There really wasn't much to the man.
The interview was set-up to start at 9 a.m. ET, just as my early morning writing and editing duties are coming to an end. Typically, this is the time of the day I stretch, yawn and think, "only nine more hours until my day is over."
Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau genuinely seems like a guy who would think "Wow, I get to work nine more hours in this day!"
Disarming with a quiet, almost tired, voice, LeBeau greeted me warmly, despite my daughter screaming over the atrocities of life not too far from the phone. Chaos ensuing, I went off-script to try to save the precious seconds I had with the man.
"We just had our first child a month ago," I said, trying to explain the racket.
"That's a good thing, Neal," he said, dropping my first name, making me feel suddenly self-conscious. "It changes your life forever...in a good way."
LeBeau's age hit me at that precise moment. It takes some effort to comprehend how many guys he's been around that were going through the transition into that stage of life. He's been working around guys at that stage since before I was even born. The offspring of the first few guys he coached who had just had kids are now having kids.
His voice doesn't sound old as much as it sounds even. Like a metronome. Clearly, he's given a few of these interviews, but the stories about him being humble and decent are very accurate.
I like to consider myself someone who thinks quickly on his feet, and I was racking my brain to come up with something interesting to segue the Harbaugh-level meltdown my daughter was undergoing to the interview, as the clock ticks away very quickly in these things.
"Yeah, it's definitely a good way," I said. "Definitely a change -" I caught myself trying to come up with the words of LeBeau's famous greeting he allegedly gives his team each day. It wasn't coming to me, so I just stammered out something about change not being an issue among the defensive coaches this season, and asked for his thoughts on the continuity they've had.
I listened intently to his sage-like metaphors between the classroom and the football field, noting again the metronome-like pace to his speech, but it finally hit me, "It's a good day to be alive."
Indeed it was. I bet he gets asked something along those lines plenty often, though, and when you only get to fire so many bullets in an interview, you must aim small and miss small.
I had lost probably three minutes in just establishing something of rapport despite the shrieking baby's protests over her state of being over 2.5 of those three minutes. I even noted as I was transcribing his words to point out how being a writer is oftentimes more about how you tell a story despite these kinds of obstacles than it is about the subject.
That's always bugged me about this, but like any job, your ultimate enemy is time. Because of the whole LaMarr Woodley issue, and Ryan Clark's response coming not long before this interview, I would have to ask about that. I'd look like a fan boy if I didn't. Add that in with the extra time necessary to soothe my daughter away from her Harbaugh-like side, and that's probably a third of the amount of time I'm likely to get.
I also have to ask about turnovers, or the lack of them, among his defense over the last two seasons. It's almost shockingly low now, considering how few passes their opponents complete against them. The Steelers are in the bottom five in takeaways over the last two seasons, yet, have also allowed nearly the least amount of points over that same period.
You can get takeaways two different ways; recovering fumbles and interceptions. While picks are down, maybe the takeaway number is down due to the league-wide crackdown on over-physical play from its defenders. When posed with that theory, LeBeau responded maybe a little quicker, and I hesitate to say it, but almost as if he was perplexed by the problem himself.
"(NFL mandates on less contact in practice and more fines for illegal hits in games) are the same for everyone," LeBeau said. "I don't think all defenses dropped off in turnovers.
"We can't make any analysis on that. But the numbers are down, need to get those back up. we fared a lot better in the win/loss column when we got takeaways, that's a very big part of it."
Perhaps overall the Steelers will win more games if they force more takeaways. Throw out a complete fluke of a game like Week 12 against Cleveland, in which they would have needed nine takeaways to best the Browns in that department, a turnover here or there really could have made the difference in an 8-8 season and a 12-4 mark - like the last two years.
But what I couldn't get past, and what I asked LeBeau, was about a guy like Cortez Allen. He comes from the nickel job into a starting spot due to injury, and turned into a turnover machine. The Steelers found takeaways about as often as they found new land on the earth over the last two years, and Allen contributes 25 percent of the team's total takeaways in its final two games.
