Pittsburgh Steelers assistant head coach and longtime defensive line coach John Mitchell will be inducted into the National Junior College Athletic Association (NJCAA) Foundation Hall of Fame as a part of its inaugural class, the organization announced Friday.
Before breaking the color barrier as the University of Alabama’s first African-American football player, Mitchell was a standout for Eastern Arizona Junior College.
“Honors are good, but sometimes you just have to be in the right place at the right time,” Mitchell told Steelers.com. “Thinking back, I was in the right place at the right time. When I went out to Arizona, I didn’t even have a scholarship. I thought I was just going out there for a tryout, maybe be out there a few weeks. If the coach deemed you were good enough, they gave you books, maybe tuition, fees. Maybe even a partial scholarship. I was taken aback by that. It was a Mormon school. I didn’t even know what Mormons were back then.”
Mitchell went from uncertainty to prosperity at Eastern Arizona, as he excelled on both the defensive and offensive lines and was named a Junior College All-American in 1969 and 1970.
“When I went out there, I was a little scrawny, 195-pound guy. I got up to 230 and I think physically my maturity started catching up with my age. I was able to put on weight and started playing better,” he told Steelers.com. “We only had three coaches when I was there for all of the guys. They coached offense and defense. We didn’t have a great weight room. At that time people didn’t know much about weights. You did a lot on your own and tried to be the best football player you could be. At that time, I didn’t think I was a very good football player. If I was, I could have gone to Alabama right from high school instead of having to go to Junior College. I was smart enough to know I wasn’t as a good as I thought I was.”
Eastern Arizona provided Mitchell the launching pad he needed to attend the Alabama and play for legendary head coach “Bear” Bryant. Mitchell won a pair of SEC titles over two season with the Crimson Tide, and was named the team’s first African-American co-captain and an All-American in 1972.
Congratulations to Coach John Mitchell on being elected to the NJCAA Foundation Hall of Fame. There isn’t a more deserving man to be a part of their inaugural class. Coach Mitch is one of the best ever.— Mike Tomlin (@CoachTomlin) May 10, 2021
Mitchell is still an advocate of the junior college route to this day.
“I think it’s a great place for a lot of guys. A lot of guys are not mature enough, their bodies aren’t physically able to go to a four-year school,” Mitchell told Steelers.com. “Also, from an academic standpoint, while I didn’t have a problem there, I think it can help guys in a lot of ways. Junior college is good for a lot of guys. It gives them a chance to grow up, mature, get stronger and work on their academics. They can see how important it is if they want to continue to follow the dream and go to a four-year institution and see where football can take them.”
Mitchell will be enshrined alongside Bob McAdoo, Larry Brown, George Killian, Lea Plarski, Sheryl Swoops and Dick ‘Night Train’ Lane in a virtual ceremony set for June 24.
The @NJCAA has announced the inaugural 2021 𝙉𝙅𝘾𝘼𝘼 𝙁𝙤𝙪𝙣𝙙𝙖𝙩𝙞𝙤𝙣 𝙃𝙖𝙡𝙡 𝙤𝙛 𝙁𝙖𝙢𝙚 class 🏆— NJCAA (@NJCAA) May 7, 2021
• Larry Brown
• George E. Killian
• Dick “Night Train” Lane
• Bob McAdoo
• John Mitchell
• Lea Plarski
• Sheryl Swoopes
📰 https://t.co/TGWCRai0HJ pic.twitter.com/9arqpkF6y6
Mitchell got his coaching start at his alma mater in 1973 and also coached at Arkansas, Birmingham in the USFL, Temple, LSU and with the Cleveland Browns before joining the Steelers head coach Bill Cowher’s staff as defensive line coach in 1994. Mitchell has been with Pittsburgh ever since, adding assistant head coach to his resume in 2007 and moving into just an assistant head coach role starting in 2018.