Former Pittsburgh Steelers Director of Player Personnel Dick Haley passed away at the age of 85 on Friday March 10, 2023. Haley, along with Art Rooney Jr. and Bill Nunn Jr. architected the most dominant dynasty that the NFL has ever seen.
In many ways Dick Haley’s story is the antidote to the “me” centeredness that plagues modern narratives of organizational success.
To hone in on what I’m talking, just think of how the smart advice to job hunters today is to be ready to show the value that you added to company and to always use the word “I” aned never “we” during interviews. Scaling up a bit, think of how the story of every successful tech startup gets tethered to the biography of entrepreneur who gets credit for it all. If you doubt this then ask if the names “Jobs,” “Musk,” “Gates” or “Brandsen” ring a bell.
For the last 50 years the Pittsburgh Steelers have been one of the most successful organizations in professional sports, and it certainly is tempting to apply this same “who is the singular genius behind it all” mentality to them.
- Tempting, but ultimately unsuccessful.
I once asked Ed Bouchette during a Post-Gazette on-line chat, “Who was most responsible for the scouting success of the 70’s? Art Rooney Jr., Bill Nunn or Dick Haley.” Bouchette’s response was unequivocal: Each one of them always insisted that it was a team effort.
Refreshing, if not surprising, because this emphasis of team over the individual is the very essence of the Steelers Way.
Dick Haley’s Role in Architecting the Steelers Dynasty
Art Rooney Jr. professionalized the Steelers scouting organization. Bill Nunn used his connections with the HSB network to give the Steelers “Ace in the Hole” on draft day. But Dick Haley’s contributions were equally critical.
Sure, Rooney spotted Jack Lambert pulling cinders out of his skin while practicing on Kent State parking lot, just as Nunn got near-exclusive access to John Stallworth’s tapes from Alabama A&M. But Dick Haley validated the evaluations of both players.
Art Rooney introduced the use of computers, making the Steelers one of the first NFL teams to bring IT into the scouting department. But Dick Haley balanced the quantitative with the qualitative by trusting his eyes.
As he explained to Pittsburgh Sports‘ Ron Lippock in 2012, “Yeah…I say it often I know – ‘Don’t tell me how fast or big a player is, just tell me how good he is.’ Just big and fast won’t work. Big, fast and good….we’ll take that player!”
He further detailed to Lippock, “Lambert was a good example. He was only 202 pounds in training camp. He was 6’5″. Ham was 209 pounds. Webster was only 250 pounds – tell Webster he wasn’t big enough.”
The results of this team driven approach to scouting speak for themselves:
- 4 Super Bowls in 6 years
- 73 Pro Bowl selections during the 70’s
- 2 Super Bowl victories over a 2-time Super Bowl Champion, the team to accomplish that
- The 1974 Draft yielding 4 Hall of Famers plus 1 undrafted rookie free agent Hall of Famer
- 10 Hall of Famers
Dick Haley’s role in architecting that dynasty should be enough to earn him a spot in Canton alongside Bill Nunn (Art Rooney Jr. belongs in the Pro Football Hall of Fame too.) But Haley’s contribution to the Steelers legacy extends beyond the 70’s. And since its seldom discussed elsewhere we’ll do it here.
Steelers of the 80’s: Friction Between Coaching and Scouting = Stagnation
Business analysts love to talk about “process.” And Pittsburgh’s process for building the dynasty of the 70’s was simple: Art Rooney Jr., Bill Nunn, Dick Haley, Tim Rooney and other Steelers scouts would evaluate prospects and build the draft board, and Chuck Noll would draft the players.
- Peek back at the bullet points above to see how well it worked.
But then in 1976 the NFL moved the draft from just after the Super Bowl to March. In theory the extra time should have helped an organization like the Steelers.
- Instead, the exact opposite occurred.
The increased time allowed Chuck Noll to start micromanaging the process. He started challenging draft board rankings. He got his assistant coaches more involved in scouting. As Art Rooney Jr, declared in his book Ruanaidh, some of them weren’t up to it.
The organization also began to outthink itself. They’d pass on guys whom they’d rated highly thinking, “How’s he gonna beat out Stallworth or Lynn Swann?” or “Is this kid really gonna push Greenwood or Mean Joe for playing time?”
At its best, that led to the Steelers trying to replace guys like Lambert and Ham with the likes of David Little and Bryan Hinkle. At it its worst it produced draft picks like Darryl Sims.
- That created tension and communication dysfunction between Art Rooney Jr. and Chuck Noll.
By the 1986 season tension got so bad that Dan Rooney had to make a decision, and he fired his brother, leaving Dick Haley as head of scouting.
Haley’s Role in Building the “Blitzburgh” Teams of the ‘90s
The quick and easy take away from Dan Rooney’s decision to fire his brother is to look at what happened next and say, “Well, that I didn’t work.” After all, Chuck Noll only won one more playoff game (but man, it was a heck of a win) followed by deeply disappointing campaigns in 1990 and 1991.
- However, communication did improve between scouting and coaching, for a while at least.
In both 1987 and 1988 Chuck Noll drafted Hall of Famers in the form of Rod Woodson and Dermontti Dawson. And while the Steelers did need a lot of luck to land Woodson, those weren’t isolated examples.
The Steelers 1987 draft also delivered Thomas Everett, Hardy Nickerson, Greg Lloyd and Merril Hoge. 1988 brought John Jackson to Pittsburgh. The Steelers 1989 draft featured Carnell Lake, Jerrol Williams, D.J. Johnson, Jerry Olsavsky and Carlton Haselrig.
And it is true that by 1990 some of the same communication breakdowns between scouting and coaching resumed, but even those drafts delivered players like Justin Strzelczyk, Neil O’Donnell and Ernie Mills who helped the 1995 Steelers reach Super Bowl XXX.
Dick Haley left the Steelers after Dan Rooney promoted Tom Donahoe to Director of Football Operations when Chuck Noll retired. Haley worked as the New York Jets Director of Player Personnel from 1992 to 2000, and then served as their General Manager during 2000 and 2001.
But even if Dick Haley left Pittsburgh in 1992, his finger prints are just as much a part of the success first part of the Cowher Era as they are of the first Super Bowl Era of 1970s.
No, when they write the story of Super Bowl XXX, they don’t list a tally of players from the Dick Haley era just as they don’t do a tally of Tom Donahoe players on the Super Bowl XL and Super Bowl XLIII squads. Nor should they.
- Because each front office executive’s success = the Steelers success.
Indeed, the late Dick Haley was a walking embodiment of “The Steelers Way.” May he rest in peace.