Little did he know, but Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Bill Cowher was about to start the “John Mitchell” era.
The day was Tuesday January 11th, 1993. The site was Three Rivers Stadium and the 1993 Steelers season had ended in with a bang. Literally.
The Steelers reached the end of 4th quarter clinging to a 7-point lead in a Wild Card game against the Chiefs at Arrowhead Stadium. A failed attempt on third down sent Mark Royals out to punt. Steelers cast off Keith Cash blocked it, giving the Chiefs the ball deep in Pittsburgh territory. Worse yet, Cash gave Joe Montana what you absolutely could not give him – a 2nd chance.
Montana tied the game in regulation and Nick Lowery won it on overtime. Bill Cowher reacted decisively.
He fired Special Teams coach John Guy. Everyone expected this. The blocked punt culminated a season of special team’s disaster. He also fired wide receivers coach Bob Harrison. And Cowher made one more move: He sacked defensive line coach Steve Furness.
Cowher surprised everyone with the Furness firing. Not only was Steve Furness a Steel Curtain Veteran sporting 4 Super Bowl rings, but the arrow seemed to be pointing up on Steelers defensive line.
Indeed. Instead of mouthing the obligatory “Thanks to the Rooneys for the opportunity” words, Furness made no attempt to hide his bitterness and the firing apparently haunted him for the rest of his life.
- But as so often is the case in the NFL, when a door closes for one person, it creates an opportunity for another.
Bill Cowher hired John Mitchell to coach the defensive line. John Mitchell didn’t so much as take advantage of that opportunity, but rather he molded it, transformed it and remade it as his own.
- Mitchell retired last week after 29 years with the Pittsburgh Steelers.
In stepping away, Mitchell ends an era for the Pittsburgh Steelers that was as remarkable as it was understated.
To understand just how understated the “Mitchell Era” was try this test: Strip a Steelers fan of his or her smart phone and ask – “Who was the longest tenured Steelers defensive coach?” Most would probably answer “Dick LeBeau.” Some will probably say “Bud Carson” or “George Perles.” “Tony Dungy” might earn an honorable mention. I guarantee you that few would answer “John Mitchell” even though with 29 years of service as defensive line and then assistant head coach that is the right answer.
To understand how remarkable Mitchell’s tenure has been, consider the fate of his opposite number on offensive line. When the Steelers hired Karl Dunbar to replace Mitchell as defensive line coach in 2018, we observed that since Dunbar’s rookie training camp at St. Vincents in 1991, the only other coaches the title of “Defensive line coach” for the Pittsburgh Steelers were Joe Greene and Furness.
Since Dunbar’s return in 2018, the Steelers have cycled through Mike Munchak, Shaun Saurett, Adrian Klemm and Pat Meyer as offensive line coaches.
As Dick Hoak observed when he retired as Steelers running backs coach “You’re hired to be fired. I guess I beat the system.” So did John Mitchell.
And he beat the system by remolding and reforming the young defensive lineman in his own image. This fact has been well known and evident in the fact that very few defensive lineman started for John Mitchell as rookies.
Mitchell explained this system to Steel City Insider’s Jim Wexell,
Aaron Smith’s first two years, he didn’t like me because I never called him by his name. I called him ninety-one. Aaron Smith came from a small school, Northern Colorado, and they only had about three or four coaches on the staff, so Aaron Smith didn’t know any fine points about football. When he got here, he had to play technique football. The first year and a half was pretty tough on him.
Aaron Smith agrees, sharing with Ron Lippock from Steelers Takeaways: “We laugh about it now. I thought he hated me and I hated him. But now, there’s no greater person.”
- For a quarter century Mitchell put the Steelers defensive line through similar paces.
Even the most educated fan has a difficult, if not impossible time assessing a position coach. Do you judge Carnell Lake on the disappointing careers that Cortez Allen and Shamarko Thomas authored? Or do you measure the “Lake Effect” on William Gay’s maturation following his return to Pittsburgh and rejuvenation of Kennan Lewis under Lake’s tutelage?
But when a truly great assistant coach comes along no such intellectual gymnastics are necessary. John Mitchell is one of those assistant coaches. What to understand his impact? The just look at these players: Joel Steed, Aaron Smith, Casey Hampton, Brett Keisel, Chris Hoke, Cam Heyward, Stephon Tuitt and Javon Hargrave.
Thank you John Mitchell to your contributions to the “Steelers Way.” We wish you the best in retirement.