Despite a Low Profile, the Late John Rooney Played Key Role in Shaping Steelers

John Rooney, Pittsburgh Steelers minority owner and youngest son of founder Art Rooney Sr., passed away last week at the age of 83.

Of the five Rooney brothers, John Rooney held one of the lowest profiles with respect to the franchise. Yet, despite that low profile, John Rooney did play an important role in shaping the Pittsburgh Steelers that we know today.

Here we’ll take a look at that role as well as his larger life.

John Rooney, Pittsburgh Steelers minority owner, John Rooney Obituary

The late John Rooney. Photo Credit: Post-Gazette.com

John Rooney – Teacher Turned Business Man

John Rooney is the youngest son of Steelers founder Art Rooney Sr. and his wife Kass, having been born in 1939, the second of twins. John, like his brothers Dan, Art Jr., Tim and his twin Pat, when to the North Sides’s St. Peter’s Catholic School and then to North Catholic (where Tom Donahoe and Kevin Colbert also graduated.)

John and his brother Pat studied at Mt. St. Mary’s College, in Emmittsbrug, Maryland, graduating in English. From there he went on to teach English in Plum Boro. John later revealed to author Jim O’Brien for his book 2002 The Chief:

Teaching was the most rewarding job I ever had. I never had another job where you got a rush every day about what you were doing to compare with that. You looked into the faces of the students and you saw that something was coming through. Some learning was taking place. You didn’t get that same sort of rush in business.

But as the father needing to support six kids, Rooney was forced to go into business. He moved to Philadelphia to work in the family’s race tracks, coming home in the summer to help with Steelers training camp.

Rooney admitted to O’Brien that, he like his other brothers wanted to work for the Steelers, “But the door wasn’t really open to anyone but Dan. The rest of us knew – it was made pretty clear to us – that we had to find something different to do.”

  • This is hardly surprising.

Art Rooney Sr. knew that sports franchises could hold the allure of a narcotic. As Ed Bouchtte detailed in Dawn of a New Steel Age, when Art Sr. once asked his son Pat “What are you doing here?” when he saw him show up at Three Rivers Stadium for a Steelers game, reminding him that his part of the family business was in Philadelphia.

  • Indeed. Art Rooney Jr. only entered the scouting department after an unsuccessful foray as an actor.

And while Art Jr. oversaw some of the most successful drafts in NFL history, including the 1974 draft that netted 4 Hall of Famers, communications breakdowns between Chuck Noll and Art Jr. forced Dan to fire his brother in 1986.

Art backed Dan’s decision, true to his “There can only be one boss,” philosophy, but as John confided to O’Brien, “It was difficult for the rest of us when Dan decided that Art didn’t fit into the football picture anymore. That was difficult for my father to accept.”

Although he had no other formal involvement of running of the Steelers, John did inherit 16% of the team when Art Rooney Sr. died in 1988,  setting up to play an important, if not critical role in shaping the structure of the franchise today.

John Rooney’s Role in the 2008 Ownership Restructuring

While the Rooneys are known for their association with the Steelers, they’ve long been dominant players in the race track business. John Rooney helped run tracks in Philadelphia and then Florida along with his brother Tim. And, as John admitted to O’Brien, the tracks were more profitable than the Steelers in the 60’s and 70’s.

  • As gambling laws eased during the 1990’s and the 00’s, the Rooneys added video poker to some of their tracks.

This ran afoul of the NFL’s anti-gambling bylaws (my, how times change) leading Roger Goodell to force the Rooneys restructure the team’s ownership to get into compliance.

  • That’s where things got sticky.

Dan Rooney made his brothers an initial offer, and when they didn’t find that satisfactory, they sought outside investors. Stanley Druckenmiller leapt at the chance to get a piece of his favorite team, and made the four Rooney brothers an offer.

When it came time to make a decision in the fall of 2008, the brothers couldn’t reach a consensus, but that John Rooney “’argued for his brothers to take Dan Rooney’s offer at their meeting, but no decision was made on that matter.’”

The brothers did eventually come to an agreement to the bulk of their shares to Dan and his son Art II and it is certainly possible, perhaps probably that they would have done so anyway, but John’s steadfast support of his older brother certainly helped ensure the franchise’s stability in the face of Druckenmiller’s takeover attempt.

The final deal saw John Rooney retain and 8% stake in the franchise, which was further reduced to 1% in 2015.

  • Nonetheless, John retained his seat on the Steelers Board of Directors until his death.

John Rooney is survived by his wife JoAnn, his kids Sean, Mary Jo, Alice, Peter, and Matt. He was predeceased by his son Jimmy, whom he lost in a car accident. Our thoughts and prayers are with the entire Rooney family.

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Remembering Franco Harris: Hall of Famer, Community Pillar, Ambassador of Steelers Nation

In news that is as shocking as it is saddening, Pittsburgh Steelers legend and Hall of Famer Franco Harris has passed away. His death came just two days before the 50th anniversary of the Immaculate Reception and 3 days before the Steelers were to retire his number.

