Age Just Number

Richard Mann (J. Meric/Getty Images)

New Steelers WRs coach Richard Mann has been out of football for three years, but his 28 years in football should be appreciated.

Already, there's derision.

It's all around. One blogger called wide receivers coach Richard Mann "Old Mann" in his headline. But the text explained it was used only to describe the public's general feelings about Mike Tomlin's latest hire for the Pittsburgh Steelers.

My initial response was an optimistic one. In fact, the hire of a guy who's spent 28 years in the NFL coaching offensive football brought to mind an old quote once used to describe how fussy and cantankerous ol' Dick Hoak could be in a Steelers' offensive meeting:

"We can't block that up!" Hoak was famous for saying.

And that usually led to the erasing of whatever diagram a younger offensive coordinator had been enthusiastically weaving on the chalkboard.

Hoak coached Steelers running backs for 35 years. He retired following the 2006 season, a season in which quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was sacked 46 times, or 7 fewer times than he had been sacked the previous two seasons combined.

Maybe Hoak saw the future. Maybe he saw a team that couldn't, or wouldn't, "block that up" anymore.

Regardless, Hoak retired at the age of 67 and the Steelers have been searching for his brand of running game ever since.

Of course, Hoak did miss two Super Bowls, one ring. I'd like to think Dick LeBeau had more to do with that than anyone else.

LeBeau coached with Hoak under Bill Cowher, and after Hoak and Cowher left, LeBeau stayed on when Tomlin replaced Cowher as head coach in 2007.

It seemed like an easy call by Tomlin, in retrospect, but at the time Tomlin was a young defensive-minded coach who had been raised on the cover-2 that his mentor, Tony Dungy, had learned from Bud Carson and Chuck Noll and had refined.

LeBeau ran the radically different 3-4 zone blitz, and Tomlin agreed to let the 70-year-old stay on and run it. Through each of the subsequent six seasons, the Steelers' defense ranked among the top five in the NFL. It's been No. 1 the last two seasons.

"There's nothing this game can present to him that he hasn't seen," Tomlin told reporters before he and LeBeau appeared in their second Super Bowl together. "At the same time he has a unique and very authentic way of relating those stories and lessons to the men."

Mann apparently commanded that kind of respect in Tampa Bay, at least that's what running back Earnest Graham said.

Graham was entering his eight season with the team in January of 2009 when he lamented the rumored firing of Mann, who had just finished his eight season coaching wide receivers for the Bucs.

Graham told a Tampa radio station at the time that Mann's departure "would be a big loss." Graham went on to say that Mann is "a soft-spoken guy with a powerful locker room presence," a blogger relayed. And, "when Mann did address the team, or a group of Bucs, every player was listening."

Tomlin probably saw the same thing when he spent four seasons on staff with Mann.

Mann grew up in Aliquippa, attended Arizona State, and began his coaching career at the two schools before moving on to stints at Louisville and in the NFL with the Colts, Browns, Jets, Ravens and Chiefs before the Bucs.

He coached such notables as Ozzie Newsome and Keyshawn Johnson, and developed receivers such as Derrick Alexander and Michael Jackson. Mann was also one of the few to command respect from the talented and enigmatic Antonio Bryant.

But Mann didn't have much success with the young Tampa Bay receivers, or in particular 2004 first-round bust Michael Clayton. Of course, no one can be sure whether that was the fault of the coach or the personnel man who drafted Clayton.

Another big question is this: Why hasn't Mann been hired the past three seasons?

Perhaps he'll bring a reasonable explanation to the media some day soon, but it must also be pointed out that if it weren't for old friend Tom Donahoe, LeBeau would've also had a hole in his resume. Or maybe he would've just retired for good.

Donahoe hired the just-fired LeBeau in Buffalo before Cowher agreed to stay out of LeBeau's way, allowing LeBeau to agree to come back to Pittsburgh in 2004.

LeBeau was 67 at the start of that 2004 season, and this is what he said six years later at the conclusion of his Pro Football Hall of Fame acceptance speech:

"If I would've gotten out of my life's work at 65 or 67, when they say is the age of retirement, here is what I would have missed: I would have missed not one but two world championship football teams that I got to be a part of; I got to be a part of a No. 1 defense that statistically had the lowest numbers in the last 35 or 40 years; I had my number retired from my high school; had a building named after me in my hometown; I made the Detroit Lions' All 75-Year Team; I was accepted into the Ohio State University Athletic Hall of Fame. Now, tonight, I'll be in the NFL Hall of Fame.

"My mother always said, ‘Onward and upward. Age is just a number.'"

Of course, no one here is saying that the 65-year-old Mann is going to end up in the Hall of Fame. But no one here is saying that he's too old to coach football at a high level.

And there's no one here who doesn't want a curmudgeon in the meeting room complaining to a young hotshot coach with a smoking piece of chalk in his hand that "We can't block that up!"

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