*NASHVILLE, Tenn. — *Dick LeBeau has spent a lifetime in the NFL, first as a player, and then as a coach.
The year he spent with the Titans in 2015 convinced the defensive wizard he wasn’t ready to hang it up after 57 years in the league. Until recently, however, he wasn’t 100 percent sure where he’d work.
When the Titans named Mike Mularkey head coach, things came into focus.
“I talked to some people, but I was never going to go anywhere if I could come back here,’’ LeBeau said on Thursday. “I have respect for Mike. We worked together in Pittsburgh, and he’s an excellent coach. But I also like our players, the way they work, the way they fought through a tough situation last year.
“I was never going anywhere but here, if they’d have me.”
Following a season when the Titans made some significant improvements on the defensive side of the ball, Mularkey on Wednesday hired LeBeau as the team’s assistant head coach/defensive coordinator.
LeBeau, who’s 78, said he’s already looking forward to the 2016 season, under Mularkey.
“I am probably as excited for this season as any I can remember. It is a great challenge, but I know the personnel so much better, and the players know me so much better. We are going to continue to grow together,’’ LeBeau said.
“By definition, an assistant coach assists the head coach and that’s what your job entails. I am here to assist Mike in any way that I can, and the best I can do is get our defense on up there. We need to get some more wins around here and give our fans something to get excited about.”
In LeBeau’s first season with the Titans, the team improved in nearly every defensive category, including total defense (12th from 27th), rush defense (18th from 31st) and pass defense (7th from 15th). It was the highest ranking in total defense by the Titans since 2008.
LeBeau served as assistant head coach/defense in 2015, while long-time protégé Ray Horton was the team’s defensive coordinator. Horton won’t be on the staff this fall.
In 2016, LeBeau said he plans to do some things differently.
“We changed significantly (last year), and I think next year we are going to change even more. We are definitely going to be a little different,’’ LeBeau said. “I think the players responded well to the new stuff, and I think it’s good to have new stuff in so teams that know you well, especially your divisional opponents, they are going to have to prepare for different things. It’s not the same old, same old.
“There were a lot of ideas we didn’t have time to implement last year, and we can do that now.”
Titans Online looks at the career of NFL coaching legend Dick LeBeau. (AP Photos)
In 2015, the Titans finished sixth in the NFL in sacks per play, and the running defense (8th in rush average) improved compared to the previous season. LeBeau liked what he saw most the season, but he didn’t like all the big plays allowed. He also didn’t like the fact the Titans allowed 30 points or more in the last five games.
Prior to joining the Titans, LeBeau served as defensive coordinator for the Steelers for 11 seasons (2004 – 2014). Overall, he’s spent 13 seasons (1995-96, 2004-14) as defensive coordinator for the Steelers, during which time the defense finished in the top five in defensive rankings 10 times, and five seasons as number one in defense (2004, 07, 08, 11, 12).
“I want to get better in every single category,’’ LeBeau said of the Titans. “When you take where we were after the 2014 season and see where we were after the 2015, you’d have to say we made significant progress. I want to continue with that progress, and that’s in all areas. I don’t want to get fat and happy with any of them. … I want to acknowledge they made solid progress, but we have to keep getting better.”
On Thursday, LeBeau joked when asked about his secret to success, and why he continues to coach while others his age are enjoying retirement.
He’ll turn 79 in the fall, but looks much younger.
Is it the exercise?
“I stay active. I am more of a walker,’’ LeBeau said. “I love to play golf. If I ride, which I often do since I don’t carry my clubs, I park the damn cart away from my golf ball and walk to it and walk back. I am always moving on the practice field. You have to have exercise.”
How about the diet?
“I am on a see-food diet. I see food, and eat it,’’ he said with a smile. “I just try and be smart. I try not to put too much poison in my body. Your body will tell you if you are overdoing anything, so I try and listen to my body.”
More than anything, he just likes being around positive people.
“I like Tennessee a lot. I really love being here,’’ LeBeau said. “We just have to win more games and that will make it even better.”