last season ("I got the job, I kept it for three years, and lost the job. In between, I worked as hard as I could. End of statement. End of story."), Bengals' fans see their former head coach for the first time Sunday when their team plays the Bills, for whom LeBeau serves as assistant head coach.

You can ask what went wrong with the team where he spent 18 of his 31 seasons as a coach and get some answers. But don't let numbers define a man who writes poetry in an old school that assumes professionalism comes with the gifts.

He didn't do interviews this week, but LeBeau would probably be the first to tell you that he would have liked to have done some things differently in Cincinnati.

"I believe it was the players and not the coach and I take full responsibility for that," said defensive tackle Oliver Gibson, who followed LeBeau to Cincinnati after playing for him in Pittsburgh. "Coach LeBeau is a NFL pros' coach. Unfortunately, we didn't have as many pros around here as we thought we did. Without getting specific, we didn't have cohesion in a lot of areas and that wasn't Dick's fault. That's on the players.""

Lapham: "Dick's whole mentality as a player and as a coach is, 'Get yourself ready. You're a professional.' And I don't think he had enough guys here where he could do that. He didn't have enough guys that could pull the others into that mentality and he didn't believe in forcing that, and it was a problem. It ended up killing him."

Quarterback Jon Kitna agrees, saying the perception ("true or not") that he didn't have the final say on roster status was fatal. But Kitna thinks the beginning of the end for LeBeau came when he turned to free-agent Gus Frerotte instead of himself before the 2002 season.

"We were 6-10, after we hadn't been 6-10 around here for awhile," Kitna said. "We had done some good things and we had beaten some quality teams. But the change in the quarterback position, I think that turned the team on its ear last year. That was tough. But he did what he thought was best for the team, and he was willing to live with the consequences of that."

The decision hurt Kitna, but the man didn't.

"I don't know if I've ever respected a guy more than Coach LeBeau because of his ability not to separate himself from the team," Kitna said. "He was great at saying, 'We're all in this together.' I really thought that was a high character thing for him."

He's high character because he always stays in character. He could be standing in front of his club in the locker room. Or in front of one of those God-awful Disney rides that defy the space-time continuum.

"You and Goose go. I can't take those things. I'll wait for you right here," the fat kid said to LeBeau.

"Nah," LeBeau said. "We're a team. We stick together."

Character is why he lives again in Buffalo. A bright mind that can shelve its ego and solve a problem in the same sentence.

Write it down. LeBeau is the only guy with his resume in this league who could join a staff headed by a defensive guy in Gregg Williams and one that already had a defensive coordinator in Jerry Gray, and quietly fit in without igniting a string of internet soap operas.

"Look in the dictionary," Williams tried to say this week, "and his picture is next to the word, 'humble.'"

Williams just can't get over the fact ("You have to respect that so much,") that he is 45 years old and this is LeBeau's 45th season in the NFL coaching or playing.

"No, I wouldn't say that," said Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis, when asked if he could see LeBeau's handiwork in Buffalo. "I think it's still the things that Tennessee did, and the Houston Oilers before that. That's where Gregg was, and also Jerry Gray, who is coordinating their defense. What Dick brings is a sense of calmness and stability and some reinforcement of the things that they are doing when Gregg is not there with them. They have a resource in Dick and his coaching ability and philosophy."

Lewis is another Baby Boomer who had LeBeau's football card. He ended up sharing a cubicle with him during the four seasons they coached in Pittsburgh together, a spot where Lewis began his NFL education. Lewis, as always, took notes, and they must have been good.

"Just a great way of dealing with people, and talking with the players, and dealing with the coaches," said Lewis of the things he took from LeBeau. "Our Monday afternoons, as we began to look at the opponent, we used to sit back-to-back as we watched tape, because we used to split a room.

"He used to point out things to me and say, 'Hey, young fellow, come over here and look at this,' and that is the kind of way that he has about him," Lewis said. "He is great dealing with the players. Dick immediately commanded the respect of Rod Woodson, who had been to three or four Pro-Bowls already at that point in his career, and they kind of grew together in that way."

Then in the days after his dismissal earlier this year, "the young fella," wanted LeBeau's job. Lewis called LeBeau as he went through the interviewing process with the Brown family, and LeBeau could have blown it all up. There were some things out of his control, and others that weren't. Some things that were his fault (the quarterbacks, staffing) and others that weren't (the tension in the weight room), but he must have given Lewis some very fair answers that convinced him he could win here.

"Dick is going to talk very candidly about whatever situation he is in. Dick was a great mentor of mine, and so you have to take the things he says and know there is a sense of reality of what he says," Lewis said. "He's saying it from the heart, and he's saying the truth. He's not going to blow smoke at you. It's important, the things he said to me.

"Dick is very gracious, as you wrote about what he said about the Cincinnati Bengals, and he's very thankful for the opportunity."

LeBeau seems forever tagged as "great assistant, bad head coach," yet Kitna thinks LeBeau can still be an excellent head man, "but he needs a team that has veteran leadership that steps up and says, 'You can't do it like this.'

"Everyone says he wasn't a strong disciplinarian," Kitna said. "To me, that says we didn't have the right leadership in the locker room. Ultimately, he shouldn't have to be the disciplinarian. If you talk to guys on other teams, the 49ers back in the day, they take care of a lot of things through the veterans."

LeBeau turned 66 like he always does, around Opening Day, and, like he always does on a NFL sideline, he looks forever stuck in the '70s at about age 39.

There is something good and familiar about that, something old school, something dignified and humble at the same time.

"I had a great time. I really did. Thanks guys," or something like that, LeBeau said to the fat kid and Goose when he said good night at the hotel.

He really enjoyed that second trip into the pirate den.

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