Larry Zierlein, Steelers Offensive Line Coach, 2007-2009
First, can you tell readers what got you started in coaching – what you enjoy most about the job?
I got into coaching because of a dislocated shoulder. I had one year of eligibility remaining when I got out of the Marine Corps in 1968 so I enrolled at Fort Hays State in Kansas and played my final year. I was majoring in geology (which I didn’t like) because I was told that would be a good field due to its connection to oil exploration.
The winter after my final season, I was working construction and going to school when I dislocated my shoulder playing basketball. It had dislocated a few times during the season so the doctors determined I should have surgery. Since construction work was out of the question while the shoulder healed, the coaches asked if I would like to help during spring practice. The first day on the field as a coach, I knew that’s what I wanted to do so I got out of geology and into physical education and was a graduate assistant for two years before going to Texas to coach and teach in high school.
There are several things I liked about coaching. I really liked teaching technique and seeing five individuals function as a single unit. It’s hard to achieve but very satisfying when you see it happen. I enjoyed nearly every player I’ve ever coached over forty years and have been fortunate to having a continuing relationship with several of them.
What are you doing now – and can you let readers know about the Lone Star Coaching Clinic and other coaching teaching programs you are involved in?
I have been working with a couple kids in Dallas helping them prepare for all star games, the combine and the draft. We also do a football clinic in College Station, Tx. called the Lone Star Clinic (my wife does all the work). This year it will be Feb 10th-12th. We will have over 1,000 high school coaches in attendance.
Our largest clinic was two years ago when Dick LeBeau was our featured speaker. We had 1150 that year and it was all because of Dick’s presence. Starting in late February I’ll be working football camps around the country and in Europe with an organization called Football University which will go on until late August.
Bill Yeoman, the head coach for twenty-five years at the University of Houston had the greatest influence on me. I coached for him for nine years. He believed in simplicity, execution, and running the football and that philosophy won us a few Southwest Conference championships with lesser talent than some of our league rivals.
Over the years I worked for some head coaches and offensive coordinators who had that same philosophy and some who didn’t but the most success I had as a line coach came when working with someone who adhered to that philosophy. One of the lessons I learned was from Billy Willingham, a longtime assistant coach at the University of Houston. He told me once, “never make a case against yourself. There are plenty of people out there willing to do it for you”. That’s fairly applicable to coaches.
Another lesson I learned was that it’s never over until it’s over. We (University of Houston) were leading Notre Dame in the 1979 Cotton Bowl by a score of 34-12 with nine minutes left in the game and we had the ball. We lost the game 35-34. It was the first of many late game comebacks for Joe Montana.
You’ve coached in both the college and professional ranks. How do they differ for you and which do you prefer most, and why?
Coaching college and professional football is basically the same as far as techniques etc.
The biggest difference is the experience and maturity level of the guys you’re dealing with. In college you get players who for the most part are very receptive to doing things how you want them done. In professional football, you have older guys with more experience who are often set in their ways as far as how they do things and it can take longer to get everyone on the same page.
I enjoyed both levels but preferred the pro level because it was 100% football, no recruiting, academic concerns, etc.
Coach Tomlin brought you in 2007. Why did he reach out to you to fill the offensive line coaching slot and what attracted you to the position?
Mike Tomlin brought me in his first year as head coach of the Steelers. We had coached together at the University of Cincinnati a few years earlier. It was an easy decision to come to Pittsburgh because of the organization, the winning tradition, and the chance to be a part of a winning team.
What changes did you bring to the offensive line when you arrived in terms of technique and strategy – what did you change and how difficult was it for the lineman to adjust?
I intentionally didn’t make many changes the first year. That offensive line was for the most part veterans from previous years and had been successful. We were running the same system they had run before plus we didn’t have 100% participation in the OTA’s leading up to training camp so I didn’t think a lot of change would be beneficial.
By the second year the offensive line had changed and we were younger and less experienced so we adopted my techniques. That group bought in very well plus it was similar to what some of them had done at some point in their playing career.
How involved was Coach Tomlin in your work with the offensive line, and how so?
Coach Tomlin was not involved in the offensive line. He let you coach.
What would you say were some of your biggest successes in terms of working with the linemen on those Steelers teams, and what made them so?
Despite the criticism of the offensive line, I thought they made great progress. We in the meeting room knew when we were playing well and when we weren’t but those guys were never affected by outside comments. I thought the 2009 OL was playing as well as any unit on the team until that Thursday night game in Cleveland in December.
We were bad that night as was the rest of the team. One of the criticisms was that we couldn’t run the ball but our yards per carry (which is how a running game should be judged) in 2007 and 2009 matched or was better than any Steeler team since 2001 (this year’s average per carry exceeded ours).
It wasn’t that we couldn’t run it but rather that the running game was somewhat de-emphasized so the total rushing yards were not as high. I thought we could reduce the number of sacks which were high the year before I got there but the sack numbers stayed too high while I was there and, from what I understand, continue to be somewhat of a problem so maybe it’s just a product of a number factors.
I’ve never been as proud of an OL as I was of ours on that last drive in the Super Bowl. They protected their butts off on that drive.
As a coach, you get close to players as you are together so often, week after week. How do you draw the line between being close to the guys and still maintaining the role as “boss”?
I never worried about how close I was to the players. They played, I coached.
Who were some of the biggest characters on those teams and what made them so?
The Three Amigos (Colon, Essex, and Komoeatu) were characters off the field or so I heard but they were all business in the building and on the field. I didn’t really feel like we had characters, just a real solid group of guys.
You left the team after the ’09 season. How hard was that for you?
I was disappointed at being let go after the 2009 season but sometime God’s plan for us and our plans aren’t the same but his plan is always better. Everything that has ever happened to me in my life has worked out for the best.
What are your greatest memories of those Steelers teams?
My memories of the Steeler teams I was with will always begin with what high character guys those players were. The leadership in the locker room was outstanding. The players controlled that environment and kept everyone headed in the same direction.
Their expectations were high and more often than not they met those expectations. Those were probably the most tight-knit of any teams I’ve been around. They cared for each other.
Any last thoughts for readers?
It was a great privilege for me and my family to be involved with a great organization like the Pittsburgh Steelers. We got to experience a Super Bowl championship which most coaches strive for all their coaching lives and never attain. We will always consider ourselves Steelers.