Kent Stephenson, Steelers Offensive Line Coach, 1992-2000
First, can you let readers know what you are doing with yourself these days?
I moved to Iowa after my time in Pittsburgh – it’s my home state so I wanted to come back. I have a recreation center and a lake nearby and a professional golf course in my back yard.
I’ve had the chance now to get involved in community and state boards – a hospital board, golf committee, the Iowa Golf Association….things I couldn’t do as a coach and I’m really enjoying it!
Coach Cowher brought you in in his first year as a Steelers coach in ’92. What made him decide on you as his offensive line coach?
I was coaching in Seattle for Coach Knox. We played Kansas CIty and had some head-to-head battles – Coach Cowher was the defensive coordinator there. When Knox was let go I was out there. Donahoe called me and had me come in. Also, Ron Earhardt was a big North Dakota State guy and I had coached at the University of North Dakota. Either one may have been why they had me come in.
What did Coach Cowher tell you in your interview?
He talked about the philosophy of the game a lot. He relied a lot on Ron Earhardt – Ron had a major role in me coming there and on the team in general.
I admired Coach Cowher. He wasn’t vain – he wanted older guys as assistant coaches – he wasn’t intimidated by them. A lot of younger coaches wouldn’t do that but Bill wanted us there. He knew that there were things he still didn’t know yet.
I also have a soft spot for Bill Cowher. My daughter lost her baby during training camp. I was devastated. He told me to go and be with her – during training camp. That was unheard of. Family was most important to me – and it was to him to.
You came to a team with some stellar offensive lineman – Dawson, Searcy, Strelczyk, Jackson….How do you approach guys like this and teach them something new?
I was blessed with talent. I remember going to the local grocery store and the kid there brought my groceries to the car. He turned to me and said I better get that line going! How did he know who I even was? I knew what I was getting into then (laughing).
We got Duval Love from Los Angeles after too. We were running the football well – it was a different team than they are now. We had excellent running backs – it was a fun group to coach.
Were the players resistant to your new ideas and techniques – was there much new you needed to bring to them?
Some techniques were different – we were a trapping team with Coach Noll and there wasn’t much difference. The guys all bought into the program. There are no egos on the offensive line – these are hard hat and lunch pail guys – you get few problems with those kinds of guys.
How involved was Coach Cowher in the practiced and strategy development?
Coach was very involved. He certainly let you know when something went wrong (laughing). He was hands on on everything – not down to the technique level – but he was involved in everything.
Who were some of the real characters on those lines you coached?
Justin Strelczyk was a guy who had his own drummer. He was an exceptional player – could play offensive guard and tackle. Someone was always dinged and he came in and played as well as the starters did.
He was hilarious too. I remember a Monday night game – they started at 9:00 pm then. It was midnight and we were playing the Bills. We were well ahead near the end of the game and Mike Tomczak was in and called a time out. We asked him what he was thinking calling a time out and he said Jugs (Strelczyk) wouldn’t let me call the play! We asked him what he was talking about and he told us Jugs didn’t want to throw the ball – he was telling him to run the ball because he didn’t want an incomplete pass to stop the clock – the bars closed at 2:00 am!
With Justin, you always had a full-time player. You never worried about him on the field.
How much did the game change while you were there from a running-to-passing focused one?
The game didn’t change that much – but teams blitzed much more and the players got much bigger. When I was in Seattle 280 pounds was big. By the time I left the league 280 pounds was too small.
Did that affect what you looked for in players on the line?
Not really. We looked for kids that could run – all of them had to be able to move and pull. We were movement people – not zone blockers. We had the flat belly players – not the bigger guys. I’m a fat guy – I hate to see guys that big and heavy (laughing).
How does the scheme change with a mobile quarterback like Kordell Stewart or Ben Roethlisberger?
It’s a different offensive line now – they have to pass block more. Ben’s a special guy – you have to take advantage of him. I never saw a guy who could extend a play like him.
Kordell wouldn’t extend a play like Ben. He would zip off and run – he could run like a reindeer. He was more in the mold of Cam Newton or Tebow. These guys that block for Ben – they just have to stay after their guys. They do a great job. I get so disgusted with the criticism – those guys hang in there.
How difficult is it for an offensive line to have to block for very different rotating backs like you had with the Morris-Pegram and Zeroue-Bettis combinations?
You take advantage of the player’s skills with play selection – the techniques and fundamentals are the same. You try to get Zeroue outside and you run Bettis up the middle. Bettis would get a few yards in the first quarter, then five yards, then would carry guys for seven or more yards.
How difficult is it for you to avoid getting too close to the players? How do you keep the line between friend and boss with your players?
You do become close. You meet and work together all the time – you get to know them and their families.
It’s like the military – you go to war together and are friends, but you still listen to the Captain and Corporals.It’s the order of things – it’s kind of understood.
I get close, but I never went our drinking with them. It’s the line and it’s understood – you want to get to know them and their families but the line is there. And once they get to the NFL they are professionals – most understand that too.
How were the other coaches to work with on those Steelers teams – any characters among the coaches?
Ron Earhardt was always feeble with the phones. I remember we were all on the sidelines once and he was talking to Dick Hoak. He was talking to Hoak asking if he could hear him and Hoak said yes. Then we hear Ron answer back – you can? Well, I can’t hear you!
Another moment was a preseason game in Arizona. It was hot but rain was predicted. We were standing on the sidelines next to the fans and Ron turned to Dick and asked him if anyone told Coach Cowher about the terrible winds. Dick just laughed and told Ron he was standing in front of the fans (laughing).
Any last memories or thoughts for readers?
One thing I never got to express was my gratitude to be a Steeler and to have worked for the Rooney family. Now that I can step back I see why they always win.
Cowher was the best coach I ever had. Dick Hoak knew the running game better than anyone. It was a pleasure to be with all of those guys. I’m a Steeler forever. Western PA is a lot like Iowa – we both appreciate hard work.