Gold Jacket Spotlight: 'Ageless' Coach, Dick LeBeau

Gold Jacket Spotlight: 'Ageless' Coach, Dick LeBeau

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Paul Brown made few mistakes as a talent evaluator in his 4½ decades as a coach, general manager and owner in professional football.

Dick LeBeau falls into the category of one of those rare exceptions. His Hall of Fame career, which featured plenty of “hits” after that initial “miss,” comes into renewed focus this week as he steps into the Gold Jacket Spotlight.

Brown and the Cleveland Browns selected Dick in the fifth round (58th pick overall) of the 1959 NFL Draft. He was cut in training camp.

Cleveland’s loss became Detroit’s gain a few months later when the Lions signed Dick to join a defense that already included future Hall of Famers Yale Lary, Joe Schmidt and Alex Karras. By his second season, Dick was a fixture in the secondary that added “Night Train” Lane in 1960 and Lem Barney in 1967.

Over 14 seasons in Detroit, Dick intercepted 62 passes, a figure that still ranks 10th (tied) in the history of the National Football League. He intercepted at least three passes each season from 1960 to 1971, leading the Lions four times and the NFC once (nine in 1970). He was selected to the Pro Bowl three times.

In a 1962 game against the Minnesota Vikings, he intercepted two Fran Tarkenton passes, returning one for a touchdown, and also scooped up a fumble and returned it for a touchdown in the Lions’ 37-23 victory.

For all his success as a player, which earned him election to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2010, Dick is better known by most fans today as the longtime coordinator of several league-leading defenses and the creator of the “zone blitz” scheme that every team now uses in some form.

Make that long, long longtime coordinator.

Beginning as a special teams coach for the Philadelphia Eagles in 1973 at age 36, Dick stayed in the NFL until retiring at age 80 after three seasons as assistant head coach and defensive coordinator for the Tennessee Titans.

Along the way, Paul Brown corrected his earlier mistake, hiring Dick as secondary coach in 1980. The Bengals appeared in two Super Bowls with him on staff. Over the ensuing three decades-plus, he coached in Cincinnati and Pittsburgh (with a brief side trip to Buffalo). When Mike Tomlin became the Steelers head coach in 2007, he was half the age of his defensive mastermind.

Dick won two Super Bowls with the Steelers, and in his 13 years as coordinator, the “Blitzburgh” defense was ranked in the league’s Top 5 an incredible 11 times. The Sporting News named him the league’s Coordinator of the Year in 2008, a season in which the Steelers ranked first in total net yards allowed, points allowed and pass defense.

That season, Dick was age 71, and he would be active for eight more NFL seasons when he delivered his Enshrinement speech that reminded the audience, “Life is for living, folks.”

“If I would have gotten out of my life's work at 65 or 67, when they say is the age of retirement, here is what I would have missed, folks: I would have missed not one but two world championship football teams that I got to be a part of. … I had my number retired from my high school. Had a building named after me in my hometown. I made the Detroit Lions (75th Season All-Time) Team. I was accepted into the Ohio State University Athletic Hall of Fame. Now, tonight, I guess when I sit down, get off this speaking, which I'm gonna do, I'll be in the NFL Hall of Fame.

“My mother always said, ‘Onward and upward, age is just a number.’”

Onward and upward and into the Gold Jacket Spotlight.

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