First, I know you just recently stepped down from coaching in Green Bay, What’s next?
Well, I haven’t ruled out going back to coaching yet. I know there was talk of me coaching in the new league but that won’t happen. At no time have I considered that.
Right now I’m doing some contracting – property management. Keeping my options open.
It’s been great reconnecting with my family. Decompressing. I’m realizing there is much more to life than just football. When you’re playing and even moreso when you’re coaching, you think football is the only thing that matters. Now I’m seeing firs hand the difference. I just took my daughter to school at Penn State for her first year there. I never got to do that with my first two daughters. I always felt bad – this opportunity made me feel how special it was to get back to the real world. When you play and coach it’s always a grind. You’re thinking about ball all the time, even when you’re at home.
Now I’m reconnecting with my wife and working. I’m starting small with some small projects and slowly getting back into it. Here I am – slowly getting back into it and enjoying it. I’m not looking to get in too deep though, just in case I decide to coach again. We’ll see how it goes. I remember saying I’d be happy if I made it to 50 still coaching and I’m close to that now. So we’ll see how I feel and if I decide to coach again I’ll make the appropriate calls this September to coach in 2019.
Did other coaches help give you advice on your next steps – how to approach things?
Bill Cowher once told me that by his second and third year, he didn’t have many friends any more. You get so caught up in the sport you don’t talk to anyone for months. As a coach you’re in at 5:30 and out at 10:00. What little time you have you try to spend with family. You come to realize that the people that mean more to you – you didn’t realize how much they meant to you until you get cut off from them.
How did you get your start in coaching? What is awkward coaching players you played alongside of in Pittsburgh?
It wasn’t hard to get started. When I was playing even, we’d take bus rides to Duquesne and Pitt to practice when the weather was bad. Coach Hodgson and LeBeau would also tell me I should become a coach. That I’d make a good coach. Back then I told them no way – not after I heard and saw what they had to deal with with some of these guys!
But after I retired from playing I worked in real estate – I jumped right in to the residential home business – rebuilding homes. LeBeau called me and asked me to interview or the safety coaching position they had – the prior coach had retired and they wanted to talk to me about filling the position. They liked that I already knew the system.
When I got there I spent time first with Mike Brown who was already then a big ambassador for the game. I interviewed with him first for about an hour. It was intimidating – I had no idea I was going to be talking to him first. I spoke with LeBeau and the others guy afterwards. LeBeau knew me and spoke highly of me – I figured after the interview he’d come out and tell me I got the job.
Well, instead he told me thanks for coming in – and they are interviewing five-to-six other guys and would let me know in a week! That threw me. I told him I thought I was their guy, He laughed and told me it doesn’t work like that. That they’d call me in a week or so and let me know. Well, I got a call three days later telling me I got the job. O never did this before – I had no idea about salaries or anything. I asked my agent what I should ask for and he just told me to take what they offer. I’m just starting out and I should just be happy and look to use this to go to bigger things.
How was Dick LeBeau to work for?
Dick was great. He gave me great advice – to not get caught up in the political stuff – its such an insecure business. I’m so glad he told me that, There’s so much insecurity and self-preservation with these adults in coaching. It helped me to keep above that stuff. It doesn’t matter – just do your job and work to develop the players. I always held on to that,
I remember when I coached in Cincinnati – it was such a small scouting department. I mean, I’m doing it justice by saying small. I learned so much first hand because of that. I was a scout and a coach there. I asked questions and had to figure it out as I did it – I never did that work before. One week I’m in the office then I’m on the road working guys out and writing reports. I had to learn the lingo – the scouting language, They have their own language. I laugh about it to this day,
Carnell Lake and I later on used to joke about that stuff – the acronyms. He once asked me what COD was – I told him change of direction. He laughed and shook his head. A lot of guys act like they know what those mean but have no idea! He came up to me once and told me he had a great one for me. CB! I asked what that was – he told me contact balance! It’s funny what they come up with!
I spoke to guys like Stouvaints and Flowers who spoke of you as being a great mentor. How difficult was that for you, mentoring guys that are after your spot?
Well, it was passed down and started for me with LeBeau as a rookie, We had a veteran team – Carnell Lake, Woodson, Larry Griffin, who was from my hometown. I actually surpassed Larry to become a starter. The thing is, as a rookie you just keep your mouth shut and learn!
For me, the Steelers were implementing new schemes and that gave me an advantage. Cowher and LeBeau were new and they added new verbiage and schemes. So we were all starting a ground zero. When they saw I knew the calls and was committed, they gave me more “juice” as I call it. I was able to offer advice then and they helped show me how to prep my body like a professional.
Any good stories of your time as a player you can share?
As a rookie I used to go to the cafeteria for lunch and eat so fast so I could get out of there before the vets got there – so they couldn’t get me!
I was a late round pick and had no money. The defensive backs all took pride in our appearance – they wanted to be the best dressed on the team. They told me Friday before a Saturday trip to Houston that we were all required to wear sports coats when we traveled! well, I didn’t own a sports coat!
So I ran down to Kaufmans. The lady there recognized me – she asked if I was Steeler. She told me she didn’t see many Steelers buy off the rack! I told her, well, this Steeler doesn’t have a lot of money! There was no way I was going to step on that airplane without a suit – I didn’t want to think about what would happen to me if I did!
