First – what have you been doing since you retired from the Steelers in 2017?
Shoot, I’ve been trying to stay busy the best I can. Ain’t easy but trying to do it!
I don’t watch football now but I do look at the scores and sometimes if a Steelers game is on I’ll peek. My son is a coach with the Redskins so I’ll look at those scores too.
I wasn’t ready to stop coaching, but I felt like I’d been doing it a long time. I told myself I’d stop at 70. I wasn’t ready, but it was time.
Was it a hard adjustment?
The game and philosophy behind it were starting to annoy me. The younger coaches, they were different than us old school coaches. They were more interested in outsmarting guys than teaching the fundamentals and techniques. It used to be about showing guys how to do things, now it’s just about trying to be smarter than other guys.
I was disappointed in my last year. I thought we’d win a Super Bowl that last year. I know we had the team – we were 13-3. I was kind of star-struck when we lost. I guess it wasn’t meant to be.
What coaching influences and lessons shaped the way you approached coaching?
It all started way back in high school. My head coach at Aliquippa was big on discipline. When I was at Arizona State their coach was from Johnstown and he was big on discipline too. So that’s how I got started.
There was a tight end – Jerry Smith who was with the Redskins – he got me started with the fundamentals. We didn’t have a receivers coach at Arizona State but he’d come down in the offseason and introduced me to the fundamentals – the drills and techniques. It took off from there. That gave me a good foundation. I just added to that over the years. I added drills – EDD’s – every day drills I called them. That’s what I taught all of those years. Individual techniques. Guys who get taught those are better than other guys now – those aren’t in the coaching books and don’t get taught so much now.
Lindy Infante – I learned a lot from him too. The spread offense he ran in the 80’s was unheard of in those days. Being around him, everything else was vanilla compared to him. he was so innovative. I learned a great deal from him. And as you know you’re not a great coach until you’re fired! Every time I was looking for a job he would give me a great reference. He treated me great – I am very appreciative of him/
You expressed great appreciation for Mike Tomlin. What makes Tomlin such a good coach?
He’s smart. I’m not saying this to pull on coattails, but he’s the smartest all-around head coach I’ve been around, and I’ve been around some great coaches like Gruden and Billichick. He works on all three phases of the game and puts the time in. There aren’t enough hours in the day, and he takes a lot home. My hat’s off to him. I’m pulling for him.
What brought you to Pittsburgh as a coach?
I was retired for three years. I was there in Tampa Bay when Tomlin left. Gruden knew that West Coast offense. I was more well-rounded – having worked for so many coaches. We won a Super Bowl together.
Over the years I worked on the fundamentals with players. Those go a long way. As players get older they lose speed but if they have good fundamentals they can last. Maybe he saw that.
Tomlin was the defensive backs coach and I was the receivers coached so we often worked together too. In 2013 Kirby Wilson called me. He said Coach T wanted to talk to me. I asked why and he told me just to call him. When I did he asked me if I still wanted to coach. I told him I was retired for three years! He said just to come in and talk about it so I did. It was a no brainer once I got there.
I met Antonio and told him if he bought into the little things I would teach him, his ship would come in. And he bought into them. He was already good. Now, I think he’s the best receiver I’ve ever coached. There are a lot of different offenses and body types, but I think he’s the best all-around receiver and is really good running with the ball.
To be quite frank, he wasn’t a good route-runner when I got there. He picked up technique. He listened. Everyone wants the ball and he’d get frustrated and disappointed and we’d talk about it. If he needed some space first I’d give it to him and get away from him. After about 10 minutes or so I’d look over to him and we’d make eye contact and I came back to him.
What makes a good receiver in your valuation – what are the traits you look for most?
First, give me a guy who has good speed and quickness and catches the ball well. You don’t need to be a fast guy – I can teach you to create separation and get on top of people. I’d rather you have good speed, good quickness then to have great speed and not have great hands. Football is about quickness. And they have to be good knee-benders- and smart. Not book smart. But to be able to listen and pick things up and pay attention. To do what we tell them to do. That’s coaching.
I built a library of what I’ve taught over the years. It’s all on tape. If you’re in the room listening and do what I tell you to do, there’s a library of history to prove it works. My whole thing is, it’s up to the coaches to get players to do what we tell them to do.
Speaking of good – you’ve had a big hand in helping to develop some great wide receivers in Pittsburgh – Brown, JuJu… how do you approach player development?
What I’m telling you is, some receivers are good on the inside, some on the outside, and some on both. Some are better on the weak side, some on the string side. The coach’s job is to determine what they can do and put them there so they can do what they do well.
Everyone can’t play inside for example. It takes a special guy. They have to have great quickness and have to be smart to play around linebackers and in sticky, tight spaces. They’re gonna get hit. Not everyone wants that!
One of the things with Antonio is, he could do it all so we moved him around because they double-teamed him. We tried to hide him, so to speak. Our job is to find out what they can do and put them in those situations. Inside guys also have to be good knee-benders to catch those bluegills – those short passes for first downs. And they have to be tough because they will get smacked.
What did you look for in guys you looked at in the draft – anything specific you watched out for?
And everybody has pet peeves. I looked for toughness. I don’t want guys that shy away from contact. We had Martavis and JuJu – they were big guys. And JuJu listens – that guy really listens.
In Pittsburgh we all worked on the draft and did it all. We went on the road to look at players, went to Indy for the combine, interviewed guys, wrote up reports and made tapes. We gave all of that to the coaches and general manager with our evaluations and true opinions. We all see the same information – we let them make the decisions.
You have to decide what you want for your team. If a guy isn’t blocking in college and that’s something you want, then he’s probably not going to do it in the pros. I sued to joke with the staff that his body wouldn’t let him do it! If he didn’t do it then he won’t do it in the pros. That’s my truthful opinion. It doesn’t mean I’m right though. I was always taught that you give your honest opinion in anything you do. If you’re wrong, you find out why and learn from it.
Any fun stories of your time in Pittsburgh?
Antonio and I used to talk about doubling-up – a move he’d make on routes. He’d tear guys up on the boundary with double-up moves. I remember he did that once in Carolina – a guy tried to bump him and he scored a touchdown on him. I used to tell him before routes that if he changes anything he better ask somebody first! I used to say that all the time – “You better ask somebody!” Well, after the play he ran off the field and before I could say anything he yelled to me “You better ask somebody!” I just remember laughing hard at that.
I miss those guys. But it’s all about taking time now. I’m not looking back and second-guessing myself.