Art Rooney Sr. was not a micromanaging owner, often times to a fault. After Walter Kiesling refused to even let Johnny Unitas practice and was set to cut him, Tim Rooney wrote The Chief a 22 page letter imploring his father to overrule his head coach.
- Rooney dutifully read the letter, then balled it up and threw it in the trash.
Art Sr. liked Unitas, but stuck by his philosophy of “Let the coach, coach.” All of which is to say that Rooney Sr. might have been a fair judge of talent, although he did once admit to stopping short of prohibiting Dan Rooney and Chuck Noll from cutting Terry Bradshaw when the blonde bomber struggled, but The Chief wasn’t known for his personnel moves.
- All of which makes a bit of news reported by the Pittsburgh Post Gazette on-line editor Dan Gigler in the Blog-N-Gold more interesting.
On the heels of the Steelers 2014 Draft, Gigler caught up with ESPN Commentator and legendary Pittsburgh Steelers running back Merril Hoge. As expected, a good bit of Gigler’s interview with Hoge centered around the Steelers decision to pick Ryan Shazier.
- But Gigler also asked Hoge about his time with the Steelers, specifically about his interactions with Chuck Noll and The Chief.
Hoge shares the story of the final day at Three Rivers Stadium during his rookie year, when he didn’t get the season ending meeting he was expecting with Noll, but was treated to this unexpected encounter:
And as I started to walk out, here comes ‘The Chief’ walking with [the team’s chief contract negotiator] Dan Ferens. And The Chief stops me and he says, “Hey — you are one heck of a football player. We’re lucky we got you on our team.” He said, “Where you heading?” I said I’m heading home to finish school and he said, “Well, get that done and get back here.” And he stopped at the drinking fountain and I started to walk out and turned the corner near the coaches’ offices and Dan Ferens came after me and said, “You know something? That’s the greatest compliment you could probably ever get right there. The Chief doesn’t say that about everybody.”
In hindsight, this of course makes perfect sense. Hoge was never a superstar in the vein of Franco Harris or Jerome Bettis. He lacked the heart rendering comeback story of Rocky Bleier. He didn’t have the speed of a Willie Parker. His contemporaries Tim Worley and Barry Foster had more athleticism.
- But Merril Hoge made up for that in hard work, grit, determination, leadership, and toughness.
Hoge was a gamer like Hines Ward, a player who teammates turned to when times got tough.
- The curious thing about Rooney’s statement was when he made it.
As mentioned, it came after Steelers 1987 season where Hoge entered as a rookie 10th round draft pick. He rushed 3 times for eight yards that year, and caught 7 passes for 97 yards. Yes, he did bag a touchdown catch, but that came in the final striker-replacement game. He also came in 5th on special teams tackles.
- Unglamorous stats to be certain, but the Chief knew enough to see through glamor and glitter, and he’d seen enough to know Hoge was someone.
Perhaps the Chief should be know for having an eye for talent afterall….