How can it be that Pittsburgh Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau has not been enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame? At this point he should be an obvious choice, and not just because he’s been in the NFL—as a player or coach—for 50 consecutive seasons.
It’s pretty clear why LeBeau didn’t earn consideration as a player. He toiled for 14 years as a member of the Detroit Lions (1959-1972), and during his playing career the Lions never won a division title and appeared in just one playoff game. LeBeau—the individual—was punished for Detroit’s lack of team success.
But another factor worked against LeBeau as well. He spent almost his entire career at cornerback, and if you haven’t noticed, there are precious few cornerbacks in the Hall of Fame, fewer still if you consider those who played the bulk of their careers pre-1970.
Ironically, one can make the argument that LeBeau’s defensive statistics are that much more impressive because he played at a time when far fewer passes were attempted. Believe it or not, he intercepted 62 passes during the course of his playing career (tied for seventh all-time), only nine fewer than 2009 Hall of Fame inductee Rod Woodson, whose career began in 1987, after the passing era was already well underway. Fittingly, when Woodson (a cornerback-kick returner who was coached by LeBeau in Pittsburgh) was inducted into the Hall of Fame, he took the opportunity to campaign for his former defensive coordinator during his induction speech, saying, “The voters are going to get tired of me saying it. Dick LeBeau deserves to be in the Hall of Fame.”
Yet, even if one ignores LeBeau’s playing career he deserves to be inducted on the strength of his coaching career alone. Consider his current five-year (and counting) tenure with the Steelers, during which time the team has won two Super Bowl titles, while his defense has finished #1 in the NFL three times.
If one looks back further, his résumé looks even more impressive. In fact, a good argument could be made that LeBeau was disproportionately responsible for Bill Cowher’s success as head coach of the Steelers (in much the same way that current Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin is riding LeBeau’s coattails today).
In the six seasons in which LeBeau served as Cowher’s defensive coordinator the Steelers compiled a 75-34 record (69% winning percentage), including a 9-4 record in the post-season. In five of those six seasons the Steelers qualified for the playoffs, reaching the Super Bowl on two occasions.
In the remaining nine seasons during Cowher’s 15-year reign, the Steelers compiled a not-nearly-as-impressive 86-65-1 record (57% winning percentage), emerging victorious in just three of eight playoff games. Never mind the fact that the Steelers went 33-19 from 1992-94, when LeBeau served as Cowher’s secondary coach. In other words, Cowher’s career record without LeBeau is a mere 53-46-1.
It’s also worth noting that LeBeau served as an assistant coach for the Cincinnati Bengals from 1980-91, during which time the long-since lowly Bengals posted a winning record, even reaching the Super Bowl in 1988 while LeBeau was defensive coordinator. In fact, the only time LeBeau hasn’t been successful in a coaching capacity was when he served as head coach of the Bengals for two-plus seasons early in this decade, a failure that may be significant, as no assistant coach has ever been considered for Hall of Fame induction, much less elected.
Finally, LeBeau isn’t just a coach with a remarkable track record. He’s also been an innovator, credited with inventing the so-called “zone blitz,” which has now been a staple of NFL defenses for more than two decades. In the summer of 2007, when the Steelers arrived in Canton, Ohio (home of the Pro Football Hall of Fame) to play in the annual Hall of Fame game, many of the team’s defensive players wore replicas of LeBeau’s No. 44 Detroit Lions jersey to and from the game in an effort to bring attention to their coordinator’s achievements.
Yet even that kind gesture seemed to have little impact, which is why LeBeau supporters need to keep his name in the forefront of voters’ minds, so he earns consideration for the Class of 2010.
Meanwhile, I think it’s fair to say that Pittsburgh Steelers fans want LeBeau to continue serving as the team’s defensive coordinator for as long as humanly possible, perhaps the highest praise that an NFL coach can possibly garner.