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Where are they now? Keith Willis

Willis enjoying career as coach

Monday, August 11, 2003

By Rich Emert, Post-Gazette Sports Writer

Keith Willis had no plans to go into coaching when his NFL career ended after 12 years. These days he thinks about what he will do if and when he becomes a head coach.

Keith Willis was a standout defensive end for the Steelers in the 1980s.

Willis is in his third season as the defensive line coach at Boston College. Before that, he was an assistant at the University of Cincinnati for two years and at Slippery Rock University for four seasons.

"It just sort of happened," said Willis, who was a defensive end for the Steelers from 1982 through 1992. "I had talked to [Slippery Rock coach] George Mihalik and one thing led to another and I ended up coaching there four years.

"I really enjoy [coaching]. I get a chance to teach and pass on what I know about the game."

Besides teaching Boston College players how to defeat a trap block and how to bull-rush a quarterback, Willis passes along a never-say-die attitude that served him well.

He beat the odds and made the Steelers as a free agent in 1982. The next season, he set what was then a team single-season record for quarterback sacks with 14. Willis ranks fourth on the Steelers' all-time sack list with 59.

The Steelers made John Goodman their No. 2 pick in 1980, Keith Gary their No. 1 draft choice in 1981 and selected Darryl Sims No. 1 in 1985. All three were defensive ends, but none of them matched Willis' production.

"For certain people, you weren't anything but a free agent but I never fell prey to that," Willis said. "My attitude from the first was 'Come try me.'"

A product of Northeastern University, Willis was considered too small at 6 feet 1 and 235 pounds to make it to the NFL. What was not taken into consideration was his speed, quickness and desire. By his fourth year with the Steelers, he was up to 260 pounds and recorded 12 sacks during the 1986 season.

"A lot of people never thought that a guy from Northeastern would end up leading the Steel Curtain in sacks, but there I was," Willis said.

Then-Steelers coach Chuck Noll loved players who were overachievers and Willis fit that role perfectly. Willis missed the 1988 season with a neck injury but came back the following year to start all 16 games and record 6 1/2 sacks.

Perhaps his best game came in Seattle in 1983 when he had 3 1/2 sacks in a 27-21 victory. That season, he had sacks in five consecutive games.

After leaving the Steelers, Willis played for the Bills, Jets and Redskins before retiring.

He enjoyed coaching at the University of Cincinnati and might have stayed there if not for logistics. Willis is originally from New Jersey and it is easier to keep in touch with family in New Jersey from Boston than it is from Cincinnati.

Most Boston College players know about Willis' NFL excellence. He often invites them to his house to eat and they usually convince him into showing a video tape from his days with the Steelers.

"The one thing I try to stress to the players is that they believe in their abilities," he said. "There are a lot of guys who have the tools but just don't, for whatever reason, make the most out of what they have. I try to get all of our defensive linemen to reach their potential."

Willis enjoys recruiting, although he says he doesn't like some of the restrictions the NCAA places on college coaches in the recruiting process. One of the areas he recruits is south Florida.

"They take football seriously down there," he said. "Just about every school is loaded with talented players."

He also believes the NCAA should loosen its rules and allow colleges to pay athletes.

"There's something wrong when we can't give a kid a quarter to make a phone call," Willis said.

Willis, 44, lives in Boston with his wife, Maxine. They have a daughter, Jasmine, who attends Miami of Ohio and a son, Keith Jr., 18, who is a high school senior and plays fullback and on the defensive line.

Willis has had other coaching opportunities but is satisfied, for now, being at Boston College.

"It would have to be the right opportunity for me to leave here," he said. "We don't have a lot of free time once training camp starts, but I do get some chances to see my son play and that's important to me.

"I've been blessed, I really have, with the people I've coached with and the places I've coached."

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