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|01-24-2009, 08:25 AM||#1|
A Son of Martha
Join Date: Oct 2008
Location: Mesa, Arizona
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Football Pioneer Builds Big Men for Steelers
Football Pioneer Builds Big Men for Steelers
By SEAN D. HAMILL
PITTSBURGH — John Mitchell, the Steelers’ defensive line coach, will say again and again that he is no hero, no great man and certainly not worthy of mention as a figure of the civil rights era.
Those who know him, who know what it took to become the first African-American to play football at the University of Alabama, will say he is all of that.
“He had to be pretty strong just to walk in not knowing what was going to happen when he got there,” said Jeff Beard, who played on Alabama’s defensive line with Mitchell in 1971. “And I guess the way integration had gone in Alabama, he would have had a right to be reluctant.”
It was just a little more than seven years after Gov. George C. Wallace stood in a schoolhouse doorway in an attempt to prevent the university’s integration.
Mitchell, who attended segregated schools as a child in Mobile, Ala., said, “When I saw what Wallace did, it made me want to go there even more because I wanted to prove to myself that I was worthy of going to that state institution.”
Mitchell did that and more as a 6-foot-3, 230-pound defensive end who became an all-American, and he has continued to prove himself throughout 36 years of coaching college and professional football with lessons learned, more often than not, in Alabama.
In Pittsburgh tradition, the Steelers’ defense has made all the difference in the team’s march to the Super Bowl. While the Steelers’ linebackers have been the stars, Mitchell’s selfless linemen have added to his reputation.
“When I wonder how good a coach a guy is, I watch his players, watch how they play, watch how they respond to adversity, watch what they do, watch how they play techniquewise,” said Clarence Brooks, the Baltimore Ravens’ defensive line coach, whose team lost to the Steelers in the American Football Conference championship game on Sunday.
“And forever his guys are always sound techniquewise, always play very hard, look like they’re disciplined in drills.”
It has been that way for virtually every year in his 15-year run with the team. That longevity is a rarity in the N.F.L., and it has made him the dean of Steelers coaches.
Mitchell, a voracious reader of history who collects fine wine, artwork and vintage jazz music, has managed to get quality results with an assemblage of undrafted free agents and low-round draft picks. Of his top six linemen, only one — Casey Hampton, the starting nose tackle — was drafted before the fourth round, and two were not drafted at all.
Steelers Coach Mike Tomlin said that when he took the job two years ago, it was that ability that led him to add assistant head coach to Mitchell’s title.
“John takes a great deal of pride in what he does, the performance of his men, the development of his men,” Tomlin said. “I wanted him to have that same kind of ownership over this football team, and the growth and development of young players.”
Mitchell’s players say it is his attention to detail and an ability to find ways to motivate them that has made him so good at what he does. It is an approach that, as his players know all too well, comes straight from his mentor, Bear Bryant.
“When they come in as young guys, rookies, first-year guys, he’s able to break them down and kind of break them away from what they did when they were in college,” said the backup nose tackle Chris Hoke, who was a raw, undrafted rookie when he joined the team in 2001.
“His technique is really getting on you and being critical of and paying attention to all the little details,” Hoke said. “Because if you don’t do the little things, they turn into big things. And when situations come up, I think he looks back to, what would Coach Bryant do? And then he moves forward.”
He differs from his mentor in one critical way. While Bryant was respected by his players, he was distant from them personally while they were on the team. The 57-year-old Mitchell, who is married but does not have children, is famously involved with his.
“One thing about him is he treats us like his sons,” said Deshea Townsend, the Steelers’ longtime starting right cornerback. “He teaches us about a lot of things. He teaches us about art. He teaches us about wine, even taking us to wine tastings. He does a lot off the field to try to stimulate us and try to make us better people.”
Part of that approach is pragmatic, Mitchell said. “You find out what’s important to these guys, and once you do that, it makes your job as a coach easier.”
But it also is simply who Mitchell is, and all a part of the same personality that made it seem easy to become the first African-American player to take the field for Alabama, then become Alabama’s first African-American team captain and first African-American assistant coach.
“I care for my players,” he said. “They’re not only good football players, they’re good people. With my guys I don’t have to yell. I don’t use profanity with them. They’re men, and that’s how I treat them. I respect them, they respect me.”
Despite the racial animus that defined Alabama in the early 1960s, Mitchell said that after he transferred in, from Eastern Arizona Junior College, there was never any conflict or protest over his presence at the university or on the team in 1971 or 1972, an experience he and others credit to Bryant.
“Coach Bryant pretty much decided what went on with the football team, and everyone respected that,” said Bobby Stanford, a linebacker on those Alabama teams and Mitchell’s good friend and campus roommate.
Mitchell acknowledged catching his share of stares as he and his white teammates strolled into town together and into Tuscaloosa’s stores and restaurants. But, he said, “To most of them, I was an athlete first, and that’s all that mattered.”
Such experiences proved culturally important, said John David Briley, a political science professor at East Tennessee State and author of the book “Career in Crisis: Paul ‘Bear’ Bryant and the 1971 Season of Change.”
“The people were ready for it,” he said. “But integrating the football team made it that much easier. John clearly had a role in the civil rights movement.”
By the time Mitchell became an assistant at Alabama after playing for two seasons, a third of the team’s starters were African-American.
Though progress came swiftly, Mitchell, who has never been shy about voicing his opinion, sees more work that needs to be done.
He and many other Alabama alumni have bristled because none of the eight men who succeeded Bryant were African-American. And despite his stellar résumé, Mitchell has never been asked to interview.
“At first it hurt because they hired some people I thought I was better qualified,” he said. “I thought my résumé was better. But now, you know, I’m happy. The Rooneys treated me like part of their family. I work with Dick LeBeau. I’ve got a Super Bowl ring. We’re back in the Super Bowl. What more could you ask for?”
He intends to retire in four or five years — “When this current group of guys with the Steelers leave, I’m going with them,” he said — and he and his wife, Joyce, plan to move back to Birmingham, where he can finally use the four Alabama game tickets he never gave up, and enjoy the results of his pioneering efforts.
“I’m going to drive down there to Tuscaloosa, watch them play, sit in the stands, eat a hot dog, yell and scream,” he said. “It will be great.”
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