Kevin Gorman: Karl Dunbar carries on Steelers’ DL legacy
Legacy is not lost on Karl Dunbar, not with his extensive ties to the Steelers and their legends on the defensive line.
Dunbar isn’t one of those legends, despite being drafted by the Steelers in the eighth round in 1990.
But his position coach was Joe Greene, the cornerstone of the Super Steelers of the 1970s and the greatest player in franchise history.
Dunbar remembers watching baseball games with Greene while sitting in the dugout at Three Rivers Stadium when the Steelers and Pirates shared a home on the North Shore.
“I still talk to Joe every now and then,” Dunbar said. “We had a great relationship, meeting each other every year at the Combine. I’ve kept some of my Steeler ties.”
Dunbar’s most extensive ties, however, are with the man he’s replacing. John Mitchell coached at LSU when Dunbar played there, serving as another legacy in a long line of them.
Given those connections, Dunbar was a natural fit as Mike Tomlin’s choice to become the Steelers defensive line coach now that Mitchell is serving solely as assistant head coach after 24 years as defensive line coach.
“He’s my guy,” Dunbar said. “He’s the first person I asked Mike about when Mike offered me the job. …
“Our relationship, I thought, was pivotal for me to come back to Pittsburgh and make a smooth transition. ‘Mitch’ has been here 25 years. I’m trying not to do anything to tarnish his legacy at all.”
This isn’t the first time Dunbar has dealt with Mitchell’s legacy. Dunbar was defensive line coach the past two seasons at Alabama, where Mitchell broke the color barrier.
Under Bear Bryant, Mitchell became Alabama’s first black player in 1971, its first black co-captain and first black All-American.
When his playing career ended two years later, Mitchell became Alabama’s first black assistant, coaching the defensive ends, and the youngest coach in school history.
Safe to say, Mitchell is something of a legend at Alabama in the same vein as Greene is with the Steelers.
“Yeah, they love him,” Dunbar said. “Mitch was a groundbreaker. He was a trailblazer at Alabama. He’s one of the reasons I’m coaching ball now.”
Dunbar coached six NFL Draft picks with the Crimson Tide, including first-round picks in defensive end Jonathan Allen and defensive tackle Da’Ron Payne, as well as the Steelers’ seventh-round pick, defensive tackle Joshua Frazier.
Where talking about the legacy brings a smile to Dunbar’s face, what gives him peace of mind is to know he inherits a defensive line that returns Cameron Heyward, Stephon Tuitt, Javon Hargrave, Tyson Alualu and Daniel McCullers.
“I can sleep good at night,” Dunbar said. “You have some guys who have been in some wars.”
What Dunbar won’t do is sing along. He jokes he’s a ” ’70s baby” who likes The Commodores and O’Jays. Even though he’s not listening to the same music as his players, he can relate.
“I don’t think I’m a millennial coach,” Dunbar said. “I think I’m hard-nosed and believe in paying attention to detail and teaching guys how to do things. That’s the thing, as far as when you talk about relationships these days, that’s the benefit.”
The “tiny details,” as Frazier calls them, are what Dunbar emphasized at Alabama. Dunbar shared the same philosophy as his predecessor, Detroit Lions defensive line coach Bo Davis: hips, hands and feet. (Both are disciples of defensive line guru Pete Jenkins).
“When you bring your hips, that’s how you generate power,” Frazier said. “When you strike your hands from the ground to the man and wherever the O-line goes, you go. When it’s play-action, you’ve got to flip your hips, turn and pass rush.”
The Steelers used their pass rush to set a team record with 56 sacks last season, with the defensive line accounting for 23. They are tinkering with 4-3 fronts, which could allow the pass rush to add more pressure.
“It’s been fun getting to meet these guys and seeing what kind of athleticism they have and how they relate and the rapport in that group,” Dunbar said. “Sometimes, coaching defensive linemen is like herding cats because everybody has their own thing they want to do. When you can get them on the same page, it’s a beautiful thing.”
So is the Steelers’ legacy on the defensive line, one in which Dunbar already is on the same page as legends.
Kevin Gorman is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @KGorman_Trib.