He played under Woody Hayes at Ohio State University. Vince Lombardi, Tom Landry and George Allen provided tutelage at college all-star games. Don Shula was his first NFL defensive coordinator. And he worked under Paul Brown in Cincinnati for 12 years after retiring as a future Hall of Fame cornerback.
Article continues below ...
So which of those legendary coaches does Pittsburgh Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau base his style after?
"I would honestly answer no one," he said.
"The one thing I observed is each of those men was totally unique in their personality," LeBeau told FOXSports.com from inside Steelers headquarters. "They didn’t, as far as I could see, try to be anything other than what they were. I thought that was probably the best bet for me if I was going to be a coach.
"I’ve always tried to treat players the way I wanted to be treated. Really, in the final analysis, I had no choice because that’s what I was. I’m a pretty laid-back guy. I’m not a screamer. That’s the way I coach."
You won’t hear the Steelers complaining.
With all due respect to Rex Ryan and the brilliant job he has done derailing Peyton Manning and Tom Brady the past two weeks, the New York Jets head coach won’t be the most respected defensive mind on the field for Sunday’s AFC Championship game. The Steelers have fielded a top-five unit in six of the past seven seasons since LeBeau returned to Pittsburgh, including a No. 2 overall ranking in 2010. They led the league in fewest points allowed (232), sacks (48) and rushing defense (62.8-yard average).
The zone blitzes that Ryan loves to call out of a 3-4 look? The 73-year-old LeBeau invented that system decades ago and has perfected it in 37 years of NFL coaching.
The sideline and media demeanors couldn’t be more different. No NFL coach is more boisterous and braggadocious about his team than Ryan. LeBeau is modest to a fault. About the only time he will raise his voice on game day is if LeBeau sees one of his charges showboating after making a big play.
Suffice it to say, LeBeau would never run down the sideline to celebrate in the end zone with his players like Ryan did last Sunday as running back Shonn Greene mocked New England after scoring the game-sealing touchdown.
"The only reason is because I believe in team so much," LeBeau said. "Let’s face it: All of us want to say, ‘Hey, look at me. Here’s what I’m doing.’ That’s OK, but I’d rather do that on Monday after we win the game."
While having diametrically opposite personalities, LeBeau and Ryan do share this in common: Both enjoy the unwavering loyalty of their players.
It isn’t just X’s and O’s that have earned LeBeau locker-room respect. LeBeau is sincere when saying he wants "players to know I was interested in them as a person." That goes a long way toward building trust and inspiring effort.
"He’s a friend," second-year Steelers defensive end Ziggy Hood said. "The man is always greeting you saying, ‘Hi. How’re you doing?’ It’s not like he just comes to work, goes home and doesn’t think about you. He really actually cares for his players."
There may not be another coach who would inspire a player to say, "He’s like a daddy to me." Those are the words of Steelers cornerback Ike Taylor. The two share a football connection because Taylor plays the same position at which LeBeau excelled for 14 seasons with the Detroit Lions. But as the product of a single parent household, Taylor said LeBeau’s manner strikes a special cord. The matrons from LeBeau’s childhood continue to provide him inspiration. His mother Beulah was 96 when she died in October 2009.
"I talk about my mom all the time," LeBeau said.
LeBeau transforms adults into children each December when he orates "The Night Before Christmas" poem — complete with different character voices — to Steelers players and coaches.
"I love it," defensive end Chris Hoke said. "You look around the room and everybody has a smile on their face."
The Steelers also make it easy for LeBeau to be himself. A core of veteran players makes sure that newcomers don’t mistake LeBeau’s gentle demeanor for a sign of weakness. LeBeau might still be head coach in Cincinnati if he enjoyed the same player support during a rough three-season stint (2000-02).
"When a guy takes care of you like he does, sometimes guys who are immature and young and don’t know what it takes to win take advantage," said Hoke, a nine-year Steelers veteran. "When he got here, we had already won a lot of games with the people who were here. So with his personality and approach to the game, it just added and intensified the execution of the defense."
To reach Super Bowl XLV, the Steelers must execute better Sunday than during a 22-17 loss to New York in Week 15. While the Jets scored nine points off special teams and a safety, Pittsburgh’s defense had a subpar outing. The Steelers allowed 106 rushing yards, managed only one sack of Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez and didn’t force a turnover.
"They had good balance," Steelers inside linebacker James Farrior said. "They didn’t put Sanchez in a bad situation. They had third-down situations that were very manageable and were able to run or pass. They had that option. We are just going to have to play gap-sound football."
If the Steelers win, a third Super Bowl trip in six seasons will cap a banner year for LeBeau. At this time in 2010, LeBeau was sweating over whether he would receive the nod on what was going to be his final nomination for the Pro Football Hall of Fame. His selection triggered a lengthy celebration of LeBeau’s playing and coaching career. It was capped by an August induction speech in which LeBeau spent more time talking about Steelers defenders than his own accomplishments.
"If you could say a dream coming true, there’s no way you would have the right to even wish for things to go that good," said LeBeau, who already has committed to coaching the Steelers in 2011. "But I don’t look back, to be honest with you. I know I’m blessed. I acknowledge that and try to keep the same size hat on, believe me. I know there are ups and downs in this world.
"We’re pretty busy still. That’s a good thing. We’re looking forward to getting things done this year and seeing if we can get a little better on defense next year."
That means at least one more season from a coach who has built his own legacy in a way that would make his mentors proud: by being himself.
"He’s not going to do all the yelling," Steelers outside linebacker LaMarr Woodley said. "He’s going to talk to you like a normal human being. When people treat you with respect, you want to play that much more for them.
"You hear stories from guys on other teams who say, ‘These coaches don’t know how to treat me. They talk a certain way.’ I’m like, ‘Man, I’m glad we don’t have that problem on our team.’"