Franco Harris will be only the third Steeler to have his jersey retired, joining defensive stalwarts Ernie Stautner and Joe Greene. When the Steelers retired Joe Greene’s number in 2014, Steel Curtain Rising titled our tribute to him, “Joe Greene – Portrait of a Pittsburgh Steeler” as in, if you want to see what a perfect Pittsburgh Steeler is, look to Joe Greene.

The same can be said of Franco Harris – as a player, as a teammate, as a pillar of the Pittsburgh community and a global ambassador of Steelers Nation. Below we show why.

Franco Harris, Franco Harris obituary

Franco Harris. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Getting to Know Franco

My “football awareness” as a Generation X Steelers fan coincided precisely with the Super Steelers wins in Super Bowl XIII and Super Bowl XIV. As shared here before, the kids on Wendy Lane played “Super Steelers” giving members of the squad superhero powers.

  • Mean Joe Greene had super strength and could turn himself into a giant.
  • Lynn Swann had super speed, like the Flash.
  • Jack Lambert was basically Black and Gold Incredible Hulk missing his front teeth.
  • Terry Bradshaw could throw bombs.
  • Chuck Noll played a Professor Xavier like role

As for Franco Harris? Franco could run through walls.

My first real “encounter” with Franco Harris (I was only just realizing his name wasn’t Frank O’Harris) was through a Scholastic booked titled 13 All Pro Running Backs. Franco was on the cover, I saw it at the Harmony Hill’s Elementary School book fair, and it was mine.

I don’t remember much about the book, other than this was where I learned what the word “drive” meant in a football context.

Terry Bradshaw, Franco Harris, Lynn Swann, Steelers, Steelers of the 70s

Franco Harris, Terry Bradshaw, Lynn Swann

Learning about Franco

Although I knew enough about Franco Harris for him to form part of the “Wendy Lane Steelers Super Heroes” group, I have to honestly say I don’t have any memories of seeing him play.

  • Yes, I certainly watched games where he played.

But unlike Mel Blount, Terry Bradshaw, Lynn Swann or John Stallworth, I can’t say that I remember seeing him play in real time. Those lessons would come later, and 3 key plays Franco appreciate his greatness on the field even more.

“Don’t Over Coach Him”

As everyone knows, Chuck Noll did not want to draft Franco Harris. Art Rooney Jr. did. Art Jr. had to resort to calling George Young to convince Noll to pick Harris. Noll picked him, and then turned to Rooney and said, “You’d better be right.”

Early on, skepticism seemed justified. Franco came to training camp late, and as Jim Wexell reports, Rocky Bleier thought he was “Lazy” while Ray Mansfield “didn’t think he could make the team.”

Offensive backfield coach Dick Hoak related to Wexell, “I’m spending time with him and boy he doesn’t look very good those first few weeks. We’re all wondering, what the heck?”

The first preseason game came, against Atlanta. The play was supposed to be off tackle, but when the blocking collapsed Franco cut back and ripped off a 76 yard touchdown.

Chuck Noll approached Dick Hoak with a simple instruction, “Don’t over coach him.”

The Immaculate Reception

You can read my reflection on the Immaculate Reception here. When asked about the play immediately after the game, Franco Harris shrugged it off, insisting he was in the right place at the right time.

  • But there’s a reason why.

As Chuck Noll explained, Franco was able to make that play because he “Hustled on every play.”

“Give Me the Ball.”

The Steelers-Cowboys rivalry of the 70’s may not have achieved the critical mass that the Yankees-Dodgers reached before it or that the Celtics-Lakers achieved after it, but it was the key sports rivalry of the 70’s.

“Hollywood” Henderson insulted Bradshaw, insisting the Blond Bomber couldn’t spell “cat” if you give him the “c” and the “t.” He backed up his trash talk with a late hit on Bradshaw. In the huddle, a furious Franco Harris commanded, “Give me the ball.”

Even though it was 3rd and 9, Bradshaw complied.

  • Franco ran 22 yards for a touchdown.

There’s your recipe for an NFL Hall of Famer: An instinctual player, dedicated to maximizing his God-given talent, who is loyal to his teammates and delivers a big play when the game is on the line.

Franco Harris: Steelers Nation’s First Citizen & Spreader of the Faith

Franco Harris’ football resume is enough to earn him the honor of having his number retired. But what really made Franco special was his work off the field. As Tony Defeo argues, Franco Harris embraced his “Italian Army” which helped give rise to Steelers Nation.

But what most people don’t know, is that Franco remained close with the Army’s founder Al Vento and his family for the rest of his life.

Franco Harris was active in the Greater Pittsburgh Community. His efforts on behalf of charities, foundations and other civic organizations are too numerous to try to list here. And he was committed to social justice.

