Steelers Training Camp 1989: Prelude to the Emperor’s Last Hurrah

Playoffs 1989
– Bubby Brister, scribbling on a St. Vincents college black board, Latrobe, Pennsylvania, July 1989

Potentially, we have a good team,”
– Chuck Noll, opening press conference, Latrobe, Pennsylvania, July 1989

What could animate a quarterback and coach coming off a 5-11 season to commence training camp with such daring declarations? One could write off Bubby Brister as a the cock-sure fiery young quarterback.

  • But Chuck Noll? The man who epitomized understatement?

Had The Emperor become delusional? Or might Chuck Noll know something the rest of the football world didn’t?

For much of 1989 season many convinced themselves of the later but, by season’s end, the group of Steelers assembling that summer at St. Vincents had vindicated Chuck Noll’s faith.

The Emperor’s Last Hurrah!

Steel Curtain Rising will commemorate the Steelers 1989 season this year. Each week during the regular season, you’ll have the chance to re-live Chuck Noll’s final, roller coaster playoff season through the memories of a high school student growing up in the DC suburbs.

  • I’ll confess at the outset that the waning moments of the week five game against the Bengals were the only regular season action I caught on TV.

Pittsburgh had no Sunday or Monday night games in 1989, and national coverage was sparse.

In fact, many, if not most, weeks I only discovered if the Steelers had won by leafing through the Monday morning paper, as homework and family dinners took precedence over ESPN’s NFL PrimeTime in our family (and I’m better for it.)

Despite those obstacles, I was hooked. I read everything, in the Washington Post, in the USA Today, in Sports Illustrated, or anything else I could get my hands on. I even had my grandfather clip and mail down Monday sports sections from the Pittsburgh Press and Post-Gazette.

I think we’d have trouble with a grade school team right now.”
– Chuck Noll, at the depths of the Steelers 1988 5-11 season

Few outside of the Steelers expected playoffs during the summer of ‘89 and for good reason. The Steelers had gone 5-11 in 1988, their worst since 1971. This was long before free agency gave teams the ability to quickly reinvent themselves. In the Steelers case, conventional wisdom held that they’d yet to hit rock bottom.

Bubby Brister became starting quarterback in 1988, heralding a new era under center.

  • Brister represented a vast improvement over Mark Malone. Which was scary.

Brister earned a 65.3 passer rating in 1988, completing a meager 47% of his passes while throwing 11 TD’s and 14 interceptions. (For the record, Malone had posted a 46.7 passer rating, throwing 6 TD’s and 19 picks in 1987.)

Steelers 1988 Offense

The Steelers lacked anything close to a 1000 yard rusher, John Stallworth was two years into retirement. Louis Lipps had played well in 1988, but at that point consecutive injury-free seasons had eluded him. Mike Webster was in Kansas City, and during the season it would be revealed that their only Pro Bowl offensive lineman, Tunch Ilkin, telegraphed run and pass plays with his footwork.

As for the ’88 defense?

Well, 1987 team MVP Mike Merriweather had been shipped off to Minnesota after holding out for the entire 1988 season. One national publication’s analysis of the Steelers defense consisted of observing that the 1988 MVP award had been shared by Rod Woodson and David Little…. And the defense had finished dead last in NFL in 1988.

Defensive genius Tony Dungy had resigned to work under Kansas City defensive coordinator Bill Cowher as a secondary coach.

Special Teams? We Hopped You’d Forgotten to Ask…

Pittsburgh suffered and NFL-leading six blocked punts in 1988.

  • Early in the 1988 season first-year signal caller Bubby Brister loudly complained that the Steelers offense was “so complex and conservative, we might as well punt on first down.”

After a rainy day in the slog at Cleveland when, in addition to two other severe punting mishaps, an errant snap resulted in punter Harry Newsome getting tackled 50 yards behind the line the line of scrimmage, Brister offered this priceless gem: “I guess we might as well throw on fourth….”

Nonetheless, optimists were on hand at St. Vincent in July of 1989, and these brave few were far from insane.

Even Emperors Can [Reluctantly] Change

Rumors are flying faster than a quarterback can throw them. Is Chuck Noll in or out as Steelers head coach?” – KDKA News, December 26, 1988

Might seem like an odd lead quote for a section on optimism, but it was what greeted me fresh off the Turnpike via Becks Run Road as I strode into my grandmother’s living room on Cedarcove St. 21 years ago.

