What is it like to witness the end of one era and the beginning of another? Every journalist dreams of the opportunity. Fate afforded the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s Ed Bouchette the chance to do just that in 1992 when Pittsburgh Steelers transitioned from Chuck Noll to Bill Cowher.
- Except there was a “catch.”
The devastating 1992 pressman and drivers’ strike that shut down the Pittsburgh Press and Post-Gazette left Ed Bouchette without a paper to print his stories. Fortunately, the Post-Gazette kept Ed Bouchette employed as part of their skeleton staff, and Sagamore Publishing approached him about chronicling both the end of Chuck Noll’s tenure and the beginning of Bill Cowher’s.
- The result was Dawn of a New Steel Age, a 214 page volume published in 1993.
In a market awash with books on the Pittsburgh Steelers, you’ll find some that are excellent (think Their Life’s Work and/or His Life’s Work), some that are good (think The Ones that Hit the Hardest), others that are average (think the Greatest 50 Plays in Pittsburgh Steelers Football History) and some that are downright awful (think Jack Lambert: Tough As Steel.)
- Then there are the iconic books, ones that serve as a touchstone for their respective generations.
Think Roy Blount’s Three Bricks Shy of a Load. Truthfully, people don’t discuss Dawn of a New Steel Age in such reverential tones as they do with Three Bricks. Perhaps they should, because Bouchette’s book really is that good.
Dawn Deftly Weaves Steelers Present with Steelers Past
I remember reading Steelers Digest’s profile of Dawn in 1993, but in those pre-Amazon days getting a copy outside of Pittsburgh was hard. However, I spied a copy at Station Square just before the Steeler ’96 home game against the Bengals, and it has served as a reference book ever since.
Bouchette divides his book neatly into 20 chapters, seamlessly weaving a tale where each chapter tells an independent story that contributes its unique elements to a unified narrative.
One critique of journalistic prose is that it too often sacrifices historical context for immediacy In contrast, too many history books offer dry recitations of fact that fail to convey a sense of present, or the flavor of the moments they’re recounting.
- Bouchette’s Dawn of a New Steel Age does the opposite.
A reader who picks up the book today can follow the progression of the 1992 Steelers and gain what it was like to experience the birth of Cowher Power as it happened, while understanding just how those moments fit into the context of Steelers history.
That’s a more difficult feat that it may seem. Jim O’Brien’s books on the Steelers deliver excellent insights, yet they often read like collections of individual stories that don’t from a central narrative.
- Read today, Bouchette’s approach provides a refreshing contrast to our Twitterized communication landscape.
Another writer charged with telling the same tale could have easy fallen back on “The game passed Noll by and Bill Cowher offered a breath of fresh air.” But Bouchette doesn’t do that, and because of that the Dawn of a New Steel Age succeeds in making unique contributions to Steelers history.
Why DID the Steelers slip into mediocrity in the 1980s? Poor drafting is the answer, but Dawn of a New Steel Age delivers insights into WHY the Steelers drafting slipped so badly. Art Rooney Jr. touched on this a bit in his book Ruanaidh, as did Michael MacCambridge and Gary Pomerantz.
- Bouchette arrived sooner, however, and in many ways still tells a more complete story than those who follow.
For his own part, Bouchette isn’t ready to describe that part of the book as “ground breaking,” but upon re-reading this chapter he asserts, “I will say that maybe some of Noll’s best coaching jobs were during the strike of 1987 and the 1989 season.”
While a Dawn of a New Steel Age offers the appropriate deference to what Noll accomplished with limited talent in the 1980’s, one thing stands out: the implicit criticisms made of Noll that many of Bouchette’s subjects offer.
And that’s another strength of the book. The breadth and depth Bouchette’s interviews are unparalleled. Bouchette managed to talk to the ball boys to lesser known Rooney brothers and everyone in between.
When asked if he would get similar access should he try to write a similar book today, Bouchette explains explaining, ‘No, I would not get nearly the access. We all had open access to all the assistant coaches and could sit down with them in their offices and chat. Same with guys like Tom Donahoe. Dan Rooney always was great.”