One other good one. The rookies would take the players out every year for dinner. But they gave me slack because I played well as a rookie. We had a money pool then – every mistake, touchdown allowed – every time those happened you had to put money into that pool and we let it run all season. At the end they decided they wanted to give me the money to take them all out for dinner. Rod decided he wanted the coaches to come too.
Well LeBeau told me years later that Dom had a meeting with Cowher that day. Usually the coaches got out around three or four but that night Cowher was grilling Dom about the gameplan and evidently Dom was sweating , looking at his watch, trying to make it. Meanwhile, Dick was waiting outside when two stretch limos pulled up with us in them. Dick had no idea we were going in limos.
Dom had to meet us later that night – you never know with Cowher! Cowher told me that’s the reason he’s not coming back. It’s a different world – football.
Any other stories you remember?
Rod Woodson and Hardy Nickerson and I all talked a lot about running to the ball in practice. Hardy was prideful – we all wanted to play physical to the finish. When we went to play the Bengals, Hardy was at the point where he had had enough of Pittsburgh. He wanted a new contract and was just playing angry and hitting everyone- we all knew he was going to leave.
Well, during the game there was a big pile-up on one of the running backs, and Hardy came flying in and hit Woodson in the back. He drilled him. I just remember Woodson jumping back, holding his back and yelling “Quit hitting our own players!”
Let’s talk a bit more about how quickly you ascended to a starter, When did you realize you made it, and what made that quick rise possible?
When I was a rookie Carnell was holding out. I used to tease him that he held out so he only had to practice for half of camp. I was starting to realize they may be considering me as a starter in my third preseason game when I was getting a lot of playing time. That’s when I realized I might be ok. During that game Rod hurt his calf, then DJ Johnson did too. I ended up playing the entire game and had to play cornerback too – I never played corner before!
Carnell finally showed up for game four of preseason against the Giants. He came in two days before the game and dressed for the game and played. When Dom Caper called in a play during the game he yelled out to me asking what that meant! I said to myself “Oh shit!” Like LeBeau said – one if his LeBeauisms – “It’s not what you know, it’s what you think you know that isn’t so!”
You look at the Steelers now and the NFL in general – the safety position has changed a lot. What made you successful as a safety – and what do players need to do today to be successful?
It’s hard because the safety is furthest from the ball. You have to have good vision. It’s not like playing cornerback where you just had to worry about one angle of the field. You have the left, right, and middle. The angle of play entry you take is critical – you can’t put yourself in bad positions to make plays.
It’s about diagnosis and eye control. You have to trust what you see. Offenses are built on deception – you have to see through it. You have to realize that it’s not black and white. You have to play through the grey, Pro style offense are designed to make you play slow and keep you off balance. You have to play through that.
Can you talk more about how a player does that? It’s easy to say it needs done – but how does someone learn how to do so?
You’ve got to study. Spend a lot of time in the classroom. Thinking about what you are doing puts you behind the eight ball. It’s not a thinking man’s game. It’s a reaction game. That’s what Dick Lebeau says. You have to study.
That was the beautiful thing about Troy. You’re not going to have 100% of the information to make a decision. Sometimes you may only have 20% or 30%. If you wait for more it’s too late. You have to take what you have and go. Troy – sometimes he would go with 5%! I would tease him – you’re reacting too soon Troy!
Today they have great data to help guys watch film and understand what they are seeing. It’s a great help – if Troy had that information then, I can’t imagine how good he’d be. He would have watched it all day. In ’92, we didn’t have computers at the Steelers offices. Capers once asked Rooney if they could buy him a computer, Rooney pointed at the four Super Bowl trophies and told him “We didn’t have computers when we won those, Dom!”
You coached Troy – tell me a bit about him as a player?
He would study all the time. Before one game versus the Bengals, we talked about a play they ran in a certain formation. They ran 100% of the time in that formation.
So, in the game, the Bengals are in the red zone. The call came in and Troy was supposed to be in coverage. But instead Troy blitzes and makes a play in the backfield. Cowher yelled at me “What was Troy doing? He can’t do that!” I told him that sometimes I don’t know what Troy was thinking. Troy – he was always in control. When he came to the sidelines, Cowher was glaring at me as I was talking to him. I asked him what he was thinking. I knew Cowher was watching me – and I’m only in my second year coaching so I’m nervous. “They were in the I Left formation you said they ran out of 100% of the time. Isn’t that what I was supposed to do?” he asked. Well, I told Bill what happened. He asked me if that was right – if I told him that. I told him it was right on the tip sheet. Cowher just said “Well, tell him to be careful!” When I told him Troy just laughed. He knew Cowher was mad at me at first.
One last question – Morgan Burnett. Thoughts on him, having coached him at Green Bay?
Morgan and Troy – they are two of my favorite players. There’s none better than Morgan. I told Keith Butler – there’s not a finer human being. He’ll be a leader for the young guys and bring a lunch pail to work every day. He’s a pro’s pro. He knows how to practice and approach the game.
Any last thoughts before I let you go?
It’s funny, the hardest adjustment is that your life is so regimented as a player and a coach. You have your routines – when you eat, workout. Heck in Green Bay you even had to wear Green Bay attire. It’s been all about me for the past 20 years – from coaching to playing. Coaching is a bit selfish. So I’m happy to be with my family. I wouldn’t trade my career for anything, but I’m happy to be taking this time off.
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