Dan Rooney, Franco Harris, Mike Wagner, Jon Kolb, Gerry Mullins

Dan Rooney with Franco Harris and several other “Super Steelers” Photo Credit: Post-Gazette

As Dan Rooney related in his autobiography, the Pittsburgh police contacted Franco who was planning a sit-in in protest of a Ku Klux Klan rally. Both the police and Rooney feared for Franco’s safety. Rooney talked Franco into joining a counter, peaceful protest, that far outnumbered the Klan that day.

  • Through it all, Franco Harris maintained his humility.

As former ABC Radio Executive Mike Silverstein recounted, when Franco arrived in Pittsburgh, he took the “71 Negley bus from his place in the Friendship/Garfield neighborhood for the first seven weeks of the regular season.”

Can you imagine, even in 1972, any other NFL first round draft pick taking the bus to work?

But, as the sign that hung in Coach Eric Taylor’s locker room reminded us on Friday Night Lights, “Character is what you do when no one else is looking.”

  • In reality, Franco passed fictional coach Taylor’s test time-and-time again.

During the height of the Iraq War, a story circulated on the internet of a solider meeting Franco at the airport, asking for a picture. Franco asked where he was going. “Iraq via Atlanta” the Hall of Famer was told. Franco wished him luck.

When the solider arrived at the gate, he found out that he’d been upgraded to first class and seated next to Harris for his trip to Atlanta.

  • That’s just who Franco Harris was.

I know, because something similar happened to a friend of mine. I met Mateo Labriola (he insists there’s no relation to Bob, but we don’t quite believe him) when he started a Steelers Argentina Twitter account. Through the years we became friends, and have watched a few games together (including the 2015 playoff win over Cincinnati.)

In 2017 Mateo and his mother traveled to the US to see the Steelers play the Bengals in Cincinnati (the game where Shazier’s career ended) and the Ravens in Pittsburgh. They stopped at Canton, Ohio and the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Franco Harris happened to be at an event in Canton that day. Mateo approached the organizers saying, “Hey, I’ve come all the way from Argentina. I’m a Steelers fan. Is it possible to meet Franco Harris in person?”

Franco Harris, Mateo Labriola, Steelers Argentina

Franco Harris with Argentine Steelers fan in Canton, Ohio, 2017.

He was told to wait. Franco sure enough came out, met Mateo and took a picture with him.

  • You can imagine this happening with any number of sports figures, but not what comes next.

Franco asked him if he was going to the game in Pittsburgh that coming week. Mateo said yes, he had tickets, but his mother didn’t. Franco solved that problem for him, by inviting them both to see the game from his Luxury box at Heinz Field!

Not only did he do that for two strangers from Argentina, Franco drove in his own car to Mateo’s hotel, and personally dropped off the tickets at the hotel, stopping to take pictures with everyone in the lobby. Franco’s son insisted on not letting them pay for any food or drink during the event (and as someone who has organized corporate events at stadiums, I can assure you luxury box food prices are anything but cheap.)

  • That is what Franco Harris did while no one was looking.

Franco Harris was a great player. As Joe Greene, Dan Rooney and Art Rooney II observed, the Steelers never won anything before Franco Harris arrived, never suffered a losing season while he wore the Black and Gold, and have had a lot more difficulty winning since he left.

  • But as the stories here show, Franco Harris was an ever greater person than he was a player.

Steelers Nation hasn’t just lost one of his greatest Hall of Famers, it has lost perhaps its greatest ambassador.

Rest in Peace Franco Harris, our thoughts and prayers are with you, your wife Dana and his son Dok.

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Both “Franco’s Italian Army” and Franco Harris Himself Fueled the Explosion of Steelers Nation

It has been said that Mean Joe Greene, the Hall of Fame defensive tackle, two-time Defensive Player of the Year winner and four-time Super Bowl champion, helped change the culture within the Steelers organization.

Joe Greene refused to accept losing and a losing mentality, and he demanded that everyone–including his teammates, coaches and even the team owner–have that same mindset.

  • It’s hard to argue with that sentiment.
Al Vento, Franco Harris, John Stallworth, Franco's Italian Army

Al Vento and wife, Franco Harris, John Stallworth. Photo Credit: Post-Gazette.com

But if Greene changed the culture within the Steelers organization, Hall of Fame running back Franco Harris, a nine-time Pro Bowler and a four-time Super Bowl champion, helped change the culture in the stands and in the fan base.

Franco Harris unexpectedly passed away on Wednesday, just days before he was to be honored by having his No. 32 retired 50 years and one day after he starred in the greatest play in NFL history — the Immaculate Reception.

Franco Harris’s sad passing has been met with countless stories of his love of community, love of Steelers fans and just a genuineness that was hard to fake.

Harris became a fixture in the Pittsburgh community and one of the most accessible athletes in the history of the region’s sports landscape.

