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Legendary NFL Defensive Line Coach Retires; Could Be Headed to Miles College

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John Mitchell spent 29 years as defensive line coach for the Pittsburgh Steelers (Mark J. Rebilas, USA TODAY Sports)

By Jim Wexell

247sports.com

Legendary Pittsburgh Steelers defensive line coach John Mitchell announced last week that he’s retiring from the organization after 29 years.

Mitchell spoke with Jim Wexell of 247sports.com over the phone to discuss a football career that stretched back to head coach Bear Bryant at the University of Alabama.

Asked what’s next, he mentioned “devoting time” to work with Miles College head football coach Sam Shade, who is entering his second year at the institution.

Q: So, what made this decision to retire, Mitch?

JM: You know, I’ve been here for a long time. I just thought it was time to do it. I think most coaches and players, if they’re true to themselves, they know when it’s time to move on. I just felt it was time to move on.

Q: Move on to what? Are you feeling OK?

JM: Yeah, yeah. I’m an avid reader. I’m a big Churchill fan and I’ve been buying Churchill books the last four or five years; there are books I want to read. My wife and I want to do a little traveling. And there’s Miles College, an HBCU place in Birmingham I want to work at. I spent some time and know the guy [Sam Shade] there. He’s an Alabama guy. The president [Bobbie Knight] is an Alabama woman. So I’m going to devote my time if I want to work with them.

Q: In looking back at your great career, what are some of the things off the top of your head?

JM: The thing I’m most happy about, I was here and I had a chance to coach some players for a long time and we have a special relationship. I had a chance to see these guys come in here as young guys, develop, marry, have kids, get into the community and be productive people, people like Aaron Smith, people like Brett Keisel, people like Chris Hoke. Travis Kirschke is a coach in Colorado. Just to see those guys grow and become productive citizens and become what the Steelers organization wants players to do who come in here and stay in the city and be productive. Those guys have done that and it brings joy to my heart to see the things they’ve done. They’ve raised their families, their kids. Aaron Smith’s got five kids. Chris Hoke’s got five kids. Brett Keisel’s got three. Casey’s got one. Travis has got three. Just to see those guys grow into good husbands, good fathers and good people, that’s the most important thing to me.

Q: What did you take from Bear Bryant that contributed the most to your, not just coaching, but your life?

JM: Coach Bryant always said never quit, hang in there, and I can remember at practice all the time, every day, he would put the ball on the 3-yard line and it’d be offense versus defense and you had 10 plays. Whoever won the most out of 10 plays went in. And he would always say, “I want to see when things get tough and you’re tired, you’re sweating, your belly is aching, how you’re going to play, not on Saturday, but I want to find out on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday.” So he taught me fortitude: Hang in there no matter how tough it is. If things aren’t going your way, you’ve got to make them go your way.

Q: You were a defensive end at Alabama?

JM: Yes.

Q: You were the first African-American captain in the SEC?

JM: No, at Alabama.

Q: Were you the first African-American to play at Alabama?

JM: Wilbur Jackson was the first. He was redshirted. I was the first one to play.

Q: What did all of those battles you had to have fought teach you?

JM: Oh, you better believe I had to fight (chuckles). But when I decided to go to Alabama, and people always asked about the racial makeup, that wasn’t on my mind. What was on my mind was: Could I make this damn football team? (Chuckles) They had some pretty good players. Back in 1960-61 they won the national championship. They came back in ’64 and ’65 and won it. Hey, everybody thinks they’re pretty good as an athlete, but my mindset was: Can I make this team?

Q: So it made the rest of the stuff pretty easy?

JM: Oh, very easy (laughs). Very easy. Yeah.

Q: How brutal were the practices compared to today’s?

JM: You’ll get a kick out of this. My first day at practice, and, you know, I’m coming from junior college and I didn’t know anything. It was pre-practice and we just went out and, you know, started practicing a bit. Well the first day of practice, the pre-practice was 45 minutes. My mouth was bleeding, my elbow was bleeding. I’m getting ready to go in and guys were like, “Hell, practice ain’t even started. This is pre-practice.” And I said, “Oh, crap, this is gonna be tough.” (Laughs) To be at Alabama and have a chance to play there, and have a chance for my family to see – from Mobile to Tuscaloosa is three-and-a-half hours – I had all the motivation I needed. I wanted to do something to make them proud and they could have something to do on the weekend, come to see their son play, my sisters and brothers, that was a big motivation for me.

Q: You joined the Steelers in 1994 after many stages. Did you know that would be your final spot?

