Our Ron Lippock spoke with former Steelers offensive coordinator and current XFL New York head coach Kevin Gilbride. Gilbride was the Steelers’ offensive coordinator from 1999 to 2000 and also worked for the Houston Oilers, Jacksonville Jaguars, San Diego Chargers, Buffalo Bills and New York Giants. The XFL is set to launch in the spring of 2020.
First, let me know what you’re up to and what your working on now?
Well, before taking the XFL head coaching job I was doing stuff for the media, for Sunday Night Football. I was looking at game films of the teams before the game and creating a teaching tape on the offenses and defenses of both teams looking at player tendencies and matchup problems. Showing why the left tackle gets beat if they drop their hands, et cetera. I send the tape to the executive producer, Fred Gaudelli who distributes it to his staff and Chris Collinsworth and Al Michaels. I know Michaels couldn’t care less about the tape but the other guys appreciate it. I’d give them examples so that when those things happen in the game Chris can talk about it.
It all started three years ago when Cris said he didn’t feel prepared on Sundays after Thursday night games. They’d fly out in the evening and talk to the teams the next day. They just didn’t have the time to look at film. So he uses what I sent to him and has gotten used to it.
So let’s step back to your time in Pittsburgh. What brought you there as the offensive coordinator under Bill Cowher?
Well, when I was with the Houston Oilers — this was when Chuck Noll left — the Steelers asked for permission to talk to me about the head coach position, but the Oilers refused. I told them they couldn’t do that but they said that the Rooneys wouldn’t complain and air dirty laundry publicly. They cared too much about the league. But the story of their interest in me got leaked in the Pittsburgh papers and of course then the Houston papers picked it up.
So, they finally granted permission and I went down there on Friday, but by then Cowher and Dave Wannstadt had already interviewed twice there. When I got there I thought my interview went well. I thought I had the job. Dan said he wanted to meet my wife on Monday, But a few days went by an I didn’t hear anything then I learned they went a different way with Cowher.
What did they tell you about the decision?
Dan said he was the only one that had a problem with me. He told me that my use of the run and shoot in Houston worried him because he wanted his team to play a different, more physical style of offense. He said he needed someone to push him off of the cliff. That even though he knew I didn’t need to run the run and shoot, he knew the job was difficult and that I might fall back into it if things got hard.
He said that he had some advice for me. ‘Get out of Houston,’ he said. I told him he made a mistake, that I was the best guy for the job. He told me I wasn’t the only guy who felt that way. He just couldn’t push himself over the edge to hire me.
He told me that Cowher had the Hunt family helping him and that I needed a place that didn’t want to hold me back. That they should give me a chance to be a head coach. He thought that highly of me. A year later I learned they were still recommending me to other teams.
So, when I was fired in San Diego, the Steelers offered me the job as their offensive coordinator. I felt it would be a good place to go. A good influential organization to work for.
But it must have been hard working for the guy selected over you.
Well, it wasn’t the greatest of relationships, yeah. Let’s just say that. My first year we had a losing season but the next year we got back on track. I do know he told me that I saved our jobs after that second season. He was appreciative. But it wasn’t somewhere I wanted to stay and I was able to get a head coaching job afterwards.
What do you think you did that had the greatest effect on that offense?
I straightened out Kordell. I made him do the stuff that made him uncomfortable: learning to read coverages and throw at locations more. Before he’d make a good play winging it and would get pats on the back for it. I told him it still wasn’t ok, he needed to find his reads instead of doing that.
The next year he started off well, but then he backed into doing his own thing again.
Why do you think he did so?
He was a gifted athlete. I just think he felt he didn’t need to prepare and be shackled to a system anymore. I heard it through the grapevine that he told people he wanted me to let him be himself. I went in after I heard that and told him being himself got him benched behind Mike Tomczak and Kent Graham.
Any good memories of your time there?
I loved the organization, Dick Hoak, Mike Mularkey and the other guys. It was a special place. No other team values coaching the way it needs to be be viewed like Pittsburgh. Rooney fired his brother rather than fire Noll. And even though they really liked Tom Donohoe and the work he did they fired him and stuck with Cowher. It was a unique place.
