LATROBE, Pa. (AP) — Rod Woodson was determined to make sure his night didn’t pass by without it becoming Dick LeBeau’s night, too.

Woodson, the former Steelers cornerback, turned his own induction speech into a campaign rally for LeBeau’s election to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. To Woodson, his former defensive coach – a 14-year cornerback for the Detroit Lions and an innovative NFL coach for 37 seasons – has waited too long to be recognized.

As a player, LeBeau’s 62 interceptions were the seventh-most in NFL history and only nine fewer than Woodson’s 71. Once he began coaching, LeBeau became one of football’s most-copied coordinators, with many versions of the zone blitz defense he first tried in Cincinnati still in use by every NFL team.

To Woodson and many of the Steelers’ current players, LeBeau has done enough to be enshrined as a player or a coach – though he won’t be eligible for induction as a coach until he retires.

“I hope the voters, seriously, get it right. He deserves to be in as a player and, if you don’t put him in as a player, put him in as a contributor,” Woodson said during his Saturday night speech in Canton. “He deserves it. The voters are going to get tired of me saying it – Dick LeBeau deserves to be in the Hall of Fame.”

LeBeau’s current players quickly picked up on the theme. Steelers safety Troy Polamalu, who rarely shows emotion off the field, became animated when he spoke of LeBeau’s snub.

Polamalu said if players voted for the Hall of Fame, rather than writers and broadcasters, LeBeau would have been inducted years ago.

Currently, LeBeau’s playing and coaching careers must be considered separately for induction, although the Hall of Fame is considering a change that would allow such crossover careers to be weighed together in a separate category.

“It’s a shame that people that have nothing to do with football and don’t really understand the game of football as well as the players actually do the voting,” Polamalu said. “If you actually had NFL players vote, it would be a whole different Hall of Fame and it would be a true Hall of Fame. There’s an understanding of football that we as football players have that sportscasters and media have no clue to. Something like coach LeBeau never missing a snap at practice, a snap of the game, is different because of my understanding as a player who’s faced bumps and bruises.”

LeBeau would like to be inducted, but he has never campaigned on his own behalf. He was clearly moved by Woodson’s comments, saying, “In the bottom line, Rod Woodson did 100 times more for me than I ever did for him.”

“The night was all about Rod, but that’s Rod, he would share and deflect,” LeBeau said. “No, I didn’t expect to hear my name in Rod Woodson’s acceptance speech, but what a tremendous honor it is that it was in there. What a great compliment to me that he spoke of me in that light. … When you get your former players talking about you like that, it makes you feel like maybe you did something right.”

LeBeau turns 72 the day before the Steelers’ season opener next month, yet he has dropped no hints about retiring. Winning the Super Bowl in February gave him the perfect excuse to leave, but his players wouldn’t hear of it. Two years ago, when the Steelers played in the Hall of Fame game, many wore $300 throwback LeBeau jerseys to Canton to lobby for him.

LeBeau’s competitiveness is obvious – he remains a near-scratch golfer who shot his age this summer – and he said he stayed in coaching because he still likes what he’s doing. Of course, it helps that the Steelers had the NFL’s top-ranked defense the past two seasons.

“You try to establish a teaching environment with these guys and try to express to them that you care more about them as a person than as a player, and that we all are here to get better,” said LeBeau, the former Bengals head coach and an assistant with five teams starting with Philadelphia in 1973. “We try to create an environment they can grow in and not fear in.”

LeBeau is so respected in Pittsburgh, where he first coached from 1992-96 before returning in 2004, that one of coach Mike Tomlin’s first moves after replacing Bill Cowher in 2007 was making sure LeBeau stayed on.

“You think of the Hall of Fame, and you think of the things that changed this game. And he’s a guy that has really changed this game,” Steelers cornerback Deshea Townsend said. “He had to be a great defender to get 62 interceptions. … His defense is always one that people copycat. He’s someone that the NFL should want in the Hall of Fame.”


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