In the wake of the four-year decline of the Steelers defense that ultimately culminated in the resignation of legendary defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau on Saturday, it would have been understandable if head coach Mike Tomlin and Co. decided to bring in someone from outside of the organization and go in a totally new direction.
After all, among all the opinions amid Pittsburgh's struggles on defense in recent years, maybe the most dominant one was that LeBeau's famed zone blitz scheme had grown too familiar and stale. This opinion was prevalent despite the absolute fact that the unit had grown older and noticeably less talented in all areas. But sometimes organizations make changes just for the sake of it. And who knows? A new voice, philosophy and direction may have been just the tonic the team needed to jump-start the unit.
Sadly, this approach would have meant the organization going against its rumored secret agreement with long-time linebackers coach Keith Butler that he would take over the defensive coordinator duties once LeBeau was out of the picture.
Yes, it would have been unfortunate, but as the world has taught us, all is fair in love, war and winning football games. Butler wouldn't have been the first assistant coach to believe he was a legend's successor, only for the higher-ups to decide to change the script once the legend had gotten on with his life's work.
Tom Bradley spent many years working his way up the ladder as an assistant coach at Penn State (his alma mater) and was named defensive coordinator in 1999. It was no secret that Bradley was believed to be the successor to the legendary Joe Paterno once he decided to retire. Bradley had chances to become a collegiate head coach elsewhere and was said to be a candidate for the Pitt opening a time or two. However, he remained loyal to Penn State and eventually did get to be the head coach in 2011. Unfortunately for Bradley, it was on an interim basis, as he took over for Paterno after JoePa was fired amid the very tragic Jerry Sandusky child molestation scandal that shocked the sports world.
Soon-after, there were sweeping changes at Happy Valley as the university went in a new direction, and Bradley ultimately left the program after not being named the full-time head coach.
Today, nearing 60, Bradley still hasn't received his chance to be a full-time head coach and is the senior associate head coach at West Virginia, according to his wikipedia page.
For Butler, who was hired as Pittsburgh's linebackers coach in 2003, he started to become a hot-commodity for a defensive coordinator position right around the 2010 season, as several teams expressed interest. It was no surprise. When a unit is as successful as LeBeau's was for years and that success helps bring about championships, other teams are going to try and copy that success. And what better way to emulate it than by snagging an assistant who coached under LeBeau and giving him his own chance to run a defense?
As Hombre de Acero points out in this article, LeBeau has sprouted his own little coaching tree which, in-addition to Butler, includes Ray Horton, who has been running his own defenses for the past four years after serving under LeBeau as Pittsburgh's secondary coach for seven seasons.
Butler, who will turn 59 in May, remaining loyal to the Steelers when he obviously had chances to ascend up the coaching ranks elsewhere was a risk. Sure, maybe the front office did pay him a little more than a linebacker coach would normally make, but what about competition? What about wanting to challenge himself?
Just like head coaching jobs and starting quarterback spots, there are only 32 NFL defensive coordinator positions in the entire world. Also, it doesn't take much for a hot coaching commodity to cool off and spend many years in obscurity, where his name is only mentioned when someone opens a team media guide and says, "Hey, I didn't know he was still coaching."
Thankfully for Butler, he won't become collateral damage as part of some defensive shake-up within the organization, and on Tuesday he was officially named as LeBeau's successor.
Will Butler shake things up himself and implement various schemes, such as a 4-3? Will he be able to take the struggling defense to the heights his old boss couldn't over the past few years? Will Butler experience what Willie Parker went through trying to fill the huge shoes of Jerome Bettis, as fans clamor for the good old days of Coach Dad?
That all remains to be seen, of course, but at least Butler will finally get a chance to prove himself.
It's nice to see patience and loyalty be rewarded every now and then.