JM: Not really. I knew Tom Moore. He was here and Tom and I have been good friends for a long, long time. In 1983, when I was working for Rollie Dotsch in the USFL, he had had been the O-line coach here the previous two Super Bowls. And Tom told me, “If you ever get a chance to work for the Rooneys and go to the Steelers, don’t ever turn it down.” And when I came here from Cleveland, Mr. Modell, he told me, “Hey, I hate to see you go. You’re a good young coach. But the Rooneys are good friends of mine and you’re going to love it there. I can’t fault you for going there.” And both of those guys, what they said was true. What makes a great organization is the people in the organization, and you can say from top to bottom, or bottom to top, that’s what makes the Steelers great. They’ve got great people. They’ve got people dedicated. They’ve got people who want to come in and work. In my 29 years here, I mean, I would jump out of bed. I couldn’t wait to get over here to come to work, whether we were at Three Rivers or over here on the South Side, because we had good coaches when I came here. Dick LeBeau was the secondary coach. Dom Capers was the coordinator. Marvin (Lewis) was the linebackers coach. I was the second-youngest guy on the staff. Now I’m the oldest by quite a few years. It was time to go.

Q: What stands out from the Cowher years?

JM: Bill Cowher was a heck of a football coach. The thing that I remember about Bill, he wanted a tough, physical team. He felt that’s what it would take to win in our division at that time because you had Cleveland running the ball, you had Cincinnati running the ball, you have Baltimore running the ball. And Bill wanted tough, physical players and he wanted coaches who would be tough on the players to make them physical, teach them what to do, and have them ready for Sunday. And Bill was a good guy. He took care of his coaches. He really loved his coaches. I really, really enjoyed working for Bill. You didn’t ever have to worry about where you stood. He would tell you. He would always say, “You ask a tough question, you’re going to get a tough answer.”

Q: In that first Super Bowl, you guys stuffed Emmitt Smith. Is that a long-time regret of yours that you lost the game even though the front played so well?

JM: When you get to the Super Bowl, you’ve got to have a little luck and things have to fall your way. Things just didn’t fall our way when we played the Cowboys that year. They had a good football team. But you know, it’s a team thing, and that’s what Bill stressed. I can remember what he said: “Hell, we just fell short. This should be motivation for us to get back.” It took us 10 years to get back, and that’s what a lot of players don’t realize. In the National Football League, you only have so many chances. Most of the guys who were with us when we played Dallas in Arizona didn’t last 10 years. I would tell my players that it’s a rare opportunity that you get and you’ve got to be ready when it presents itself.

Q: I know Levon Kirkland was spectacular in that Super Bowl, but who was a defensive lineman who was underrated in that game?

JM: At that time, Kevin Henry played really well. We had some young guys. Chad Brown played well. We just had a good football team. At that time, I’m not ashamed to say, Dallas had a better team.

Q: You told me this past year that Brentson Buckner was one of the smartest players you’ve ever had.

JM: Him and Chris Hoke. They were two of the smartest guys I’ve ever coached. Brentson Buckner was like a coach on the field. Not only did he know every position on the defensive line, he knew what the linebackers were supposed to do, and the secondary. The smartest guy. A lot of people don’t know Brentson Buckner could’ve been a Rhodes Scholar. He was so intelligent, and he didn’t think he would fit in if people knew how intelligent he was. I had to stay on him. Brentson ain’t a thug but sometimes he wanted people to think he was a thug. That sucker was so intelligent, and I’m serious. Whatever you said to Brentson – even a week later or a month later – he’ll give it to you verbatim what you said. He never made a mental mistake. He and Hokie were the two guys who never made a mental mistake.

Q: As the team had to rebuild in the late 1990s, I like to point to the drafting of Alan Faneca, Hines Ward, Joey Porter and a guy named Aaron Smith as THE beginnings of the next championship team. What did you think of Aaron at the start of his career?

JM: Aaron Smith’s first two years, he didn’t like me because I never called him by his name. I called him ninety-one. Aaron Smith came from a small school, Northern Colorado, and they only had about three or four coaches on the staff, so Aaron Smith didn’t know any fine points about football. When he got here, he had to play technique football. The first year and a half was pretty tough on him. But Aaron Smith – I’ve said this and I’ll believe it until they put me in my grave – is one of the best defensive linemen to play here after Joe Greene.

Q: Brett Keisel called Aaron the best Steeler he ever played with.

JM: He’s the best. When Aaron Smith was in his prime, nobody in the National Football League could block him. Nobody. I don’t care what team we played – nobody. I can remember this vividly: Every Sunday pre-game, the opposing offensive line coach would come to me and say, “Hey, is 91 playing today?” And I would say, “Yeah, and he’s pissed off.” (Laughed)

Q: (Laughs) He was pissed off quite a bit, too!

JM: (Laughs) People don’t know how well he played. They can go back and look at tape. He played phenomenally.

Q: I’m sure he was a team player who did everything he was told —

JM: Let me tell you something Jim. His son had cancer as a kid. I would tell Aaron Smith not to come to practice, leave early. I remember one day his son had a major procedure and I said, “Aaron, go and be with your family. You don’t need to be here.” And he said, “My family is right here.” I couldn’t make him go home. He didn’t miss a practice. He didn’t miss a meeting. It wasn’t like he came to the meeting and his mind wasn’t there. He was attentive. And he was there every day. People don’t know what he went through but he didn’t let it distract him from what his job was. I got so much respect for him. I told him one time, “If you come to practice, you and I are going to fight.” And I said, “Hey, I know you’re going to win, but I’m damn sure going to pass the first lick.” (Laughs)

Q: You were really going to fight him?