The quote also reveals Dan Rooney did not take the Steelers 1988 woes lightly. As reported by the CBS News/Boston Globe columnist Will McDonough, after the 1988 debacle Dan Rooney asked Noll to fire some assistant coaches.

Noll refused. He called his coaches together and announced his resignation. The news sent Joe Greene directly to Dan Rooney’s office asking “What the hell is going on?” Rooney called Noll to say “Sleep on. You’ve meant too much to the team, too much to me. We can work this out.”

They did.

Noll fired linebackers coach Jed Hughes, guards and centers coach Hal Hunter Sr., strength and conditioning coach Walt Evans, and Special teams assistant Dennis Fitz. He demoted 1988 special teams coach Jon Kolb, to tight ends and strength and conditioning coach. As mentioned before, Tony Dungy resigned rather than accept demotion to secondary coach.

Rooney also promoted Tom Donahue from BLESTO scout to director of Pro Player Personnel and Development. In addition to scouting other teams’ players, Donahue would “advise” Noll on hiring assistant coaches.

The new assistant coaches joining the Steelers were:

  • Rod Rust, Defensive coordinator
  • David Brazil, Linebackers coach
  • John Fox, Secondary coach
  • George Stewart, Special teams coach

In the 1980’s owners frequently forced head coaches to purge staff as opposed to giving the head coach himself the boot. Sometimes this worked, some times it didn’t.

  • But the winds of change touched far more than the coaching staff in that summer in Latrobe.

By virtue of their 5-11 record the Steelers had their best draft since 1971. As Steel Curtain Rising detailed last month, some of the players from the Steelers 1989 draft would ultimately disappoint, but all of them looked good during training camp, and many looked even better at season’s end.

  • As Rod Rust and Dave Brazil installed a new defense, Noll also oversaw changes on the other side of the ball.

Taking advantage of the short-lived Plan B free agency system, the Steelers added Mike Mularkey a, get this, pass catching tight end. Noll’s offensive evolution did not stop there. During the middle of training camp reporters sighted Bubby Brister lining up under the shotgun, a first-ever for a Steelers quarterback.

Woodson, Lloyd, Dawson, Hoge, etc… had Foreshadowed ’89 Resurgence

Each of these changes had the potential to pay dividends, but players themselves drive any turn around in the NFL.

For all of the despair and desperation the 1988 season wrought, the play of certain individuals that year spawned seeds of hope that the 1989 version of the Steelers would be better.

When asked to explain his “Playoffs 1989” scribble, Bubby Brister pointed to the fact that the Steelers had come within one point of beating the Washington Redskins and the Philadelphia Eagles. They’d also come painfully close to beating the Jets and Bengals, and even given the Bills a run for their money.

The 1988 Steelers had also won three out of their final four games. Two victories came against mediocre Chiefs and Dolphins squads. But on Sunday Night in early December, Bubby Brister rallied for an overtime victory over the Houston Oilers in the hostile environs of the Astrodome.

  • An impressed Jerry Glanville speculated, “I think we saw a future star in Bubby Brister tonight.”

If Brister didn’t dazzle with his overall first year passing numbers, he’d also done enough to tantalize. In single season as a starter, Brister had authored four of the Steelers all-time longest passing plays, including an AFC best 89 yard bomb to Louis Lipps in a losing effort at Philly.

If Brister never blossomed into the “future star” that Jerry Glanville foresaw, there were others who began to grow into their own in ‘88.

1988 marked Rod Woodson’s first full-season of play, and in one year Woodson had already begun marking himself as a future Hall of Famer.

  • By 89’s end, Woodson had given Steelers Nation plenty of reason to fly the “In Rod We Trust” banners inside Three Rivers Staidum.

With Mike Merriweather holding out in 1988, the Steelers got a certain linebacker from Ft. Valley named “Greg Lloyd” on the field. The name rang few bells in the summer of ‘89, but Lloyd rang plenty of bells that fall as he led the Steelers with 7 sacks while adding 3 interceptions and a three-count on concussed Jets receiver Al Toon for good measure.

  • “Avoid Lloyd,” “Just Plain Nasty” and “I Wasn’t Hired For My Disposition” were about to enter Steelers Nation’s venacular

Speaking of Hall of Famers, Mike Webster’s may have gone to Kansas City but, after a one-year apprenticeship at guard, Dermontti Dawson had stepped into his slot at center where he would eventually start 7 consecutive Pro Bowls.