When I interviewed in Pittsburgh, I remember Dan Rooney shut the door behind us and told me he never does that, that people must be wondering what was going on. That he kept the door open for everyone from the custodians to the field crew. That’s how he knew what was going on in the organization.
Any fun interactions with the players?
There were some neat things I remember with the players. Mike Tomczak and the guys took me and my wife to Nemacolin for a weekend. The next season Kent Graham and the guys knew I was a Kenny Rogers fan so they organized a limo to take me and my wife to a casino in West Virginia to see him. We barely made it to the concert though – the limo didn’t know how to get there so we walked in in the middle of the show.
They sent us to Seven Springs too. They did some nice things for us.
I will say it was nice going back to San Diego after I was fired and beating them. Dan let me take my son, who was a freshman at BYU and was on Christmas break. That was fun being able to do that.
Any on-field memories that stand out as well?
Oh yeah. This one’s about Hines Ward. We were playing the Jets and Kordell was throwing to Hines on a seam route and threw it behind Hines a bit. Hines kind of got a bit of alligator arms, but he would have been crushed if the safety — Victor Green — hit him. Green was a very good young safety and he stood over Hines and started jawing with him and giving him a lot of grief for being afraid to get hit.
The next play was a run play and Hines’ assignment was to block Green and it turned into a fight between the two guys, They went at it and it both almost got kicked out. The next play was another running play and the two went at it again. We ran another running play and that play Green wasn’t Hines’ assignment but by that point he didn’t care and just went after him again.
Green finally pulled Ward aside at the end of the first half and said ‘Hey, let’s put this all aside and be professionals. Let’s be pros.’
Well, the third quarter came around and it continued anyway. And by the end of the game Green was running away from Hines on every play. I never saw anything like it!
I walked with Hines to the locker room after the game and Hines asked me why I kept running plays lining him up against Jones. Now, I don’t remember it that way, but maybe I did, I don’t know. But then I hear someone call my name and I look around.
A woman charges at me and screams at me: ‘Why were you trying to ruin my husband’s career!’ Well, I walked away from her. It was Green’s’ wife and I wanted nothing to do with any of that. But you know Hines, with that grin of his, just looked at her and said, ‘Ma’am – we’re just playing football.”
Looking at the Steelers current issues with some players and off-the-field behavior, being an experienced coach, how do you prevent those things from occurring?
That’s your job as a head coach. Tom Coughlin wasn’t a big help on offense or defense, but he created the culture and atmosphere on those teams. That’s the job of a head coach, to establish that culture and the standards on the team. When you start allowing certain guys to do things and let things go as I understand happened there, you’re just asking for trouble.
What do you think of the way the game has changed over the years?
Certain things I can see they are wrestling with to get a handle on. Protecting players is a worthwhile goal but the calls are inconsistent. Sometimes you have to look at plays and understand that bang-bang plays are hard to penalize defensive players on for things like head-to-head hits, when it’s hard to attribute any deliberate attempt to hurt anyone or ability to prevent it.
When I was on the competition committee they would argue that some minor holds on defense were not naturally effecting the play. I asked them, ‘In whose mind?’ If it’s a timing route and the quarterback is on his fifth step getting ready to throw a 45 yard pass, that effects the accuracy of the throw. Or just because the quarterback doesn’t throw to a guy doesn’t mean that the guy getting mugged didn’t affect the play and it’s not interference.
When I was in Houston I came up with the language they use for when defensive players were offsides and they had to determine whether to give the offense a free play or not. The “unabated to the quarterback” language meant they’d blow the whistle because the quarterback would be in danger, if not they’d let them play.
You have to try to be fair and stay what’s true and genuine to the game. How you fairly enforce certain things. But I’ll tell you, no one whines more than defensive coaches and players! I remember Dick LeBeau complaining because they were calling guys for holding and latching in to receivers on hitch-and-go’s. He asked how they could call that, I told him maybe he should tell his guys not to jump routes and latch on to the guys!