JM: I wanted him to be with his family. He didn’t need to be here with the things he was doing. But that shows you the love he had for the Pittsburgh Steelers and his teammates.

Q: Couldn’t he have had many more sacks and much more acclaim in a different scheme?

JM: No question. No question. But there was not a better run player. Back then when there was voting for the Pro Bowl and All-Pro, he didn’t get many sacks, but the guys who got the sacks didn’t play the run as well as he did. He was the best run player I ever coached.

Q: That was a helluva line you took through two Super Bowls, wasn’t it?

JM: You’ve got Casey Hampton, you’ve got Aaron Smith, you’ve got Brett Keisel. Who you gonna double? If you double Aaron Smith, Casey Hampton’s going to kill you. If you double Brett Keisel, Aaron Smith’s gonna kill you. We had three guys up front who could hold their five or six guys. It was the best line I coached when I was here. And behind them you had Travis Kirschke, and you had Nick Eason, you had Chris Hoke. When Casey got hurt in the Dallas game in Texas, Chris Hoke went in there and I used to tease Hamp that Chris Hoke’s played better than you because our run-per average was really good. But I had three really good ballplayers, and the three backups could’ve been starters on any team in the NFL.

Q: So Cam Heyward comes along and doesn’t play right away.

JM: Well you’ve got Aaron Smith and Brett Keisel (chuckles). It was funny, I know his mother pretty well, and she came to me one time and said, “You play my son.” And I said, “Hey, Mrs. Heyward, I’ll play him when he’s ready.” (Laughs)

Q: It seemed like it took a long time for him to play. Was his technique faulty?

JM: No. He just had good players in front of him. I always wanted players to come in here and work hard. When we drafted Casey Hampton, he didn’t start the first six games. I wanted them to earn it. I think when you give players something and you’ve got other guys in that room, and they see that, I think it sets a bad precedent. I wanted guys to come in there and earn it. Casey was the best nose tackle physically, mentally, and everything, but I wasn’t going to give it to him. He had to show me on the field in practice that he was the best. After six games his rookie year, he was.

Q: It seems like Cam still gets better every week, doesn’t it?

JM: Oh, you’re talking about a tough sucker. The thing about Cam, he has pride in what he does. If he’s in practice and he gets blocked, it kills him. It makes him mad. Next thing you’re thinking he’s going to get in a fight because the guy blocked him. But (chuckles) it’s important to him. And you can tell the guys who it’s important to every day. Cam wanted to be the best he could be and you have to push yourself. He does that. Cam’s not going to be happy just making All-Pro or the Pro Bowl. He wants to be the best defensive tackle in the league. That’s the way he thinks, that’s the way he practices, that’s the way he prepares.

Q: Your feelings on Stephon Tuitt?

JM: Tuitt was a good football player. He made a decision and sometimes a decision is tough. He did what he thought was best for him and his family. I know what it’s like to lose a brother. I lost a brother in a car accident. Tuitt could’ve been as good as he wanted to be.

Q: What do you think of the state of not just the D-line, but the state of the club?

JM: I think they’re in great shape. I really do. Mike has some good coaches here. He’s got some good players. Fifty-six (Alex Highsmith) really exploded this past year. Ninety (T.J. Watt), what can you say about him? You’ve got Cam. Coach Dunbar’s got some young guys who are going to get better because he’s a heck of a coach. I think we’re going to have a pretty good football team.

Q: From the perspective of you, the great defensive line coach, what’s your definition of the Steelers Way?

JM: The Steelers Way here, when you come in here, you fall in line. You watch the Cam Heywards, you watch the Aaron Smiths, you watch Casey Hampton, you watch Brett Keisel, you watch Chris Hoke, you watch how they come to practice, you watch how they watch tape, you watch how they play, you watch how they carry themselves on and off the field. That’s the Steelers Way. The torch was handed down when we got Aaron Smith, Casey and Brett Keisel from the guys I had. The Steelers Way, I never let guys wear hats in my meeting room. When Aaron Smith and Casey and Brett Keisel came and they saw guys, they said, “We don’t wear a hat in Coach Mitchell’s meeting room.” I never had to address that again, because of the Steelers Way. If those young guys we drafted, or guys we got from other teams, if they would do that, Aaron Smith or one of the guys would say, “Hey, we don’t wear hoodies in our room, we don’t put hoodies up over our head, we don’t put the cap on. And we show up on time. We come five minutes early.” That’s the Steeler Way when the torch is handed down from one generation to the next.

Q: Do you believe that “kids these days aren’t what they used to be”?

JM: No, I don’t believe that. I tell people this: Hard work has never changed. It didn’t change when they were winning four Super Bowls in six years in the ’70s. It didn’t change when we won the two. Hard work never changes. They say people have changed. Well, people have not changed. It’s what you accept from people that’s changed.

This story appeared originally at 247sports.com