The Road Taken: Illustrious yet Unrecognized

By Alex Kozora (Chidi29)

August 14, 2010

For some, life is based on the outputs. The people you meet, the things you do, the way people perceive you. For John Mitchell, the output is irrelevant. It's only about the inputs in life.

Dick LeBeau, without a doubt, has been an underappreciated player and coach who is finally getting his recognition. Mitchell is very similar, minus the recognition.

Mitchell was recruited by the legendary Bear Bryant to play for him at Alabama. He accepted the offer and became the first black person to ever play football for the Crimson Tide. He didn't have a successful career as a player, but continued to break racial barriers at Alabama by becoming the first black full-time assistant coach at Alabama. Again, it was the Bryant who got him the job.

After leaving Alabama, Mitchell went on to coach under another legendary coach, Lou Holtz, at Arkansas.

He then bounced around a couple of different coaching gigs, including working under current offensive coordinator Bruce Arians, before accepting a job with the Cleveland Browns in 1991. Although not an elite coach yet, Mitchell was hired by Bill Belichick, now one of the top coaches in the NFL.

He found his current home in 1994 when the Steelers and Bill Cowher hired him to be the defensive line coach. Of the current staff, Mitchell has the longest tenure. He's worked hard, albeit quietly, to turn Casey Hampton from just a first round talent to a multiple Pro Bowler. He's taken second day picks and turned them into starters. Aaron Smith, widely considered to be the most underrated player on the defense, was originally just a 4th round pick. Current starter Brett Kiesel was a 7th round flier. Chris Hoke was an undrafted free agent who proved to be a valuable backup. Going farther back in time, Joel Steed was a 3rd round pick whose ability at the zero technique helped the team reach the Super Bowl in 1995.

Mitchell's hard work and dedication was rewarded when he was named the team's assistant head coach in 2007. His role may not have greatly increased, but it shows the gratitude and respect the team has for him.

Everywhere you go, his peers laud Mitchell.

"John Mitchell is without a doubt one of the brightest young assistant coaches in the nation. He should become a tremendous head coach one day. I even fear for my job after people realize his contribution to us winning this year." - Lou Holtz

"Every player coach Mitchell gets improves dramatically; They might not improve dramatically enough to make the football team all the time, but every single player gets better with coach Mitchell. I've always had great confidence in him." - Dick LeBeau

"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.” - Mike Tomlin

If you didn't know any better, you'd have thought these comments were about Dick LeBeau. They're not. They're all pointed towards Mitchell.

Does all of this praise go to Mitchell's head? See for yourself.

"I have great people. Chris Hoke is one of the finest people I've ever met, same with Brett Keisel, Aaron Smith, Travis Kirschke, Casey Hampton. They're people who want to get better. I don't have to do much. I can coach them hard. They don't take anything I say personally because all they want is to be better football players."

Mitchell's impact goes beyond the playing field. Deshea Townsend says that Mitchell "treats us like sons" and that he "[tries] to make us better people". As pointed out in a recent article by Gene Collier, Mitchell has been helping the Every Child Foundation, an organization that helps underprivileged families, for twelve years. He's been a part of the board of directors for nine.

Mitchell also had a close relationship to eleven year old Heather Miller who lost her battle with cancer in late January. The two often talked and Mitchell even let her conduct a drill during her visit with the team last year.

As the cliché goes, all good things must come to an end. In early 2009, Mitchell was quoted saying that he'd leave once this current group of lineman left. If that comment holds true, he won't be a coach for much longer. It is time for Mitchell to get the praise, the attention, and the respect he deserves.

The outputs in Mitchell's life, the two Super Bowl rings and working with all-time great coaches, is a rare thing for a person to accomplish.

But the inputs he's given to the world are irreplaceable.

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