And I believe the seeds of the figure Harris would become were planted 50 years ago when the Steelers selected him out of Penn State in the first round of the 1972 NFL Draft.

Most Steelers fans know the sad history of the franchise for the first 40 years of its existence. Pittsburgh appeared in one postseason game between 1933-1972–a 21-0 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles in an Eastern Conference Playoff Game in 1947.

  • The Pirates were the most popular team in Pittsburgh, and baseball was the top sport.

For years, the Steelers played their home games at Forbes Field–really a baseball venue–before moving to Pitt Stadium–the football home of the University of Pittsburgh Panthers.

But even after Three Rivers Stadium gave the Steelers their first true home in 1970 — sharing it with the Pirates, of course — attendance just wasn’t good. That’s because the results on the field still weren’t promising, even if Chuck Noll, the new head coach hired in 1969, was putting the pillars in place for what would become a rock-solid contender by the early-’70s.

  • But nobody could see it, yet. Nobody could even sense that it was on the horizon.

That all changed in 1972 with the arrival of Harris.

Harris rushed for 1,055 yards as a rookie and scored 10 touchdowns on the ground. He was eventually named NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year and was voted to his first Pro Bowl.

Harris also galvanized the fan base like no Steelers player had been able to do before him. The fans immediately adopted the youngster, who was of mixed race, as his father was African American, while his mother was Italian. The Italian part of Harris’s heritage was what spawned the most famous fan club in Pittsburgh sports history:

  • Franco’s Italian Army.
Frank Sinatra, Franco Harris, Franco's Italian Army

Frank Sinatra is inducted into “Franco’s Italian Army” in December 1972. Photo Credit: Facebook.com

Franco’s Italian Army was so popular by the end of the 1972 season that Frank Sinatra was named an honorary member and actually interrupted a practice one day in order to greet the rookie running back.

But, make no mistake, Franco Harris was embraced by everyone. Many fans — black, white, Italian, Irish, etc. –identified with Harris. Again, being of mixed race in the early-’70s wasn’t nearly as easy as it is today (and it’s not exactly easy today). Yet, Harris transcended the social climate of the time and was able to find universal appeal.

It certainly helped that he was successful right away and that his arrival marked a transition for the franchise, as the Steelers finished 11-3 and won their first AFC Central Division title. The fans were so ravenous for a football winner by the time Harris came on the scene that, according to him, it was like the whole city had been waiting for such a thing forever.

Even before the end of the 1972 campaign, many more player fan clubs had popped up in the stands at Three Rivers Stadium, but the Italian Army was always the most famous. Harris rewarded his soldiers on December 23, 1972, by riding in on a white stallion (to quote Jack Fleming, the team’s radio play-by-play broadcaster for many years) and riding off into the sunset by scoring a touchdown that not only gave the Steelers their first playoff victory in team history but would continue to grow in lore until it became larger than life.

  • Much like Franco.
  • Much like Steelers fans.

Player fan clubs became commonplace by the end of the decade, as just about every player–even guys like John Banaszak and Dirt Winston — had banners hanging from the stands of old Three Rivers Stadium in celebration of the four-time Super Bowl champions.

Myron Cope, the late, great Steelers color commentator, radio personality and Sports Illustrated writer, created the Terrible Towel in 1975, and it has become the unifying symbol for Steelers fans all over the world.

  • That’s right, I said “The world.”

Thanks to the decay of the steel industry in the 1970s, Pittsburghers were forced to migrate to other parts of the country and even the world in subsequent decades. But no matter where they decided to put down roots, the love for the Steelers stayed with these folks.

  • And this love was passed down to their children and even their grandchildren.

Today, we refer to anyone who is part of this passionate black-and-gold-clad fan base as a member of Steeler Nation.

  • But I believe Steeler Nation started as Franco’s Italian Army in 1972 and just continued to grow from there.

Franco Harris meant so much to the Pittsburgh Steelers and the success they had on the field.

But he may have meant even more to their fans and is perhaps the most galvanizing player in the history of the franchise.

RIP, Franco.

 

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Dwyane Haskins 1997-2022, Steelers Back Up Quarterback Dead after Collision with Car

Tragedy has struck the Pittsburgh Steelers as backup quarterback Dwayne Haskins died today, Saturday April 9th, 2022 after being hit by a car in South Florida. According to Chris Adamaski of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, Haskins was in Florida at an off season workout hosted by Mitch Trubisky, along with Mason Rudolph, Najee Harris, Pat Freiermuth, Benny Snell, Chase Claypool, Gunner Olszewski and several other Steelers.Dwayne Haskins, Dwayne Haskins obituary

Dwyane Haskins was 24 and is survived by his wife Kalabrya. Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin made the following statement:

I am devastated and at a loss for words with the unfortunate passing of Dwayne Haskins. He quickly became part of our Steelers family upon his arrival in Pittsburgh and was one of our hardest workers, both on the field and in our community. Dwayne was a great teammate, but even more so a tremendous friend to so many. I am truly heartbroken.
Our thoughts and prayers are with his wife, Kalabrya, and his entire family during this difficult time.

