Steelers DL Coach Mitchell A Selfless Man, Just Like His Players


Pittsburgh Steelers defensive line coach John Mitchell can be looked at as a mad scientist of sorts, trying to mold massive pieces of clay into a monstrous Frankenstein type of wrecking machine for the team’s 3-4 defense. Whether it be turning a first-rounder like defensive end Cameron Heyward into one of the best in the game, or inheriting a sixth round raw, project like mastodon 6-foot-7, 352-pound nose tackle Daniel McCullers, Mitchell is always at work.

However, most Steelers fans know him for the masterpieces he’s put on the field, putting a screeching halt to the opposition’s running games. Most do not know that Mitchell was one of the pioneers when it comes to the civil rights era, even though giving him that designation is something he wants no part of. He was the first African-American to lace up his cleats and play football at the University of Alabama.

For those that don’t know, it was Alabama governor, George C. Wallace standing in the schoolhouse doors in the film “Forrest Gump” as he tried to put a stop to the school’s integration. Now, segregated schools were familiar to Mitchell as a young boy, but when he saw that, it made him want to attend Alabama even more.

“He had to be pretty strong just to walk in not knowing what was going to happen when he got there,” said former Alabama teammate Jeff Beard, according to Sean D. Hamill of The New York Times. “And I guess the way integration had gone in Alabama, he would have had a right to be reluctant.”

As a 6-foot-3, 230-pound All-American defensive end, he was like a sponge, soaking up everything his mentor, the legendary Paul “Bear” Bryant, taught him, like attention to details or drawing motivation. It’s these exact traits he instills in all of his lineman, and it was a major selling point whenever Mike Tomlin was hired as head coach in 2007 that prompted him to not only keep Mitchell on his staff, but make him assistant head coach.


“John takes a great deal of pride in what he does, the performance of his men, the development of his men,” Tomlin said, according to Hamill. “I wanted him to have that same kind of ownership over this football team, and the growth and development of young players.”

A prideful man who would rather bask in obscurity than in the spotlight, he is the embodiment of his linemen. In the Steelers’ last 3 Super Bowl runs, we all think of the award winners, the Defensive Players of the Year, James Harrison and Troy Polamalu. However, without his linemen up front occupying blockers, none of that would’ve came to fruition, and their selflessness is a spitting image of him.

“When I wonder how good a coach a guy is, I watch his players, watch how they play, watch how they respond to adversity, watch what they do, watch how they play techniquewise,” said Clarence Brooks, the Baltimore Ravens’ defensive line coach, according to Hamill. “And forever his guys are always sound techniquewise, always play very hard, look like they’re disciplined in drills.”

A footnote for Mitchell is that he’s often tasked with making wine out of water, occasionally being handed first rounders like Casey Hampton or Cameron Heyward, but for every one of those is two Aaron Smith’sBrett Keisel’s or Chris Hoke’s, a late-round or undrafted prospect who’s rough around the edges. He has quite the ensemble on-deck for the 2015 season, ranging from first and second rounders, all the way down the ladder, with the newest addition Letterious “L.T.” Walton.

“Here we have had a lot of success with taking special defensive linemen in the later rounds,” Mitchell said according to Steelers.com. “I’m excited about having him here and having the opportunity to try to get him better and be a type of player that we like for the Pittsburgh Steelers.”

When the 2015 season gets underway, and much is made of the Steelers’ pass rush, and how Jarvis Jones will look or will Bud Dupree get “x” amount of sacks, I’ll watch the defensive linemen a little closer, flying under the radar and continuing to build on their sixth-ranked rating against the run last season.

“His technique is really getting on you and being critical of and paying attention to all the little details,” longtime backup nose tackle Hoke said, according to Hamill. “Because if you don’t do the little things, they turn into big things. And when situations come up, I think he looks back to, what would Coach Bryant do? And then he moves forward.”

  • LucasY59

    thanks for the article…Great Coach!

  • Dave Lammers

    Wow amazing story we learn about him in history and don’t even know who we have

  • Steve

    Coach Mitchell has done much with what he has been given.

  • The Notorious TOM

    Great article, Lucas. I’d love more of these about all the coaches, how about some coach Mann someday?

  • Zarbor

    Mitch is very good at what he does. The real question would be who’s under him learning this stuff?

  • colingrant

    Glad to see this article. The Steelers “stop the run” first scheme has hampered the perception of his coaching prowess. Some view the run stopping concept as one that reduces the effectiveness of a player. Key word here, is “player”. Singular. What’s best for a player isn’t necessarily what’s best for the team. I’m a huge fan of all Steelers defensive lineman, because throughout the years they have graciously accepted a sacrificial role for the betterment of the team. Stopping the run is the absolute key, and is appreciated mostly by other players and coaches. However, run stoppage impacts low sack totals and take away’s substantially more than one might expect. The 3 are directly related. It’s not possible to get to the QB on 2nd and 5 or 3rd and 4. The offensive play options are too plentiful for the defense to deploy a pass rush package. It’s the 2nd and 10 and 3rd and 9’s that permit pressure that leads to sack totals and take away’s. It starts by winning big on 1st and 2nd down.

  • colingrant

    Good question, and I’ve thought that myself. Chris Hoke, while not a coach is probably an excellent candidate to replace Mitchell, who actually contemplated retirement 2 years ago. Hoke is “exhibit A” when identifying examples of the development cycle of low draft choices that convert to high productive careers following 2-3 years of tutelage. I never heard of Hoke until Snack went down during the Steelers 15 and 1 season when snack tore his acl in Dallas and Hoke came in and the run defense average surprisingly decreased over the remainder of the season.

  • colingrant

    I’d love to chat with Coach Mitchell and Coach Mann over a few beers. Give me 4 hours, 2 six-packs and a table in the corner for three.

  • thomas hmmmm

    We have to have one of the best staffs in all of football. I think it’s safe to say that receivers coach Mann is the best in the league.. Mitchell is also a top notch coach… Butler was also a great position coach…Now we have Munchak at the Oline… The only weak link is Lake, who has a lot to prove, and a ways to go to catch up..

  • Shannon Stephenson

    I did some work on all of our assistant coaches last year and Mitchell had the best track record as far as guys being drafted and then the players sticking in the NFL. I consider him the best coach we have but the funny thing with this is Butler’s track record is very average and he became our DC. Not saying Butler will be a bad DC for us but Mitchell would have been one heck of a DC IMO as well.

  • Devon Day

    Ohh… the irony both you and your most hated rivals share..

  • steelster

    Nice article.

  • thomas hmmmm

    I think ours is a step above theirs…Especially since our D and and offense both performs better then the ravens on a more consistent year to year time frame.

  • renoir

    one thing is evident and that is we have one hell of a coaching staff…

  • Gregg Edwards

    I didn’t know this…….quite a legend! Can’t imagine the courage it took to be the first African American football player at Alabama. Be proud Coach Mitchell