Former Pittsburgh Steelers assistant coach John Mitchell has been named one of three winners of the 2023 Pro Football Writers of America Paul “Dr. Z” Zimmerman Award, given annually for lifetime achievement as an NFL assistant coach.
Mitchell retired on Feb. 15 after 29 seasons with the team. He had been with the team since 1994, winning two Super Bowls and four AFC Championship Games, and coaching five Pro Bowl defensive linemen: Casey Hampton, Cam Heyward, Brett Keisel, Aaron Smith and Joel Steed.
Originally hired by Bill Cowher to be the team’s defensive line coach, Mitchell was promoted to assistant head coach in 2007. He gave up his defensive line duties in 2018 and was just Mike Tomlin’s assistant head coach for the last five seasons.
“I’m not sure that I can offer sufficient praise and admiration for Mitch — as both a man and football coach,” Tomlin said. “Mitch has been a central figure in the success of the Pittsburgh Steelers for nearly three decades. He has coached some of the best players in this franchise’s illustrious history, and each one of them, to a man, would tell you their success was a direct result of not only Mitch’s coaching acumen, but also his mentorship, leadership and character.
A Mobile, Alabama native, Mitchell attended junior college at Eastern Arizona before returning to Alabama to play for Crimson Tide head coach Paul “Bear” Bryant. Mitchell and Wilbur Jackson were the first Black players in Alabama history in 1971.
Undersized for his position at the NFL level, Mitchell was cut before playing a game with the San Francisco 49ers and turned down opportunities to play football at lower levels, returning to Alabama in 1973 to coach at his alma mater. He won a national championship in his first season as a defensive ends coach.
In 1987, Mitchell became the first Black coordinator in SEC history at LSU. Mitchell was hired by the Cleveland Browns in 1991 to be the team’s defensive line coach under head coach Bill Belichick and defensive coordinator Nick Saban.
Paul “Dr. Z” Zimmerman was Sports Illustrated’s lead pro football writer for 29 years, before his career was tragically cut short due to multiple strokes in November 2008 that robbed his ability to speak, read and write.
Zimmerman served as the tenth president of the PFWA, and received the organization’s highest honor, the Dick McCann Award, in 1996. Zimmerman died on November 1, 2018. Past recipients of the award include Jim Johnson, Monte Kiffin, Wade Philips and former Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau, offensive coordinator Tom Moore and Munhall native Joe Bugel.
Also winning the award this year are New York Giants defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale and former San Francisco 49ers offensive line coach Bob McKittrick. Also nominated were former Seattle Seahawks defensive coordinator Thomas Catlin and longtime defensive coordinator Floyd “Sergeant Rock” Peters.
Entering its 60th season in 2023, the PFWA is the official voice of pro football writers, promoting and fighting for access to NFL personnel to best serve the public. The PFWA is made up of accredited writers who cover the NFL and the 32 teams daily.