Friday, September 07, 2001
Dick LeBeau: The Bengals' man for all seasons
By Mark Curnutte
The Cincinnati Enquirer
In the eighth grade, Dick LeBeau was captain of his gym class football team. There were five-man tournaments, and it fell on LeBeau to draw up the plays.
He welcomed the assignment and would spend his study halls sketching offensive formations instead of doing homework.
I always knew, LeBeau says, I wanted to be a head coach.
It took 50 years, 27 spent in a peaks-and-valleys run as an NFL assistant coach, but last year LeBeau finally got his wish. He was 63 when, on Monday morning, Sept. 25, he became the oldest rookie head coach since the NFL-AFL merger in 1970 and the eighth head coach in Bengals history.
That's a long time to be climbing the mountain to finally get to say whether we're going to punt on fourth down, LeBeau says. I spent a long time figuring out what we should do. And now we get an opportunity to see if any of these thoughts are worth a darn.
He will try to turn around a franchise that is 47-113 in the past 10 years and has won just 11 of 48 games the last three seasons.
LeBeau, who will be be an NFL opening-day head coach for the first time on his 64th birthday Sunday, thought his dream was dead. At his age, and with no previous head coaching experience on any level, he was an improbable though legitimate choice to land a top job in the NFL.
He dealt with the disappointment by not allowing it to grow into disappointment. He appreciated that being a coordinator in the NFL put him near the top of his profession, and he liked what he did.
LeBeau also sustained himself by balancing his life and feeding his intellect.
He reads histories, biographies, Civil War trilogies voraciously and is a member of more mail-order book clubs than he can count. He visits U.S. battlefields and other historical sites. As Steelers defensive coordinator in the mid-1990s, LeBeau tacked history questions onto the end of defensive quizzes for his players. He is a scratch golfer. And while his time is limited now, he is a movie fanatic and relaxes by playing his acoustic guitar.
But there's no denying being an NFL head coach is a dream come true.
I've never seen him happier, says Brandon Grant LeBeau, 22, his youngest son, whose middle name is in honor of the Ohio-born Union general and 18th U.S. president, Ulysses S. Grant.
After playing offense and defense on a national championship team at Ohio State for Woody Hayes, Dick LeBeau played 14 years at cornerback for the Detroit Lions. He set a durability record of 171 consecutive games played at the position and retired with 62 interceptions, still sixth all-time.
LeBeau is a humble man, but ask him which quarterbacks he intercepted most, and the answer comes quickly: Bart Starr and Johnny Unitas.
LeBeau was a three-time Pro Bowler, and one of those All-Star games helped him land his movie role, thanks to his ability to get along with everyone, from rich to rookie a strength that would later serve him well as a coach.
In 1968, director Robert Aldrich went to the Philippines to make a World War II picture called Too Late the Hero. But Aldrich, who had made The Dirty Dozen, didn't think normal Hollywood stunt men could handle the grueling requirements of the final scene, repeated takes of a long run across a tropical rice paddy. Aldrich, who liked football and knew Los Angeles Rams safety Ed Meador, needed a couple of professional athletes to run as doubles for stars Michael Caine and Cliff Robertson. Meador suggested Detroit Lions teammates LeBeau and wide receiver Pat Studstill, whom Meador had just seen at the Pro Bowl.
LeBeau, Meador said, looked a lot like Caine.
So it was off to a jungle in the Philippines for two weeks.
At the end of this thing, Michael Caine and Cliff Robertson ran across this open mile with the Japanese gunning at them. That was us, says LeBeau. I said, "Robert, how about getting me on camera? He said, "Can you do a British accent?' I said, "Sure, I'll have Michael teach me.'
At night, LeBeau shot pool with Caine and Robertson. So Caine taught LeBeau to say, in his best Cockney, There's a light out over the billiard table.
LeBeau practiced and practiced some more. Finally, he spoke his line for Aldrich, who said, You sound like a hillbilly with a British accent.
There was talk on the set of having LeBeau go to diction school to clean up his central Ohio twang. In the end, LeBeau never did speak in the movie.
I said, "I'd rather chase the deep post for a few more years than work on my diction,' LeBeau says.
And so, LeBeau's stardom would from playing and teaching football. He played alongside two Hall of Fame cornerbacks in the Lions secondary, first Dick Night Train Lane and later Lem Barney, and LeBeau passed along everything he had learned to Barney when the kid broke into the league in 1967.
I knew early on that after playing 14 years and all the things I learned about playing defensive back and defense in general, that if I didn't become a coach, I would throw out that knowledge, LeBeau says. Working with younger players when I was a veteran, I realized I could shortcut their road toward learning.
LeBeau went straight into coaching after retiring as a player.
In his first job, he turned around the Eagles' special teams.
Then he went to work for former playing rival Starr as defensive backs coach in Green Bay, where his secondary was known as the S.W.A.T. team for its hard-hitting ways. The name would later be resurrected by the 1988 Bengals secondary en route to the Super Bowl.
While he coached in Green Bay, LeBeau and his wife, Nancy, attended a charity golf tournament put on by the Packers in Milwaukee. Actor George C. Scott, fresh off his role as Gen. George Patton in Patton, was the guest speaker.
LeBeau loved the film, was a fan of Scott's and wanted to meet him. Scott, unknown to LeBeau, had been a Lions fan.
Scott got up to speak, looked out at the room and said there was one man there he wanted to meet Dick LeBeau. The two men talked for more than an hour after the dinner.
