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Steelers assistant head coach a pioneer on and off the field

| Sunday, Nov. 23, 2008

He sat in a chair, just as one of the great statesmen of the 20th century had done before a speech that offers a glimpse into why the Steelers' defense is as leak-proof as they come, and he seemed just as comfortable talking about the fine arts as he did about football.

John Mitchell may be the caretaker of a defensive line that has been impenetrable but to label him a coach is to say the Steelers are just a football team.

Mitchell collects wine and art and visits museums all over the country. He is an avid reader and is especially fascinated with historical figures such as Winston Churchill. After a recent Steelers practice Mitchell talked about a commencement address Churchill delivered late in his life, before which the former Great Britain prime minister pushed himself out of his chair just so he could stand.

"When (Churchill) got up to the podium, he put his right arm down and his left arm down," Mitchell said. "Looked to his right, looked out center and looked to his left, paused, and he said only six words. The six words he said were 'Never, never, never, never, never quit.' "

Mitchell frequently repeats those words to his players, and it is safe to say they are not tuning him out.

Since Mitchell took over as the team's defensive line coach in 1994 -- he added the title of assistant head coach in 2007 -- the Steelers have given up more than 100 rushing yards per game in just four seasons. The significance of that is the Steelers' defense has long been predicated on shutting down the run. And making offenses one-dimensional is akin to setting a trap for them given how Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau confounds and harasses opposing quarterbacks with his blitzing schemes.

"Our players are blessed to learn the game from a coach like John Mitchell," LeBeau said. "Everybody that comes through his room gets better and I don't know a better compliment you can give to a football coach."

Mitchell's success as a coach is rooted in the six words that were seared into his consciousness long before he started reading about Churchill.

They resonate with him and, by extension, his players for a simple reason: they tell the story of his life.

A player and a pioneer

A friendly visit between two legendary coaches in 1970 changed the course of Mitchell's life.

Alabama's Paul "Bear" Bryant had been talking with John McKay when Southern Cal's coach mentioned that he had gotten a commitment from a defensive end who had starred at an Arizona junior college but hailed from Alabama.

The only thing Bryant could tell his assistants when he called back to Alabama was that the kid had grown up in Mobile and that he had the same first and last name as the man who had been with McKay.

Bryant's directive: find him.

They did, and Mitchell didn't think twice about picking Alabama, which had won three national championships in the 1960s, over Southern Cal.

The kid who simply wanted to play football and get an education also signed on as a pioneer. Mitchell became the first African-American to play in a game for Alabama, and it came in 1971 when the Civil Rights movement had advanced equality for blacks but also exacerbated racial tensions in the deep South.

Mitchell said he heard his share of name-calling in the two years he spent at Alabama, but only he will ever know the isolation and ridicule he endured while playing for the Crimson Tide.

"It's hard to understand what someone black had to put up with in the South because it wasn't pretty," said Bobby Stanford, a former teammate of Mitchell's at Alabama. "There was a lot of animosity and there still is to a certain extent between blacks and whites. John wasn't part of that. He didn't want to use being black as an excuse. It's just the way he was and the way he is now."

If he has any scars from his time at Alabama, Mitchell does not show them.

Players who feared the unknown of having a black teammate were more scared of Bryant, Mitchell said with a laugh. The relationship he forged with Stanford also helped Mitchell have what he describes as a fairly typical college experience.

Stanford, who is white, did not hesitate to room with Mitchell. The two became best friends -- they still talk as often as three times a week -- and Stanford's parents opened up their home to Mitchell and also treated him like a son when they visited Alabama.

"Whatever they brought Bobby, they would bring to me also," Mitchell said. "His father would come up on Sunday before they left, wake me up, shake my hand, kiss me just like he kissed Bobby. They didn't see color. That's why Bobby and I got along so well."

Mitchell's parents had ingrained the same thing in him -- to see people as individuals, not through the prism of race -- which is one reason why he said his father and Bryant were the two biggest influences in his life.

The elder Mitchell worked for the Coast Guard and his duties included locating and recovering smaller boats when stormy weather hit the Gulf. He tended to the restaurant the family owned and also set an example for his son as a loving husband and father.

Despite spending most of his life working and providing for his family, Mitchell said he never heard his father complain.

Bryant, a legendary taskmaster, wasn't any more interested in excuses.

But, Mitchell said, players that went to Alabama entered into an unwritten covenant. And if they gave Bryant everything that they had while they were at Alabama, they had someone in their corner for life.

"Coach Bryant was like my second father," Mitchell said. "I am where I am today because of him."

