- Associated Press - Tuesday, August 3, 2010

PITTSBURGH (AP) - As the decades passed and Dick LeBeau was repeatedly left out of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, one of the best defensive players of his era began to believe he wouldn’t join the three other members of the Detroit Lions secondary who were already enshrined.

At least until a very persuasive group of lobbyists took up his cause. How’s this for a blue-ribbon panel to sway opinion: Troy Polamalu, James Harrison, James Farrior, Casey Hampton, Brett Keisel and Aaron Smith?

LeBeau’s 38-season career as an NFL head and assistant coach wasn’t supposed to factor into his candidacy _ only his 14 playing seasons _ but the key members of the LeBeau-coached defense that helped the Steelers win the Super Bowl twice in the last five seasons didn’t care. To them, a football hall of fame that excluded LeBeau wasn’t a true hall of fame.

So the players began wearing replica LeBeau No. 44 Lions jerseys to functions such as the Hall of Fame game in Canton, Ohio, and to road games where they felt their influence might be felt. Perhaps their best argument came when, relying heavily on the innovative zone blitzes LeBeau developed during his days as a Bengals assistant, the Steelers defense put together one of the most dominating seasons in NFL history as Pittsburgh won the 2009 Super Bowl.

Dick LeBeau,” Polamalu said, “is the greatest coach of all time.”

No surprise then that when LeBeau’s bust is unveiled Saturday in Canton, one month from his 73rd birthday, his Steelers players will attend en masse to celebrate.

“He told the young guys in minicamp, `I don’t know if you know, but I’m going into the Hall of Fame,’ ” Keisel said. “The next day he said the same thing again. I think he’s extremely excited and we all think it’s very much deserved. It’s finally happening for him.”

Excited is a word that’s rarely used in describing LeBeau, whose ability to remain calm, poised and focused has been evident since his days at Ohio State. While he excelled in football, his influences extended beyond the sport to fellow Buckeyes athletes such as basketball player Bobby Knight and golfers Jack Nicklaus and Tom Weiskopf. Knight and LeBeau spent hours talking about defensive theories and how they applied to multiple sports.

LeBeau was a fifth-round pick by the Browns in 1959, but was cut during training camp. He turned out to be one of the NFL’s biggest free agent steals, making the Pro Bowl three times during a career that ended in 1972. He started 171 consecutive games, a record for a cornerback, and he had more interceptions (62) than 15 of the other 20 defensive backs in the Hall of Fame. He had an NFC-leading nine interceptions in 1970.

LeBeau joins former Lions secondary teammates Dick “Night Train” Lane, Yale Lary and Lem Barney in the Hall of Fame. But it was Hall of Fame linebacker Joe Schmidt, the former Lions coach, who first sensed LeBeau, the coach, could be just as good as LeBeau, the player. LeBeau himself had figured out by his sophomore year at Ohio State that he wanted to coach.

“Joe felt that way because he went to the general manager, Russ Thomas, and wanted him (LeBeau) to be a player-coach,” Hall of Fame tight end Charlie Sanders said. “He wasn’t the fastest or the quickest, so he worked on being the smartest by studying receivers and schemes. That’s why you knew he would come back and be a coach.”

After retiring, LeBeau coached for the Eagles, Packers, Bills and Bengals _ he was Cincinnati’s head coach from 2000-02 _ but his reputation as a defensive innovator largely developed as the Steelers defensive coordinator from 1995-97 and 2004-present.

His blitzes, known in the trade as fire zones, were inventive in that pressure came from anywhere and everywhere on the field. Defensive linemen were expected to drop into pass coverage to compensate for the blitzers; safeties were expected to blitz as effectively as linebackers.

“We had a hole in the defensive concept in the National Football League where all pressures were all zero coverages, and you put everybody at risk,” LeBeau said. “It was hit or miss. When you blitz max, it means the risk of rolling the dice is a little higher. There wasn’t much blitzing where we also tried to play area (zone) coverage behind it.”

Something worked. Cincinnati twice made the Super Bowl with LeBeau on staff, and he’s gone there three times with Pittsburgh.

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