Steel Curtain Rising echoes that sentiment.

Haskins’ Fleeting Second Chance with the Steelers

Dwayne Haskins was a standout player for The Bullis School, an elite prep school in Potomac, Maryland who played his college ball for Ohio State, and was a contender for the Heisman Trophy in 2018. Daniel Snyder wasted little time in bringing Haskins back to Washington, picking him 15th in the first round of the 2019 NFL Draft.

Haskins took over the starting role in mid-2019, but his tenure was brief. Haskins got benched after 4 games in the 2020 season, returned to a starting role in week 14, but was cut before the end of the season when social media pictures surfaced of Haskins at an event that clearly violated COVID-19 protocols.

Dwayne Haskins, Steelers vs Panthers Preseason

Dwyane Haskins had a rough night, to say the least. Photo Credit: AP via Tribune Review

With Ben Roethlisberger‘s “Life’s Work” rapidly coming into focus, the Steelers signed Haskins early in the 2021 off season.

However, the Steelers only offered him the league minimum, and resigned Joshua Dobbs, further putting Haskins on notice that he’d need to earn his roster spot. By all accounts, Haskins played well during training camp. He saw extended duty early in preseason, looking very good as the second quarterback in the rotation.

While the Steelers offered Haskins an Exclusive Rights Free Agent tender to start the 2022 off season, it was also clear that Haskins would need to earn a roster spot. Sadly, destiny has robbed him of that chance.

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Long-time Steelers Player and Broadcaster, Tunch Ilkin, Passes Away After Battle with ALS

Tunch Ilkin, a long-time Steelers offensive tackle and broadcaster, passed away on Saturday due to complications from ALS.

Photo credit: WTAJ

It was a very brief battle for Ilkin, who was just diagnosed with the disease in September of 2020 before going public with his illness a month later.

Ilkin, who was born in Turkey in 1957 before his family moved to the United States when he was a small child, was a sixth-round pick out of Indiana State in the 1980 NFL Draft. Ilkin, who played right tackle, didn’t become a full-time starter until 1983; it was the final game of that ’83 campaign–a 38-10 loss to the eventual Super Bowl-champion Los Angeles Raiders in the divisional round of the playoffs–when Ilkin first came known to a national audience, thanks to being repeatedly victimized by the legendary Lyle Alzado.

Ilkin went on to survive that bit of baptism by fire and would remain a fixture on the Steelers offensive line for a decade. Despite the Steelers’ post-Super Bowl dip into mediocrity (and worse) by the mid-to-late-’80s, Ilkin emerged as a team leader and one of the best right tackles in the NFL, earning Pro Bowl honors in both 1988 and 1989.

Ilkin started 143 games for the Steelers in 13 seasons before signing a free-agent deal with the Packers in 1993.

Not long after retiring from football following the ’93 season, Ilkin began his broadcasting career. Ilkin did color commentary for NBC in 1995, but his real broadcasting career began in 1998 when he joined the Steelers Radio Network, alongside Bill Hillgrove and Myron Cope.

Cope retired following the 2004 season and Ilkin became the lone color analyst in the booth, a role he would hold through the 2020 season before announcing his retirement this past June.

Ilkin became a fixture in the Pittsburgh community during his career as both a player and especially as a broadcaster. His work with local charities, including Light of Life, was well known, as was his relationship with the Christian community.

His close friendship with Craig Wolfley, a fellow Steelers offensive lineman and 1980 draft choice, was also a big part of Ilkin’s broadcasting career, as the two often seemed inseparable, both during broadcasts of Steelers games–Wolfley was the team’s sideline reporter for many years before being promoted to the booth this summer–and away from the field when they hosted the radio show, In the Locker room with Tunch and Wolf.

  • Ilkin’s first wife, Sharon, passed away from breast cancer in 2012, and he re-married the following year.

When Ilkin’s death was reported on Saturday, the news was met with an outpouring of love from the Steelers, their players–both past and present–the fans and the local media.

Tunch Ilkin was 63.

 

 

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Dan Rooney’s Legacy: Matching Excellence with Humility

As the city of Pittsburgh and Steelers Nation lay Dan Rooney to rest perhaps the most fitting way to put Dan Rooney’s legacy into perspective is to recall the wisdom of my late father-in-law, Ruben Jorge Sosa, who often remarked:

Si quieres conocer la alma de verdad de un hombre, darle dinero y poder y ven como se trata la gente.”

The rough English translation of Rubencito’s Argentine dictum would be, “If you want to get to know the true soul of a man, give him money and give him power and see how he treats people.”

Dan Rooney was born as the first son of Pittsburgh’s first family and grew to lead one of the world’s most successful sports franchises inside the uber-competitive crucible of the NFL. He had more money, and more power than anyone whose eyes have browsed this blog, yet Dan Rooney always maintained his humility, and he always kept his focus firmly on the people.