  • If justice exists, Dawson someday will follow Webster into Canton

When the Steelers were struggling mid-way through the 1989 season, commentators made light of that their lead running back had the unmacho name of “Merrill Hoge.” Yet, Hoge’s valiant 1988 effort had not gone unnoticed in Steelers Nation.

  • Number 33 had the last laugh when he became the first Steeler to run for 100 yards in back-to-back playoff games

Other players of course stepped up during the 1988 season, and Steel Curtain Rising looks forward to reminiscing over how they banded together in 1989 to give the Emperor Chuck Noll one final Hurrah!

We will celebrate Chuck Noll’s final playoff season all year. The first installment looked in depth at the Steelers 1989 draft. Check back with Steel Curtain Rising for regular additions to the series.

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11 thoughts on “Steelers Training Camp 1989: Prelude to the Emperor’s Last Hurrah

  1. I remember 1989 so very well!! What started out as a disaster quickly turned around and gave us fans something to get excited about. The team was scrappy and played hard and even though there was mediocrity in many positions, we could see the emergence of Lloyd, Woodson and Little. Who knew that Dawson would be all-timer too? There was so much heart on that time they really deserved to make the playoffs that year and they made January fun while it lasted. Thank GOD the Rooneys and the Great NOLL were able to fix any problems because that season would not have been successful without the greatest coach in NFL history- Chuck Noll.

  2. Mark,

    Thanks for sharing your memories.

    The 1989 season doesn’t get its just due. (Ok, when your franchise counts 6 Lombardi’s a wild card playoff win does kind of pale).

    Still the way season and started it was a wild ride.

    The ’89 season is enjoyable to write about, and we hope you return to read the rest of the series.

  3. 1989 is my all-time favorite season as a Steelers-fan! Losing at home 0-51 in our opener to Cleveland and then one week later 10-41 at Cincy. Man, how the mighty have fallen a mere ten years after their last title – a mere five after their last AFCC appearance! Horrible! Embarassing! Somehow, however, after beating Minnesota the following week and then giving Detroit an old-fashioned butt-whoopin like years past, I then began to wonder if the storm suddenly cleared. We lose to Cincy in a Week 5 rematch but least give them a game and then avenge Cleveland the following week in the Dawg Pound! 3-3! Not bad, off to Houston we go only to get blown/SHUT out! We even things up against KC the following week only to get embarassed first at Denver, then shut out (AGAIN) at home against Chicago; and this was years after the SB-Shuffle swagger wore off. Yes, it didn’t look good. All through that freshman year of college I had to deal with the guys in the dorms laughing at me for being a Steelers fan. After managing to put those horrible defeats behind us and even things up again to 6-6 at the expense of San Diego and then at Miami (big rain storm game), we had our chance to finally turn that corner at home against heavy contender Houston. Hard fought game, showed with such heart what direction the franchise was heading back to, but we came up short. 6-7!! Looked like all was over for us. A ‘moral’ victory perhaps? No, not quite! After going-to-town our last three games, clobbering the Jets, Pats, and then the Bucs to FINALLY bring us above-500 (9-7), we were greatly awarded by the Giants and the Saints beating both the 8-7 Raiders and the 8-7 Colts respectably in that season-finale! Just ONE MORE 8-7 team needed to be made into an 8-8 team for us to actually clinch the FIFTH AND FINAL PLAYOFF SPOT in the AFC! That team being none other than the BENGALS! Yes! On the final Monday Night Game of the season – CHRISTMAS NIGHT the Minnesota Vikings took care of that final bit of biz for us and knocked our hated division rivals as well as their OWN hated division rivals (Green Bay) out of January-ball! I can remember it like yesterday them going back and forth via-satellite showing Dwayne Woodruff and another Steeler (forgot who) at his apartment, kids from the neighborhood outside crowding around the back of his couch in celebration and then shifting to good ol’e Wisconsin where Don Majkowski, Tony Mandarich (remember him) and other Packer players hanging out together in gloom; and understandably so being that in their conference they finished the season 10-6 yet weren’t in. Oh well, that’s the breaks. For the first time in 5 years, the Pittsburgh Steelers…WERE IN THE PLAYOFFS!! And did they EVER prove that they DESERVED to be there by, as we all know, avenging a regular-season sweep in the best way possible by eliminating Houston AT Houston in OT and then coming up a mere ONE POINT SHY the following week at top-seeded Denver! Man, what a LAST HURRAH for Chaz! Yes, that divisional playoff loss still sickens me (especially to think that a win would have had us at CLEVELAND for the AFCC) but honestly, it probably in the end was best that way. To go out ‘in dignity’ barely losing at Mile High. Because, let’s be honest, if we would have managed to get past Denver, and then managed to get past Cleveland as well to…..MAKE THE SUPER BOWL, you REALLY think we would have avoided ultimate embarassment against them Mighty 49ers?? It would have been a sad thing to see. CERTAINLY not the case if our 1978 SQUAD met them instead, and also not if we in ’94 would have met Young & Co, but the 1989 installment simply were a scrappy bunch. Nothing less, but certainly nothing more. Chuck’s last hurrah as well as a foreshadowing to the great Cowher years that would very soon follow. I will ALWAYS love the 1989 Pittsburgh Steelers! Let’s DO INDEED give them love on this 20th anniversary as we try to defend our 6th Title, turning it into a SEVENTH! Go Steelers in ’09!

