Rattler snakes on Hall ballot

6-18-02, 11:05 p.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

When he reads this, Ken Riley will start asking himself the question, too.

It doesn't really bother him until people start asking.

Why aren't you in the Hall of Fame?

So if the greatest cornerback in Bengals' history is reading this, he is no doubt perturbed.

Why is Riley and his 65 interceptions not in the Pro Football Hall of Fame when Night Train Lane (69 interceptions), Ronnie Lott (63), Mel Blount (57), Lem Barney (56), Willie Brown (54), and Mel Renfro (52) are?

"I get cards and letters from people all the time asking about it and I really don't know what to tell them," mused Riley this week from his athletic director's chair. "I guess there is nothing wrong with having the fans' sentiments."

But in order to get to Canton, he has to have the sentiments of the Hall's 38-member selection panel. He hasn't been on a preliminary ballot in years, but he is now for 2003 thanks to the nomination of Chick Ludwig, the president of the Cincinnati chapter of the Pro Football Writers Association and the Hall selector representing the Bengals.

Anyone can nominate anyone for the prelim ballot, but Ludwig made sure this time by sending a letter last week to Joe Horrigan, the Hall's meticulous gatekeeper. The first ballot shaves the list to 15 finalists late in the NFL season, with the final vote coming in a closed-door meeting the day before the Super Bowl

And Bengals head coach Dick LeBeau, Riley's mirror image in history's looking glass, has a chance of being up for consideration for induction as the senior candidate when the five-man senior committee meets in Canton Aug. 21.

Even though LeBeau has the sixth most career interceptions of all-time and holds the NFL record

for most consecutive games played by a cornerback at 171, he is no longer eligible for the modern election because at least 70 percent of his career was played 25 years ago.

Ira Miller of "The San Francisco Chronicle," a member of the senior committee, says picking the senior candidate is much more difficult than picking the modern players.

"There are a lot of guys who are grouped in the same class," Miller said. "If they were a slam dunk, they already would have been in."

Even if you just paint by the numbers, Riley and LeBeau should have been slam dunks long ago. LeBeau knows when a man is worthy and after coaching Riley in the final four years of his career, LeBeau saw enough to see Canton.

"Look at how many interceptions he had. That seems to be what they go on," LeBeau said.

"And I think there has to be something said about longevity. It may be the most important thing. To play at that high of a level with the top players in the world and keep your job for that long, well, that has to tell you something.

"Kenny always played hurt, he was dependable and reliable," LeBeau said. "And like I say, he was good enough to play long enough to get those opportunities for all those interceptions."

LeBeau, who is Riley's stat soulmate, could have been talking about himself.

LeBeau played 14 years in the NFL, Riley 15.

LeBeau broke in playing opposite a legend in Lane and retired opposite a glitzy return man in Barney. Riley, who was somehow never voted to a Pro Bowl, played opposite six-time Pro Bowler Lemar Parrish, whose punt returns were the only thing flashier than his Superfly '70s wardrobe.

At age 31, LeBeau led the NFC with nine interceptions in 1970. Riley ended his career at age 35 by leading the AFC with 13 interceptions in 1982-83 in sharing the AFC title each year.

"I remember Lemar was hurt about half the year in '76 and I had one of my better years," said Riley of a season he had nine interceptions to Parrish's two. "And he still went to the Pro Bowl. It's something I can't really explain.

"I dressed well, but not like Lemar," Riley said with a laugh. "I was more conservative."

Riley and LeBeau were the 9-to-5-hard-hat guys, but the Hall apparently prefers Super Bowl rings instead of lunch buckets. The committee is obsessed with honoring good players on great teams.

How else can you explain guys like Lynn Swann and Dan Hampton making it off Super Bowl champions and far more accomplished guys like Riley and LeBeau who played on decent teams haven't?

Bengals assistant strength coach Rodney Holman, whose first two seasons with the club as a tight end came in Riley's last two seasons, watched some of the league's great receivers shy away from taking a Riley hit in the flat. When Holman talked with a Steelers coach from that era, current Colts offensive coordinator Tom Moore, he came away even more impressed.

"Tom Moore, can't stand Kenny Riley because his receivers were scared of Kenny Riley. I'm talking about Hall of Fame receivers scared of Ken Riley," Holman said. "Swann and (John) Stallworth. His thing was to cut you. He'd come up and hit you and take your legs out. Some said it was dirty, but he was a clean guy hitting and playing as hard as he could."

Holman thinks Riley got that hard-bitten toughness from his college days at Florida A&M. Riley was a quarterback at a historically black college during the heart of the civil rights movement and his coaches never let him forget how hard the game was and still is there.

Riley is too busy to worry about getting a Canton call. Except when he reads and hears stuff like this.

After a stint coaching with Green Bay and then a term as the head man at A&M, Riley decided not to pursue any more coaching opportunities. He felt he owed it to his own kids and that he should spend more time with them, so he stayed at his alma mater and became the athletic director.

The man they called "The Rattler," in Cincinnati is going into his eighth season leading the Florida A&M Rattlers through another series of economic challenges. His school's appearance in last year's Riverfront Classic at Paul Brown Stadium was wiped out by Sept. 11 in a huge financial setback, but he hopes there can be some recovery when A&M is here for the Sept. 14 game.

Riley has been rewarded personally with his decision to get out of coaching as much as Canton ever could. All three of his children have obtained graduate degrees.

When it comes to the Hall, Riley almost sounds like LeBeau.

"I have empathy with people who think they deserve the recognition," LeBeau said. "But when they also say 'I don't have any control over it,' then why waste any kind of emotion on it? It would be nice. But there's a lot of things in life that are nice that you don't have any control over."

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