Dan Rooney legacy, Dan Rooney, Joe Greene, Art Rooney II

Joe Greene embraces Dan Rooney at his jersey retirment ceremony. Photo Credit: Robin Rombach/Post-Gazette

Steel Curtain Rising is hardly the only site to make this observation. The tributes to Dan Rooney that have rolled in since his death seemingly provide an inexhaustible source of stories about Dan Rooney’s sense of decency, justice and humility.

But it is also appropriate to consider just how remarkable an accomplishment Dan Rooney’s life represents when you take into account the environment in which he thrived.

Dan Rooney in the Competitive Crucible of the NFL

Have you ever stopped to consider which environment is more competitive, the NFL on the field or the NFL off of the field?

On the field, football provides as competitive and as brutal a contest as you can find. Long before Mike Webster’s death introduced the world to the ravages of CTE, the gridiron had a well-earned reputation for giving US pop culture its modern day equivalent of the Roman Coliseum.

  • Careers can and do end in a second and a lifetime debilitating injury is a possibility on every play.

Off the field things don’t get any easier. If you think the NFL is anything but a bottom line business, then I invite you to talk with San Diego Chargers or Oakland Raiders fans. Or St. Louis Rams fans. Or Houston Oilers fans. Or Cleveland Browns and Baltimore Colts fans.

Baltimore Colts, Indianapolis Colts, Dan Rooney Legacy

Baltimore Colts sign. Photo via Baltimore CBS Local

NFL owners understand the nature of the game. They know that careers are short and championship windows can take a generation to pry open, only to slam shut before many even realize their opportunity is at hand. The vast majority of owners grasp this reality and model their businesses with the requisite ruthlessness.

  • Dan Rooney stood in stark contrast to them all.

As he recounted in his self-titled autobiography, during the 1987 players strike, Dan Rooney once observed the Cowboy’s Tex Schramm and Tampa Bay’s Hugh Culverhouse comparing NFL players to cattle and the owners to ranchers. When the NFLPA’s executive director Gene Updshaw looked at Rooney in disbelief, Rooney simply shook his head, making it known he preferred to negotiate with the union in good faith.

Dan Rooney Legacy, Super Bowl X, Steelers, Lombardi Trophy, Dan Rooney, Chuck Noll, Pete Rozelle

Pete Rozelle hands the Lombardi Trophy to Dan Rooney and Chuck Noll after Super Bowl X. Photo Credit: AP via Tribune Review

Lest you think this anecdote is merely a byproduct uttered in the heat of acrimonious labor negotiations, rest assured more mundane examples abound. Think Daniel Snyder firing dozens of front office staff – many secretaries and other low wage administrative staff – when he took control of the Redskins, simply to show everyone a new Sheriff was in town.

It takes a tough individual to build a successful business when your “partners” hold such attitudes.

  • But did Rooney did it, and he did it by being tougher than the rest.

When Pete Rozelle first proposed a unified television contract with equally shared revenues, the big market owners, George Halas, George Preseton Marshall, Wellington Mara and Dan Reeves of Los Angeles resisted, balked at the idea and insisted instead that larger markets get a bigger share of the pie.

Dan Rooney informed them that if they failed to compromise, then he would refuse to broadcast games to the visiting cities whenever their teams came to Pittsburgh.

The other owners relented, and revenue sharing was born.

  • Reeves later told the other owners, “That Rooney kid the toughest guy I’ve ever met.”

But Rooney pulled off the feat of being tough, of maintaining a profitable bottom line while continuing to make people the focus of his efforts as a single, simple tweet illustrates:

For those of you who’ve already forgotten who he is, the Tweet is from Josh Harris, whose NFL career amounted to 9 regular season and 9 post-season carries in 2014. Josh Harris was a roster-bubble baby if there ever was one, yet Dan Rooney knew his name before the two men had ever said hello.

  • Imagine yourself reaching your 80’s and running the Pittsburgh Steelers – would you have been able to do that?

I know I wouldn’t, and I’m 40 years younger than Dan Rooney.

But that was Dan Rooney. He was the NFL owner who once had Mike Wagner come in and sign a contract after he announced his retirement, simply so he could pay him a farewell signing bonus. That’s the same Dan Rooney who insisted on waiting in line in his own lunch room, and paid to send his cafeteria workers to see the Steelers in the Super Bowl. Dan Rooney drove himself around in a Pontiac, and carried his own suitcase when he served as ambassador to Ireland.

  • As Ryan Clark once observed, “He must not know he’s rich.”

But Dan Rooney most certainly did know he was rich, but he understood that his true wealth came from his ability to connect with people. He always remembered that.