At the risk of sounding trite, if LeBeau's voice tinged on genuine excitement to speak to a hack like me, it was when I brought up Cortez Allen. I don't think it's good form to write too candidly about what I felt like a subject was saying, but I'd be remiss if I didn't mention I felt genuine enthusiasm from him when talking about Allen.
"Cortez has done nothing but improve from the first day here," he said. He's been an absolute joy to work with. When asked to expand his role, he's been productive.
There's the turnovers but his overall coverage has been excellent. We're looking to see how far he can grow, we're very excited."
In his previous responses, his metronome was a little slower than it was when he was talking about Allen. But what stood out to me was he didn't stop. I asked probably 10 questions in the 18 minutes I had (they cut me off at that point...like I'm stopping an interview with Dick LeBeau before they force me to). His longest response by a wide margin was about Allen.
"He has interception skills. The ability to stay close to NFL receivers is not an easy task. As a young player, he's showed tremendous growth. It makes our job very exciting, the young guys stepping into leadership roles in the defense, it makes us viable and competitive.
"He's a bright young prospect."
Without knowing the man, that answer told me what I'd need to know about him. He's about winning, sure, he's done a lot of that, and he's lost a lot too. But what keeps LeBeau going at 75 years of age is the art of teaching. It's that feeling one gets when they unabashedly brag about a person they've developed to a certain point. He spoke of every player brought up in very glowing, fatherly terms, but it seemed like Allen was the favorite son.
It provided one of those rare moments in which a fan can connect with someone directly involved with the team on the same level. If I had more time, I would have mentioned the Jersey Rules, and how Allen was named the Top Jersey to Get last year.
It's exciting to see the young players fans really liked for whatever reason come into positions of prominence. It's like the band you saw at local dive bars suddenly being played on the radio. We develop a sense of membership into a club of exclusivity.
It seemed to me LeBeau would have been proud to hear something like that.
Coach LeBeau, the architect of the zone blitz defense, member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, felt far more like the head football coach and favorite teacher at London High School in his native Ohio. One of the most innovative defensive minds the game has seen sounded more like the guy you overhear sharing pearls of wisdom over coffee at the local mom and pop restaurant.
I didn't delve into his history because I ran out of time. I really wanted to ask about the genesis of "It's a good day to be alive," but I couldn't find a segue, so I just blurted it out. And it became perhaps the best insight into the man.
"You'll speak in front of your home town for the Allstate Hometown Hall of Famers, is it a good bet you'll start it off with "Good morning, it's a good day to be alive?"
"That's a pretty dumb question, I know, but I had to bring it up. Can you say where it came from?"
"Where it came from? Well.... ............... .... it came from .... me." He would continue on, citing the merits of what's behind the phrase, instead of it being little more than a trademark statement. It was like verbal orange juice - a pleasant jolt of positive energy.
My first thought was he was politely answering a bad question, but he spoke on it a bit more, and that feeling turned more into he didn't even want to take credit for that. I looked over my notes and realized he rarely used the word "I." Anything complimentary was either "we" or "him" or "us." The only time I recalled it was when he expressed disagreement over my question about the lack of contact mandated in the CBA being a factor in the lack of turnovers.
That's pretty impressive. He did an 18-minute interview about himself, and he barely mentioned himself. Maybe the question was awkward, but he didn't answer any of the other self-loaded questions with even a sense of pride in himself. He spoke excitedly about Cortez Allen, thoughtfully about Robert Golden and forwardly about Adrian Robinson ("Most of our outside backers played defensive end in college," LeBeau said. "They're used to having their hands down in 3 point stance, they need to learn to stand up and drop a little bit. It takes a year to assimilate to what we do. Adrian did a good job, we're excited, we're looking forward to his progress. He can impact the game.")