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Former Steelers recall playing for recently retired John Mitchell

Want to know what John Mitchell was like? Listen to the players he helped mold.

NFL: Pittsburgh Steelers at Philadelphia Eagles Howard Smith-USA TODAY Sports

The recent retirement of long-time assistant coach John Mitchell from the Pittsburgh Steelers coaching staff didn’t just eliminate another member of the staff, but leaves a giant void as it pertains to the leadership within the organization.

At this point you’ve likely heard the credentials Mitchell had as both a player for Bear Bryant at Alabama, but also as a coach since 1994 for the black-and-gold. But when you want to know the true impact Mitchell had on the organization, you have to hear from the players he coaches.

Dale Lolley of the Steelers official website sat down with Aaron Smith and Chris Hoke to talk about what Mitchell was like as coach, and the impact he had on them as both players and men.

“I come in in ‘99. I go to camp and everything, the rookie camp, OTAs and camp. He’s not really coming at me too much. And then the season starts and he’s just devastating me,” Smith recalled. “He made me get up early in the morning to meet with him. He made me stay after everybody else left to meet with him. If we had a down period in practice where there weren’t any defensive players needed, he would pull me aside and have me doing extra drills. He’s just coming at me.

“It was to the point where, if I saw him coming down the hall, I would try to hide. Now, I’m not a teenager. I’m a man. I’m thinking, how can I avoid this guy at all costs?”

While players talked about how ruthless he was at times as a coach, they also knew the time he invested in them was to get the most out of them.

“The whole offseason, he really invests in me and works with me,” Smith said. “I showed up the entire offseason and we’d go out on the field and do cones and stuff, and he really just poured into me and taught me. The next year, we draft Kendrick Clancy from Ole Miss. He’s just destroying him. I looked at one of the other guys and said, ‘He just doesn’t like rookies.’”

Chris Hoke remembers being a young player under Mitchell’s guidance, and feeling the same thing Smith felt.

“That was just it, he would break you down and then build you back up to play the way he wanted you to play,” said Hoke. “He had his way of doing things, but it worked. It was rough when you were young, because anytime you saw him, it didn’t matter if you were at lunch or breakfast, anytime you saw him, he would be breaking down a play, ‘Hokie, you have to do this when that happens.’ There was no time off from it. Then, when you got older and he trusted you, it was more relaxed.”

Smith did his best to warn the younger players about him, and how they need to just stay strong. That it will get better.

“You try to tell rookies this because you went through it yourself, you try to tell them because you see him unraveling them, ‘Guys, just listen to him.’ It’s not about how he delivers the message, but if you listen to what he’s actually telling you, you will get better,” Smith said. “And then once you know him, you see how big his heart is and how much he cares. His roughness and how he is, gets taken out of context, like when I was a rookie. You just don’t really know anything.”

When it came to Mitchell’s players along the defensive line, he didn’t just see them as his players. He saw them as his own children.

“We were all like his sons,” Hoke said. “After the 2004 season when I played a lot, he and I became really close. We still are.”

Throughout all the success Mitchell had as an assistant coach in the NFL, he was a man who didn’t like the spotlight. He didn’t want people to notice him, rather deflecting the praise or media coverage to the players on the field.

“When you compliment him, he’ll get uncomfortable and compliment you to try to draw the attention off himself,” Smith said. “That’s just the kind of guy he is. I love the man. I spent 13 years with him. I came out of college as a young man who really didn’t know much about the world. I thought I did. I don’t have a father figure. A lot of things I learned were through him. That was the closest thing as we walked through life.”

Smith is happy to see Mitchell walk away from the game while he still has time to enjoy life outside of football.

“I’m happy. I know he loves football. But Mitch has so many other interests. I would love for him to go and enjoy those other things.” Smith said.

The Steelers now have only 15 coaches on their staff, and will have to try and fill some of the vacancies on the coaching staff before heading into offseason workouts this offseason. But just adding coaches won’t be enough to fill the void left by Mitchell as a coach and mentor.

Be sure to stay tuned to BTSC for the latest news and notes surrounding the Steelers as they prepare for the rest of the 2023 offseason.