Commentators often grouse about the “socialist” nature of the NFL’s business model which is built on revenue sharing. That’s AM Radio inspired nonsense. The NFL is the ultimate capitalist cartel. The result of this arrangement is that the NFL’s competitive landscape rewards pure excellence.

  • The result is that teams from markets like Green Bay and Pittsburgh can end up facing off in the Super Bowl.

Good decision making, on the field and off the field, determine who the winners are in the NFL, and with six Super Bowl Trophies to their credit, no team has been more successful than Dan Rooney’s Pittsburgh Steelers.

He did it by identifying and hiring three fantastic coaches in Chuck Noll, Bill Cowher and Mike Tomlin, standing behind them through thick and thin, giving them players like Joe Greene, Jack Lambert, Lynn Swann, Terry Bradshaw, Rod Woodson, Jerome Bettis, Hines Ward, Troy Polamalu and Ben Roethlisberger.

  • Yet through it all Dan Rooney always remembered where he came from.

Dan Rooney’s life was guided by faith, family and football and those values guided him and kept him at the pinnacle of his chosen profession. Dan Rooney’s legacy is his humility in the face of such awesome excellence.

Thank you, Dan Rooney, on behalf of Pittsburgh and on behalf of Steelers Nation.

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10 Critical Dan Rooney Decisions that Shaped the Pittsburgh Steelers

Long time Steelers Chairman Dan Rooney passed away in April 2017, leaving a unprecedented legacy of matching excellence with humility.

As part of our on-going tribute to the man who transformed the Steelers into champions, Steel Curtain Rising reviews the 10 critical Dan Rooney decisions that shaped the modern Pittsburgh Steelers and continue to impact the franchise to this day.

Dan Rooney, Dan Rooney decisions, Dan Rooney Lombardi Trophies, Dan Rooney obituary

Dan Rooney sitting in front of the Steelers 5 Lombardi Trophies. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

1965: Accepting Buddy Parker’s Resignation

Art Rooney Sr. was a noble human being, a terrific odds-maker of horses, and a terrible Pro Football owner. But The Chief’s hire of Buddy Parker was one of his better moves. Parker arrived in Pittsburgh with a 47-23 record with the Detroit Lions which included two NFL Championships.

Buddy Parker, Steelers head coach Buddy Parker, Dan Rooney decisions

Buddy Parker as head coach of the Pittsburgh Steelers. Photo Credit: Behind the Steel Curtain

  • Once in Pittsburgh, Parker led the Steelers to 5 non-losing seasons in 8 tries, and finished with a .520 record.

At that point in the Steelers dismal history, such a record should have earned Parker a bust on the franchise’s Rushmore wall. But as Dan Rooney observed in his self-titled autobiography, “Parker could be unpredictable on and off the field.” He had no use for rookies and consequently traded away draft picks in favor of veteran players.

By 1964, Art Rooney Sr. had ceded much of the day-to-day control of the Steelers over to Dan, and Dan warned Buddy Parker not to make cuts or trades without his approval. Parker balked at the order, and often went to The Chief to get what he wanted.

Finally, during the 1965 preseason, Parker wanted to trade Ben McGee (who later went to two Pro Bowls) and Dan refused. Parker offered his resignation, Dan accepted, but asked him to reconsider and discuss the matter in the morning. Dan discussed it with The Chief, and convinced his father this was the way to go. The next morning when Parker threatened to resign, Dan gladly accepted.

  • The Steelers would go 2-12 during the 1965 season with Mike Nixon as their head coach.

But Dan Rooney had put his foot down and made the franchise’s first significant shift away from Art Rooney Sr.’s arbitrary decision making and towards Dan’s methodical mindset.

1966: Luring Bill Nunn Jr. away from the Pittsburgh Courier

Bill Nunn Jr. covered football extensively as a columnist for the Pittsburgh Courier, then one of the most influential black newspapers in the country. But he didn’t devote much coverage to the Steelers, in part because he didn’t like the way the Steelers did business.

Art Rooney Sr. was certainly no racist – Ray Kemp was an original Steeler and the NFL’s first African American player in 1933. But the same cannot be said for some of the other people in his employ (think Bill Austin).

Bill Nunn Jr., Bill Nunn Steelers, Bill Nunn Steelers draft room, Dan Rooney decisions, Dan Rooney hires Bill Nunn

Bill Nunn inside the Steelers draft war room. Photo Credit: SteelersGab.com

When Dan Rooney learned of Nunn’s attitude, he asked for a one-on-one meeting, and convinced Nunn to begin working as a scout for the Steelers on a part-time basis beginning in 1966.

By 1969, Bill Nunn was working as a full time scout for the Steelers. While Paul Brown had been one of the few NFL coaches to actively scout African American players prior to the civil rights era, Bill Nunn had an extensive network of connections to the Historically Black Colleges. Those connections paid off in the form of Ernie Holmes, Joe Gilliam, Glen Edwards, Frank Lewis, Donnie Shell, L.C. Greenwood, Mel Blount, and John Stallworth.

