Keith Willis, Steelers Defensive Lineman, 1982-1991
First, can you tell readers about your coaching career?
I’m the defensive line coach at North Carolina State – I love it. I love coaching these young men and being able to use my experience getting to the NFL to help teach these kids.
They played spectacularly – we beat number seven ranked Clemson and the they just played great!
What are some of the lessons from the coaches you played under that you use in your coaching today?
Chuck Noll always taught us to keep it simple and I really believe in that. It wasn’t just him. I played under some legendary coaches like Marv Levy, Joe Gibbs…they are all legendary dudes.
I picked up bits and pieces from all of them – but they all really kept the game simple. Nothing real intricate – see the ball, get the ball.
How do your players buy in to that philosophy?
They love it. Great players can play no matter what. But marginal players – you have to keep it simple. That’s my belief – and was Noll’s as well. He taught me paralysis from analysis. It was the first time I ever heard of that expression. No thinking and playing fast.
Who helped you as a rookie free agent in Pittsburgh?
My locker mate Larry Brown schooled me up a lot. Especially in my interview process. I had some pretty good success early as a player and Larry would listen to me do interviews. He said I had to learn to tell them a lot but don’t tell them nothing. That was important to hear as I handled the media.
My making the team was the result of going against him in practice. He had his days and I had mine.
Tunch Ilkin also did once Larry left. We went at each other every day. It was fitting he was an undersized offensive lineman. I was an undersized, under-rated guy too.
Tell us more about how you got past your free agent status and relative inexperience to make it in the NFL.
You have to go back to where I grew up in Norfolk, New Jersey. I didn’t come from a lot. I had no desire to play football early in my career. I played one year in high school and that was it. No Pop Warner…nothing.
I knew I couldn’t live like that – I knew what I had to do. I went to Northeastern and took advantage of my time there.
How did the Steelers discover you?
We were playing New Hampshire at Northeastern. The scouts came to see a linebacker that played for New Hampshire and I had a good game. Bill Nunn was there and saw me and took my number and told me to keep in touch with him. A couple of weeks later he invited me to go to Boston College to run the 40 with the Boston College players.
Were there other scouts watching you?
N0t many teams saw me. Bill Nunn had a good reputation and Seattle, Dallas and Kansas City scouted me a little. But not many teams were watching a guy from Northeastern.
Who were the guys that kept the team loose when you were in Pittsburgh?
Tunch Ilkin will say I was the comedian. Bradshaw was too – he did off the wall things. Dumb things. He was a goofy dude.
What kinds of things did you guys do?
We’d put stuff in guys’ shoes ands make fun of each other. It was all in fun.
How were the coaches with all of the kidding around?
Oh, the coaches never come on the locker room except on game day! Once I was established they knew hey could count on me to get things done. When we put on pads we knew what we had to do to get it done.
What are some of your greatest memories of playing in the NFL?
One was my memory of Gary Anderson kicking the game winning field goal against Houston. It was a big game and we went back and forth. It was one of the longest field goals at that time for a long time.
I played in the greatest comeback game ever too in Buffalo. It was indescribable. It’s hard to even talk about it unless you were there. It was electric. People left the game early but came back, left their cars on the freeway and climbed the fences to get back in when we started coming back.
What coaches had the biggest impact on your play?
Jon Kolb was my first coach there. He was an offensive lineman but Chuck gave him the reins on the defensive line and he did great. He coached us from an offensive lineman’s perspective. The drills were all from that perspective. Sometimes he made up those drills as he went along – he denied it (laughing). He created new drills that I use today.
What do you think of the new rules in the NFL?
It’s gotten to a point where you have to think too much now. Particularly with the quarterback and the helmet-to-helmet hits. It’ s taking the fun out of the game.
The players don’t try to hurt other guys. We hit hard but we don’t try to end careers. You can hit hard without hurting someone. Tackling is an art and you can hit someone hard and be taught how to do that without hurting the other guy. In fact, we teach guys how to tackle to help minimize the injuries to the tacklers more than the guys they hit.
How do you draw the line between trying to hurt another player and just hitting hard as a referee?
It’s the intent. That’s the difference. There are a handful of guys at most that are trying to hurt other guys. those guys deserve the fines and penalties – the guys they are trying to hurt have families, houses…
Any last thoughts for readers?
Yeah. The fans made me – they accepted me and I owe them so much. I still get a lot of mail. I appreciate that – the fans kept me going in Pittsburgh.