Throughout his football career, Dick LeBeau has been known more as a Hall of Fame defensive back with the Detroit Lions and a great defensive coordinator with the Pittsburgh Steelers. But, the most amount of time he ever spent in one city while working in the NFL was with Cincinnati, which also happens to be one of his favorite cities to have worked in.
“It was definitely a high point in my coaching career," LeBeau told Jim Owczarski of Cincinnati.com. "My mom and dad were both still alive, just 90 miles from Cincinnati and I could get back to see them periodically. My brother lived his whole life in central Ohio so family wise, in our business, you don’t get to be where your family is very often and this was that opportunity and I was very thrilled about it. No doubt.”
However, despite spending 18 years of his NFL career in Cincinnati (defensive backs coach from 1980-1983, defensive coordinator from 1984-1991, defensive coordinator and assistant head coach from 1997-2000, and head coach from 2000-2002), Bengals fans at large don’t remember him all too fondly. He spent his final three years in Cincinnati as the team’s head coach, continuing an abysmal tradition of futility and culminating in the franchise’s all-time worst record of 2-14 at the end of the 2002 NFL Season.
Lebeau would probably prefer Bengals fans remember the good times, like 1988 when the team boasted the best offense in the league and rode that train all the way to Super Bowl XXIII, though, he was responsible for the defense, not offense.
“Cincinnati has been to the Super Bowl twice,” Lebeau said. “I've always been proud to say that I was with them when they were there.”
However, a championship caliber offense can’t succeed without, at least, a solid defense to back them up. Lebeau used his opportunity to work with such a great offense to develop a defensive scheme, which has since become one of the most famous in the history of the game.
"Nobody had too many answers for [the west coast offense]. Part of our existence was going to have to be to answer it some," LeBeau said. “So I started with this zone blitz concept, which was really – they say that necessity is the mother of invention – nobody could stop those two offenses, and for us to get where we wanted to go we had to at least slow ‘em down.”
And the Bengals did ‘slow ‘em down’. In fact, the strategy worked so well, LeBeau carried his zone blitz system with him when he resurfaced with the most recent era of Pittsburgh Steelers football. His zone blitz schemes were a huge reason the Steelers won Super Bowl XL against the Seattle Seahawks and Super Bowl XLIII against the Arizona Cardinals.
However, despite all the success he found in Pittsburgh, he still harkens back to his days in Ohio as his favorite memories from his storied career.
"I've always been really a Bengal and Brown guy at heart, like I am a Buckeye, because I am from Ohio and I like the Ohio teams,” LeBeau said. “Looking back I wouldn't change anything. My career experience, I've been blessed and Cincinnati has sure been a big part of it."
As a college player, LeBeau helped the Buckeyes win the 1957 National Championship in epic comeback fashion against the rival Michigan Wolverines. Growing up, the only professional football team of much value for the London, Ohio native was the Cleveland Browns. By the time the Bengals came around, Lebeau was already nearing the end of his professional playing career. But, LeBeau realized his dream of coaching professional football in Ohio when the Bengals hired him as the defensive backs coach in 1980.
"It was kind of a fluke, actually, that I got the job in the first place," LeBeau said. "And I said when I left Cincinnati when I got the job I worked as hard as I could 'til the day that I left, and today I'm leaving. Nothing happened to change my thought pattern on that. I was an Ohioan working for a good family and I think we got some things done we just didn't win enough games."
Some Bengals fans may find it difficult to accept LeBeau, who is more known for doing great things with the hated Steelers, in addition to occupying the Bengals’ head coach role in such a rotten time in the team’s history. But, LeBeau is a tried and true former Bengals coach—and Ohio sports fan—and despite his career trajectory, he still remembers his time in Cincinnati with sincere fondness.