Bouchette continues, “Today, I might be limited to the players and a few interviews with Art Rooney and Mike Tomlin, perhaps Kevin Colbert.”
Bill Cowher Arrives in Pittsburgh
As the title suggests, Dawn of a New Steel Age doesn’t focus on the 80’s, but rather on the birth of the Cowher-era. And the insights Bouchette delivers on the 1992 Steelers are just as rich as his reflections on the 80’s. To that end, Bouchette devotes full chapters to the 1992’s key actors: Rod Woodson, Greg Lloyd, Hardy Nickerson, Neil O’Donnell, and Barry Foster.
- Bouchette also offers one of the first profiles of Art Rooney II.
Art Rooney II is now of course the face of the Rooney family, a role he’s occupied since Dan Rooney left to serve as ambassador to Ireland in 2009. But in 1992 Art Rooney II had only recently assumed the title of Vice President of the Steelers and still maintained an active law practice.
Bouchette also had the presence of mind to foreshadow the 2008 Steelers ownership restructuring. As he explains, “I also wanted to look into the crystal ball to see what might become of the Steelers franchise because Dan Rooney and I had talked about it previously.”
Even in the early 1990’s, the Rooney brothers “… did not want to see ownership splinter among all their kids and grandkids.” To that end, Bouchette got Pat Rooney on the record predicting, “’Art’s going to have to buy out the partners,’ and I wrote that sources said Dan is preparing to do just that. So, I would say I came damn close to predicting what would happen 15 years later.”
Bill Cowher, Perhaps as Steelers Nation has Never Seen Him
Bill Cowher is of course the protagonist in a Dawn of a New Steel Age. And Cowher’s presence and influence on the momentous events of the Steelers 1992 season are evident on every page of Bouchette’s book.
- Bouchette quotes Cowher liberally, and fans who remember the rest of the 90’s or the 00’s will find a more affable Cowher in the pages of Dawn.
When asked if 1992 represented a sort of honeymoon between the press and Bill Cowher, Bouchette agrees, detailing, “… The newspaper strike helped, as Cowher so often points out. We had our moments, especially in 1993. Bill was an interesting coach to cover. He had a range of emotions and did not hide them.”
In his autobiography Dan Rooney observed hiring a new coach almost forces a franchise to start from zero. He would know. Dan Rooney watched in agony has as Art Rooney Sr. cycled through 11 head coaches while failing to win a playoff game in 4 decades.
- Dan followed by winning 6 Super Bowls with 3 coaches in 4 decades.
The 1992 Pittsburgh Steelers surprised the NFL. Many pre-season publications ranked them in the mid-20’s in an era when the league only had 28 teams. Bouchette was surprised however, submitting that “The Steelers of 1990 and 1991 were not terrible and I believe we all recognized the disconnect between the coaching staff and players during that period.”
- Bill Cowher may not have reset the franchise to zero, but he did author a new era for Steelers football.
A Dawn of a New Steel Age captures that process in real time. Bill Cowher’s arrival spurred changes from top to bottom in the Steelers organization, including their approach to the draft, the way they practiced, even how players conditioned. Bouchette documents it all.
When asked what a Steelers fan can gain by reading Dawn of a New Steel Age in 2018, Bouchette suggests “A perspective because it is now a history book. I thought I detailed pretty well the end of Noll’s coaching career and why it came to an end, the start of Cowher’s career as a head coach, the culture of the Steelers and how they were to survive into the future.”
- That’s an accurate self-assessment, but perhaps one that does not go quite far enough.
After the 1992 Steelers upset road win over the Kansas City Chiefs, Steelers Digest editor Bob Labriola declared, “Something special is happening to this team and this city.” He was right. 1992 was a special time to be a Steelers fan.
Dawn of a New Steel Age is a special book because its pages capture and preserve the energy that awoke Steelers Nation in 1992 for all who read it.
Editor’s note, as of this posting, copies of Dawn of a New Steel Age appear to be available on Amazon.