After Green Bay, LeBeau came to Cincinnati to work for another Packers contemporary, Forrest Gregg, to coach the Bengals secondary. In his second season with the Bengals, the team went to the Super Bowl.
At that point in his coaching life, LeBeau was less than 10 years removed from his playing career.
When he walked into a room, the room got quiet, said Louis Breeden, who played cornerback for LeBeau with the Bengals. Everybody had so much respect for him. The guy was a good player and comes across as a good leader. Those are two things you can't fake.
LeBeau had received offers from colleges Cornell University of the Ivy League was persistent and the fledgling United States Football League came calling. But LeBeau was a National Football League guy.
To me, there were not much better jobs than where I was, he says. Besides, son Brandon was in school, and LeBeau didn't want to uproot him for selfish reasons.
Dick LeBeau doesn't take his work home with him. Instead of grabbing the remote
to watch game tapes, he's more apt to pick up his guitar to relax with a little
Musical aptitude, like athletic talent, runs in the LeBeau family.
Robert LeBeau Sr., Dick's father and a former state auditor, was a drummer in a local band in London, Ohio. Bob Jr., Dick's older brother and only sibling, also has worked as a professional musician.
Even Dick's oldest son, Rick LeBeau, one of four children from his first marriage, makes part of his living as a singer with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra.
Dick LeBeau is a self-taught guitarist with a gentle baritone that would have been at home in a 1960s coffeehouse filled with both smoke and political activism.
LeBeau has an acoustic guitar at home in Montgomery. When Brandon was little, Dad would come home, take the guitar into the bathroom where Brandon often was sitting in a tub full of bubbles and sing him a couple of songs. Mr. Bojangles was a regular request in the household.
Dick LeBeau liked Bob Dylan, too. When asked to show what he could do, LeBeau took his guitar in hand, tuned it and started to play and sing Dylan's Don't Think Twice, It's All Right.
Well it ain't no use to sit and wonder why, babe
If'n you don't know by now.
LeBeau started playing in high school and calls the guitar a companion. He can read music, but says he mainly just beats on it.
I usually play classical, he says. It's a little easier on the fingers.
LeBeau restored ordered to chaos with the Bengals in 2000, even if the team's
4-9 record under him didn't entirely show it, convincing Bengals president
Mike Brown to retain him for 2001. He was finally getting the shot at the job
that had eluded him despite coordinating two defenses that went to the Super
Bowl, Cincinnati in 1989 and Pittsburgh in 1996.
But LeBeau always seemed to be overshadowed, even on those teams.
With the Bengals, the offense of Sam Wyche was the star, and Cincinnati decided not to keep LeBeau after the 1991 season, when his defense ranked 28th in the league. The low point came after the Nov. 24 loss to the Los Angeles Raiders, 38-14, when fans in the end zone chanted, LeBeau must go, LeBeau must go. LeBeau flipped off the fans on his way off the field.
He was hired Feb. 7, 1992 as the Steelers' defensive backs coach. After three seasons, he was promoted to defensive coordinator, and the Steelers went to the Super Bowl. As coordinator, LeBeau continued the zone-blitz defensive attack that he had helped coordinator Dom Capers install before Capers took the Carolina head coaching job.
After one more season in Pittsburgh, which coincided with LeBeau's golfing buddy Bruce Coslet replacing Dave Shula as head coach in Cincinnati, LeBeau was hired as defensive coordinator. LeBeau came back to town a hero, largely because of the Steelers' defensive success.
In spite of drafting star linebackers Takeo Spikes and Brian Simmons in 1998 to man LeBeau's zone-blitz defense, the Bengals ranked 28th in total defense in each of his first two seasons as coordinator and 25th in 1999.
The man who had never been asked to even interview for an NFL head coaching job was sure his time had passed him by. Until Coslet resigned after Game 3 last season.
LeBeau had no head coaching experience on a staff that was short on head coaching experience. The one coach who had run a program was linebackers coach Mark Duffner, who had successful stints as head coach at Holy Cross and Maryland and had molded the Bengals' linebackers into the team's most productive unit.
Despite reports that Duffner was offered the job first, and turned it down out of respect for LeBeau, neither will discuss the events of that morning when Coslet resigned and LeBeau was promoted.
LeBeau says, I will say I had to fight for it. I was never out of the picture. It was a very chaotic situation, and we worked it out the best way possible.
LeBeau wanted to coach, but his ego didn't need it.
I had a long, pretty successful playing career, and I got quite a few strokes in those days, he says.
But he welcomed the chance.
Dick LeBeau loves movies. The Wizard of Oz tops his list. Movies are a passion he no longer has the time to fully enjoy, but they are one he passed on to Brandon.
A 1957 release called Raintree County was one of Dick and Nancy LeBeau's favorites when they first dated before she became his second wife in 1973.
It's set in Civil War times and stars Elizabeth Taylor and Montgomery Clift as lovers brought up on opposite sides of the Mason-Dixon Line. In the film, there's a willow tree LeBeau's favorite type of tree that is the place dreams are found.
Nancy LeBeau, an artist who specializes in animal portraits, put together a scrapbook for her husband of newspapers clips from his first season as a head coach. On the cover, she sketched a willow tree in pencil and etched around it, Dick LeBeau finds his raintree at 63.
Thank God he was 63, so it rhymed, she says. Of course, he teared up. I teared up. He said, "There's a girl who knows me.'
I've never seen him happier. It's a dream come true. He did genuinely feel bad for Bruce (Coslet) and didn't take any joy from him quitting, but once it was over, Dick thought, "OK, I have the job. I'm going to do the best I can.'
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