Commentary

LeBeau among many worthy candidates

The Pro Football Hall of Fame should consider honoring assistant coaches

Originally Published: August 25, 2009
By Len Pasquarelli | ESPN.com

Johnson, Gansz & McKittrickUS Presswire/Getty ImagesThe Pro Football Hall Of Fame does not have a inductee honored specifically for his work as an assistant. The likes of Jim Johnson (left) and Bobb McKittrick (right) and special teams guru Frank Gansz (center) are among those who merit consideration.
Of the 253 men enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, there are 219 players, 18 coaches and 16 so-called "contributors" to the game.

And no assistant coaches.

Maybe it's time to address the fact that the Hall of Fame has inducted no one who gained his celebrity predominantly through his contributions as an assistant coach or in some similar capacity. The issue was raised at the annual Hall of Fame selection meeting in February, and is gaining some traction among the people who vote for enshrinement.

"I think it has [gained some support]," said Hall of Fame vice president Joe Horrigan. "Certainly we realize the important role that assistant coaches have had. We're all wiser to the dynamic of what assistant coaches mean to the game."

The significance of Pittsburgh Steelers longtime defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau, who got almost as much attention at last year's Super Bowl as head coach Mike Tomlin, clearly has prompted much of the discussion. But LeBeau is an anomaly of sorts (in fact, some proponents refer to it as the "Dick LeBeau Rule"). His credentials from 14 seasons (1959-1972) as a Detroit Lions cornerback, some observers argue, are more than enough to merit LeBeau legitimate Hall of Fame consideration as a player.

[+] EnlargeDick LeBeau, Mike Tomlin
Joe Sargent/Getty ImagesSteelers head coach Mike Tomlin (right) values the assistance of defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau.

And with good reason, since LeBeau's 62 career interceptions are tied for seventh in NFL history. Only one person with more interceptions, former Cincinnati Bengals cornerback Ken Riley (65) is not enshrined in Canton. And according to Peter King of Sports Illustrated, LeBeau holds the league record for most consecutive starts (171) among cornerbacks. (In fact, LeBeau was named Tuesday a finalist as a player by the hall's senior committee.)

His career as a coach might be just icing on the cake.

But it is as a defensive coordinator (LeBeau notched a 12-33 record as head coach of the Bengals from 2000 to 2003) that LeBeau has earned much of his acclaim. That's especially true in recent years, in which the Steelers have won two of the past four Super Bowls, and LeBeau and his innovative zone blitz schemes have been widely credited for plenty of the team's success.

Still, LeBeau, 71, isn't the only assistant coach or even veteran scout whose body-of-work candidacy deserves a hearing during the selection process.

A few weeks ago, Larry Kennan, the executive director of the NFL Coaches Association, phoned to discuss what needed to be done to have Jim Johnson, the recently deceased Philadelphia Eagles defense coordinator, considered for the Hall of Fame. Others have suggested late San Francisco assistant Bobb McKittrick; longtime offensive line coaches Jim Hanifan and Joe Bugel; special teams guru Frank Gansz; and an impressive collection of celebrated coaching aides.

Others have suggested that the Hall of Fame enshrine more general managers and scouts and men whose contributions to the NFL are noteworthy.

Talent evaluators such as Bobby Beathard and Gil Brandt receive plenty of mention. Ira Kaufman of the Tampa Tribune typically suggests NFL Films founder Ed Sabol, without whose brainchild the league would probably not enjoy the scope of its popularity. Horrigan noted earlier this week that any such initiative might be more appropriately termed "the Bucko Kilroy Rule," citing the 50-plus years of work of the late Patriots scout and front-office administrator. Readers certainly can suggest plenty of other worthy candidates.

By rule, such contributors are already technically eligible for Hall of Fame inclusion. The only technical caveat, established in a bylaws change promulgated two years ago, is that the person be subjected to a five-year waiting period, like players. The bylaws make no delineation between head coaches and assistant coaches. That means that, as an assistant coach, LeBeau would have to wait for five years after his retirement. Even in his 70s, but in the physical shape of a man perhaps 20 years younger, retirement for LeBeau is hardly imminent.

There is a danger, of course, to expanding the roster of men who should be debated for Hall of Fame enshrinement. Some have suggested that the 46-year-old Hall of Fame is overstocked, that some of the men voted to the shrine are more deserving of membership in what King has termed "The Hall of Very Good." To expand the list of possible enshrinees, and essentially further widen the consciousness of voters to a subset of non-player personnel, might further dilute Hall of Fame honors.

It's not a given that folks regarded as innovators automatically be considered. The punch-out pass-blocking technique, employed now by almost every NFL offensive lineman, wasn't widely used until then-Pittsburgh assistant Dan Radakovich introduced it to the Steelers nearly 40 years ago. But even his most ardent admirers likely would agree that "Bad Rad" probably isn't a Hall of Famer.

There already exists a backlog of players who deserve to have their careers debated, and electing non-players might further exacerbate that logjam. In the past 10 years, six owners or coaches have entered the Hall of Fame, including a run of one selection every year for four straight years (2000 to 2003). That's six spots, critics contend, that could have gone to players.

Arguably the most respected of the 44 electors, Rick Gosselin of the Dallas Morning News, thinks that assistant coaches and scouting personnel still face a bumpy road to Hall of Fame recognition.

"People keep talking about it, but I really don't think it's going to fly," Gosselin said. "Many of those assistants were players or [head] coaches at one time, and experienced some failure while they were in those positions."

That said, there is a new consciousness about the role of assistant coaches in the league, and that reality could work its way into the Hall of Fame balloting.

Maybe it's about time.

Len Pasquarelli, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.