Q&A: John Mitchell

John Mitchell has been the Pittsburgh Steelers' defensive line coach since 1994. He earlier made his niche as the first African-American to play for Bear Bryant (Alabama 1971-72) and the first African-American captain in the SEC.

JOHN MITCHELL, Pittsburgh Steelers

Q: What can you tell me about Dan Rooney?

A: Let me tell you something: Mr. Rooney knows every player's wife, girl friend, kids. I'm a jogger and every morning how was my jog. He's not an owner; he's a person and he treats you like a person. Mr. Rooney flies on the same plane with the team and sits a couple rows behind me. He takes his own baggage on the plane and he takes it off. He doesn't want people doing anything. He does not have an entourage. He's a common guy. He used to live in the same apartment complex for a period of time and he used to ride to and from the airport with me. Now how many owners would do that? He's a regular guy and that's why our players love to play for him. They love him. He'll see a player in the dining hall or upstairs and he'll go shake his hand and ask him how he's doing today. When I first got into the National Football League in 1990, some people told me if I ever got a chance that I should work for the Rooneys in Pittsburgh. And I got a chance to go to Pittsburgh and that was one of the best things that ever happened to me in my life.

Q: Wouldn't you want to move up the coaching ladder?

A: Yeah, when you win you have success, but where would you want to go when you already have the best of everything?

Q: Wouldn't you like to have more help on the coaching staff?

A: I don't think you need that many because people would run into each other. We have a great staff defensively. We all work well together. There are no egos on it. Dick LeBeau's the general and we're the soldiers. We get together and make the game plan and we try to execute. That's what I like about the guys I work with. Coach Cowher's a great guy to work for, so it would be hard to leave Pittsburgh because you're working for an owner who cares about not only me but my family, the players. I mean, I'm in heaven.

Q: Do you have a championship ring?

A: I won a national championship at Alabama.

Q: Do you wear it?

A: Not often. I keep it in a box.

Q: If you were so fortunate Sunday, how often would you wear that ring?

A: I'd wear it once and put it away. When you get a national championship ring or a Super Bowl ring, I know it symbolizes a lot but I'm not one of those guys who wears a lot of jewelry. I just got this little $95 watch on and that's it. I want to put it away and if I want to glance at it I can, but to wear it every day I would never do that.

Q: How do you think the defensive line performed this year?

A: I'm really pleased with them but we can always get better. I think Aaron Smith is one of the most underrated guys in the National Football League. He's a blue-collar worker who doesn't get many sacks, but when you put on the tape this guy plays his heart out week in and week out. Casey Hampton is a guy that I have to calm down on the sideline because he gets excited when he feels he's not doing his job, and he's a guy who works his butt off. What can I say about Kimo? He's a veteran who's been in this league. He knows what it takes. He's 34 and people say he can't play, but he's like fine wine: He's getting better and better every week. Travis Kirschke has played well every time we've called on him. In the latter part of the season he had some big plays and played well. And Brett Keisel's probably the biggest surprise for me. You look at tape of the last four or five ball games and he's had at least one or two big plays in every ball game. I think one of the most underrated guys we have on defense is Chris Hoke. Last year when Casey was hurt, he went in there and played very well. Now he's a behind an All-Pro and I'd like to play him more. Casey wants him to play because he works his butt off. I'm really happy. We have six guys who can play and that's one reason we play well. Aaron Smith doesn't have to play 60 plays anymore; Kimo doesn't have to play 50; Casey doesn't have to play so much. We've got six guys that can play and it keeps us fresh and we can put a little pressure on the opposing offense.

Q: Is this the best line you've had since you've been here?

A: No question about it. It's the deepest. I feel very comfortable with whoever's in the game.

Q: So it's probably the deepest and most solid position on the team, too. And since this team is favored to win the Super Bowl, wouldn't that make you the best assistant coach in the league?

A: (Laughs) I don't know about all that, but I'm happy with my guys. The thing I like about my guys is they like each other, and that's something that's very rare on this level. They cheer for each other. When you get six guys who genuinely like each other and root for each other on every play, it makes my job easier. This is the best bunch of guys I've ever been around.

Q: Considering Seattle's offensive line is so good, don't your guys have to play well for you to get a ring to put in that box?

A: You've got to stop the run. Our job is to get in there and get out on third down.

Q: Are your guys on the spot?

A: They're not on the spot. These guys have played a lot of ball games this season. We're not going to change anything. We're going to do the same thing we've been doing. We're working on the same techniques we've worked on all season. These guys realize Seattle has a great offensive line but they're going to accept the challenge.

Q: Does Seattle have the best offensive line you've seen all season?

A: No question. It's not even close.

Q: Your guys can't try to do too much can they?

A: Yeah, and they realize that. We play good gap-control football. I tell them they don't have to make one play in the ball game. Let the defense put you in position to make the play. When you try to make a play on your own, you're going to get out of position and a good running back is going to find that hole. But when you play the defense, and stay in your gap, you're going to make a ton of plays. That's why Aaron Smith and Kimo and Casey and all those guys make plays, because they play within the defense.

Q: Are you happy they're starting to receive recognition?

A: Oh, I'm really happy because these guys are great guys. They're good people but they're good football players also.


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