Developing the Talent: Inside Linebackers Coach Jerry Olsavsky
Many of you know Jerry Olsavsky played for the Steelers. His career spanned the end of Chuck Noll’s career and the first trimester, if you will, of Bill Cowher’s stint as head coach—1989-1997.
Looking at the Steelers’ record during this time period is interesting. There are a lot of entries during these years in the slot for playoff results (in Pro Football Reference’s Franchise Encyclopedia page). There is a Wild Card loss, two Conference losses, three Divisional losses, and a partridge in a pear tree. Or, more precisely, a Super Bowl loss. I can see why Bill Cowher earned the reputation as a great regular season coach—between 1992 and 1997, Cowher’s first six years, the worst record was 9/7, and the rest were double-digit wins. But he never quite closed the deal.
What you may not know about Olsavsky’s NFL career is that he signed with one current rival and played for another—he signed with the Bengals during the post-97 offseason, and played for the Baltimore Ravens. This would be his last year in the NFL.
I wanted to write something about Olsavsky as a player, for my own education at least, but other than the cursory stats on Pro Football Reference and NFL.com didn’t find much, until I stumbled across a couple of very old articles from a site called “UK Black and Gold.” The site has been going for a long time, and is a labor of love for ex-pat Gordon Dedman. In 2005 he made a new site, SteelersUK, but I found his articles on Olsavsky in the original site.
It may seem odd that not one but two articles were devoted to a guy who is not one of the iconic names in Steeler lore, but it turns out it is because Olsavsky was one of Gordon Dedman’s favorite Steelers. Or I suppose I should say “favourite” Steelers. Here’s his explanation:
I’ve rarely had favourite Steelers players because I’ve been more interested in seeing the team do well. Anyway, if I got attached to a particular player… they went elsewhere, so what was the point?
Jerry Olsavsky became one of those rare Steelers that I called “a favourite player of mine.” But that is all down to the special person that Jerry Olsavsky is…
At 6 foot and half an inch and 217 pounds, Olsavsky was considered by many not to have the physique to become a good linebacker. Jerry O proved them all wrong.
That’s probably why I admired him as a player. He wasn’t a superstar. He was just Jerry O. What he did, he did to the best of his ability.
Olsavsky would have a single year as the primary starter at RILB—1996. For the remainder of his Steelers career he had 24 starts, in 93 games. Otherwise, he played a lot of special teams and a lot of backup.
After he left the NFL, he wanted to coach, and worked at various places including Carnegie Mellon University. (I’m actually shocked to hear they pay a coach. Football is not a priority at CMU.) But he was working his way up the ladder, and in 2002 the Steelers brought him to camp as a coaching intern. At the time he was the Assistant Strength Coach at the University of North Carolina. Dedman quotes a Sttelers.com article which no longer exists:
Steelers.com quoted Olsavsky as saying, “I want to be a coach. I want coaching to be my career, but I don’t know if I will be lucky enough to have a shot at this level. I would love to coach in the NFL, because you are working with the best, and that’s especially true here because the Steelers linebackers are real, real good. It’s great to be around them.”
He became the linebackers coach at Youngstown State in 2003, and held that position until the Steelers hired him as a defensive assistant in 2010. They promoted him to Inside Linebackers coach in 2015, at the same time they made Joey Porter the Outside Linebackers coach.
Dedman didn’t lose track of Olsavsky, who he clearly admires. He wrote this when Olsavsky signed with Cincinnati:
[It] was a sad day for Steeler fans when Jerry Olsavsky decided to leave the team. The Steelers UK Supporters were at the game in Cleveland when he took that terrible injury in 1993. His comeback was truely magnificent. So much so, that several of the club members suggested we have a Jerry Olsavsky award for the Steeler player showing the most courage each year. If there is ever a Steelers Hall of Fame – Jerry should be in it. The guy’s got a lot of heart and deserves to be a starter somewhere.
The Cincinnati Inquirer had some interesting remarks about Olsavsky when he signed with the Bengals, and the beginning of the article is pure gold:
In typical Bengals’ fashion, their addition of two potential starters via free agency got overshadowed Tuesday by running back Corey Dillon’s claim of police harassment.
The club agreed to a deal with speedy but slight Giants cornerback Thomas Randolph, which he’s expected to sign today. On Tuesday, Steeler inside linebacker Jerry Olsavsky signed a two-year, $900,000 contract and eyed a starting spot next to fellow University of Pittsburgh inside backer Tom Tumulty…
Olsavsky isn’t big either, but he’s a favorite from Bengals defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau’s days in Pittsburgh in 1995 and 1996, when Olsavsky had his best seasons.
”Jerry’s one of the smartest players I’ve ever coached,” LeBeau said. ”He’s the type of player I really admire. He’s been told all his life he’s too small to play.”
The reason Olsavsky never played for Cincinnati was something which frequently plagued him throughout his career—injuries. He injured his hand, and the Bengals chose to settle the contract, leaving him free to sign with Baltimore.
The Cincinnati Inquirer wrote:
Spikes and Simmons, the Bengals top draft picks, were being tutored in training camp by nine-year veteran Jerry Olsavsky, but Olsavsky reached an injury settlement with the team and was waived. ”He was like a second coach to me,” Spikes said. ”Sometimes when (linebackers coach Mark Duffner) is working with somebody else, Jerry would show me the ropes and tell me what to do. He was a big help.”
Apparently the coaching genes kicked in early.
When Olsavsky was promoted by the Steelers in 2015, Chris Adamski of the Tribune-Review wrote
…Olsavsky seemingly always is in the middle of the action. He wants his players to play that way, too.
“Coach is high-energy — real high-energy,” inside linebacker Terence Garvin said. “He’s always ready to go, always ready to do something — that’s just his personality. He’s not the type to just sit around.”…
After many of the dozens of daily reps in team drills, one man typically runs to the ball once the play is blown dead, spotting it before giving both the “tackler” and the ball-carrier a pat or slap or word of encouragement.
It’s not coach Mike Tomlin. Not any of the other 11 assistant coaches. Most often, it’s Olsavsky.
Adamski pointed out that Olsavsky also hangs out with the special teamers:
It’s not uncommon to see Olsavsky, who spent almost a decade as a linebacker under Chuck Noll and Bill Cowher, running up and down the field next to the “gunners” — screaming to fire them up — or running into the middle of the line to slap the shoulder pads of a player who made a nice block or other play.
“He’s having a blast,” said inside linebacker Jordan Zumwalt, who was waived/injured by the Steelers on Wednesday. “No matter what, if anyone loves this game, it’s Jerry ‘O.’
“He’s a lot of fun to be around — and Jerry is fun to learn from, too.”
I think Olsavsky may be my new “coach to watch” this summer. I love everything I’m reading about his way of coaching and his philosophy. For him, it all boils down to this:
“That’s our motivation: trying to make every tackle out there. … That’s how I’ve always played — and I think that’s how inside linebackers should play: Be right there in the middle of it.”
Sounds good to me!