Impressive body of work

Mitchell bypassed a chance to play in the NFL after Bryant offered him a position on his staff. He coached the defensive line at Alabama from 1973-76 and, like many of his peers, had his share of travels before settling in Pittsburgh.

His players have responded to the same exhortations that Mitchell did while at Alabama -- and specifically to the challenges that Bryant issued in the fourth quarter of games when lungs burn and legs turn to putty.

The Steelers have led the NFL in rushing defense four times during Mitchell's tenure, and they did not allow a 100-yard rusher over a span of 34 games from 2005-07.

What makes Mitchell's body of work here particularly impressive is the Steelers have rarely addressed their defensive line early in the NFL draft. Since 1994, the Steelers have only used three first- or second-round picks on a down lineman.

"I was really the only first-round pick he ever had," said nose tackle Casey Hampton, the 19th overall pick of the 2001 draft, "and just look at the defensive lines we've had throughout the years."

The current one is a testament to Mitchell's ability to mold players and get the best out of them.

Starting defensive ends Aaron Smith and Brett Keisel were picked in the fourth and seventh rounds of the draft, respectively. Nose tackle Chris Hoke, an invaluable reserve, made the Steelers as an undrafted free agent.

All have thrived under Mitchell's tutelage.

If his players don't blink in the face of adversity that is because their coach became an All-American at Alabama, the first co-captain of Alabama's football team and earned a degree in social work while dealing with the kind of outside pressure that most people could not imagine.

Their level of respect for Mitchell is such that Smith said, "I really wouldn't want to play for anybody else at this point of my career. He treats you like a man."

Indeed, Mitchell never undresses a player in public, something he said he learned from Bryant. He also limits his position meetings to no more than half an hour and encourages players to leave the room for a drink of water if they start to nod out.

Mitchell, otherwise, is about as soft as a sheet of ice.

He demands punctuality and attention to detail and is particularly hard on the younger players that he breaks down and builds back up. The Churchill speech he quotes to his players is much like his coaching style: direct and without room for interpretation.

"We make jokes that we're kind of like robots," Hoke said with a laugh. "We're always on time, we're always taking notes, we're always doing things the right way."

"Watch the older guys," Smith said. "They all stand around (Mitchell) because when you were a rookie and you didn't stand around him you got your butt chewed."

Not that Mitchell is above the good-natured ribbing of his players.

When Hampton says Mitchell is "old school" he is also referring to the clothes that are considerably tighter than the garb preferred by the younger generation. And his players joke with Mitchell about when he is going to leave for a head coaching job elsewhere.

It is worth wondering given his success, pedigree and results.

"Oh, I think that's passed me by," Mitchell said, though he admittedly would be intrigued by the right job at the college level. "I'm 57 now. I like what I'm doing. I don't want a job where you go in and kill yourself and don't have a chance to win. If I can find a job that has the resources, has the financial stability, I would be interested."

Not that Mitchell loses any sleep about what the future holds.

There are more museums to visit, defensive lines to curate and stories that are not unlike his own to discover.

"I like to read about people who won't give up," Mitchell said, "people who have the fortitude that they're going to fight on and say 'Hey, I might get knocked down a dozen times but if I get up, I'm going to achieve my goal.' "

Yes, with Mitchell it always comes back to a half-dozen words.

Never, never, never, never, never quit.

Getting to know John Mitchell

Here are some facts and tidbits about the Steelers' assistant head coach/defensive line coach.

• Mitchell is in his 15th season with the Steelers and is the longest-tenured member on the coaching staff. This is his 36th season as a coach.

• He has coached for four different college teams, two different NFL teams and the USFL's Birmingham Stallions. Mitchell became the first African-American coordinator in SEC history when LSU coach Mike Archer promoted to defensive coordinator in 1990.

• He is an aficionado of fine wine but also appreciates the simpler things in life. Mitchell's favorite thing to eat is a "greasy" cheeseburger with ketchup and sauteed onions.

• When he served as an assistant coach under Lou Holtz at Arkansas from 1977-82, Mitchell regularly played in pick-up basketball games with a law professor by the name of Bill Clinton.

Running on empty?

The Steelers have consistently shut down opponents' running games since John Mitchell became the team's defensive line coach in 1994. Here is what the Steelers have given up on the ground per game in Mitchell's 15 years with the organization.

1994: 90.8

1995: 82.6

1996: 88.4

1997: 82.4

1998: 102.6

1999: 122.4

2000: 105.8

2001: 74.7

2002: 85.9

2003: 108.1

2004: 81.2

2005: 86.0

2006: 88.3

2007: 89.9

2008: 66.5*

*Through first 11 games of season

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