  4. Wow!

    steelerfansince1980actually said… has almost gone and stolen Steel Curtain Rising’s thunder by going ahead and summarizing the whole season in one comment… 🙂

    Seriously, thanks for sharing such detailed memories.

    There are many others which we will share, and hopefully others will continue to join in as well, as the season progresses.

  5. Lol, didn’t mean to ‘steal any thunder’, KT, just that it’s a season I have such fond memories of and hardly anyone ever brings it up as will likely go for this season as well with all nostalgic eyes on the 30th anniversary of Noll’s last title and the 35th anniversary of our very FIRST title, period. I’m sure there’s plenty more that can be brought up anyway such as (and I don’t remember this) the myth that Buddy said after that 0-2 (10-92) start that we would still make the playoffs. Maybe someone can enlighten me in a post. Anyway, time for me to order a #87 Weegie Thompson jersey to TRULY celebrate that ’89 season in STYLE!

  6. Hey steelerfansince1980actually said…,

    Just so that we’re clear, that comment about “stealing thunder was just a joke.”

    I was really hoping during the 75th anniversary that the 89 season would get a mention, but it didn’t happen.

    As for Bubby Brister, my understanding is this his “playoffs 1989” statement came at the beginning of camp. But perhaps he did make a similar statement after the 92-10 start.

  7. the 1995 team is, and always will be, my favorite, but i have a spot in my heart for the 1989 team too! i remember it like it was yesterday. the cleveland and cincy disasters were my first two weeks of college. but that team of overachievers and underdogs never gave up and made the playoffs. when anderson made that 50yd field goal in OT to beat houston IN houston in the 1st rd i literally lost my mind. then hoge’s performance the next week in denver was why he’s still loved in pittsburgh. sooo close, but whoever said we’d have been crushed by the 49ers was right. that SF team was a juggernaut. but great memories none the less.

  8. The ’84 season is pretty much a ‘twin’ to 1989. They also finished 9-7 and also had to win their last game of the season (at favorite defending-SB-champ Raiders) in order for them to get into the playoffs. Only in this case they actually won the division and actually BEAT heavily favored 13-3 Denver AT Denver to make it to the AFCC. More important, they were the ONLY TEAM to beat the 49ers that year (and IN Frisco)! Perhaps an article can be written about THAT season as well, celebrating its 25th anniversary.

  9. steelersfansince1980actually said… and batemmi,

    Thanks for bringing up the 1984 season. You’re right, there are both similarities and important differences between the two seasons.

    At the end of the day, they both could be exhibit B and exhibit C (The Super Bowls would of course be exhibit A) in any case for Chuck Noll’s greatness.

    While Steel Curtain Rising plans no tribute to the 1984 team, last year we did do an extensive 5 part breakdown of how Chuck Noll’s record holds up to Bill Walsh’s.

    Here is the link to the entire series:

    Simply copy the link, paste it into your browers, and scroll down. It is long, but you guys seem like you’d be up for it.

    Thanks for commenting!

  10. Hate to bring up the reminder, but I’d say the ANTITHISIS of the ’89 Steelers season is, perhaps, the very NEXT year (’90)! Can anyone say, ‘Cody Carlson’? MAN that name makes me real sick still! Actually, the BETTER antithisis would have to be…..(sorry to make you throw up your Thanksgiving dinners)……1998!

  11. steelersfansince1980actually said…,

    That is very true. The 1990 season was a horrendous letdown, and we plan to treat that when we get to the end of the series.

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