  • Note, you have two Hall of Famers and at least one (L.C. Greenwood) should be Hall of Famers and perhaps a fourth (Donnie Shell.)

Dan Rooney’s views on racial equality were founded in his deeply rooted sense of justice and his decision to hire Bill Nunn at a time when there were few, if any African American scouts, coaches or front office personnel in the game, symbolized the Steelers commitment to treating everyone fairly and judging them on their contribution to the team, regardless of where they came from, what their last name was or what they looked like.

The Six Lombardi Trophies in the lobby at the South Side demonstrate the practical impact of what many would still write off as wistful “idealism.”

1969: Hiring Chuck Noll

This decision speaks for itself. Prior to 1969 the Pittsburgh Steelers set records for professional football futility. Today the Pittsburgh Steelers have more championships than any other franchise.

  • You can trace that shift to the moment Dan Rooney introduced Chuck Noll as head coach in 1969.

On the day he took the job in January 1969, Chuck Noll proclaimed that “Losing has nothing to do with geography.” Ten years later, rival Houston Oiler’s coach Bum Philip lamented that “The road to the Super Bowl runs through Pittsburgh.”

Ironically, both men and both statements were absolutely right.

1986: Firing Art Rooney Jr. as Head of the Scouting Department

Dan Rooney stuck with Chuck Noll through a very mediocre stretch in the 1980’s, just as he stood behind Bill Cowher despite The Chin’s chronic stumbles in AFC Championship games. More than a few talking heads took that as a sign that Dan Rooney was “soft.”

  • What they failed realize is that the so-called softie Dan Rooney made a tough as nails decision in 1986 to fire his brother Art Rooney Jr. as head of scouting.

Dan Rooney decisions, Dan Rooney, Art Rooney Jr., Dan Rooney fires Art Rooney Jr., Dan Rooney fires brother

Dan Rooney and his brother Art Rooney Jr. at St. Vincents in Latrobe. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

The quality of the Steelers drafting took a nose dive in the latter half of the 1970’s and Pittsburgh’s drafting didn’t get any better as the Steelers drafting position dropped as trips to the playoffs became rare in the 80s. There are a lot of reasons for this, and it would be horrendously unfair to scapegoat Art Rooney Jr. for the decline.

  • But it is also clear that by the mid-1980’s Chuck Noll and Art Rooney Jr. could no longer effectively function as a team.

That forced Dan Rooney into a terrible decision – do you fire your brother or do you fire the man that you and your wife respect so much you’d trust him to raise your kids? Dan opted to fire his brother, dropping the hammer in January 1986. In his 1993 must read book Dawn of a New Steel Age, Ed Bouchette concluded that firing Art Rooney Jr. didn’t improve communication between Chuck Noll and the scouting department.

Perhaps the move wasn’t a panacea, but Chuck Noll did pick future Hall of Famers Rod Woodson and Dermontti Dawson in his next two drafts. And his next three drafts brought Hardy Nickerson, Greg Lloyd, Thomas Everett, Merril Hoge, John Jackson, Carnell Lake and Jerry Olsavsky to the Steelers.

  • Anyone of those players represents an improvement over any player not named Louis Lipps that the Steelers drafted between 1984 and 1986.

Art Rooney Sr. was a man of integrity whose ability to treat everyone he met with dignity, kindness and respect was legendary. He passed those qualities on to his kids, but he did so with the admonition to “…never let them mistake your kindness for weakness.”

Dan Rooney was a kind man but a tough man, tough enough to fire his own brother.

1988: Managing the Christmas Coaching Crisis with Chuck Noll

In 1988 Steelers finished at 5-11, giving them their worst season since 1970. Chuck Noll himself quipped that his team would struggle to beat a grade school team. After one particularly egregious loss, Dan Rooney decried the “Stupid play calling.”

That 1988 Steelers squad set several new standards for franchise ineptitude, but Dan Rooney had enough wisdom to see he needed a surgeon’s scalpel and not a sledgehammer to set things right. The ’88 Steelers had, after all, finished 3-1 after Thanksgiving and prior to that tested several playoff teams to the wire.

  • Rooney determined that several assistant coaches, including Chuck Noll’s favorite Jed Hughes, had to go.

This was the first time Dan Rooney had never questioned one of Noll’s staffing decisions. Noll resisted Rooney when they discussed the subject before the season, and after Christmas The Emperor went as far as to inform his assistants he that was intent on resigning. Joe Greene alerted Rooney to Noll’s intentions, and Rooney and Noll agreed to continue discussions.

Dan Rooney decisions, Dan Rooney, Chuck Noll, Dan Rooney Chuck Noll Hall of Fame

Dan Rooney and Chuck Noll at Noll’s Hall of Fame induction in 1993. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

Noll ultimately agreed to fire several assistants, although he saved a job or two in the process per Ed Bouchette’s reporting, and Dan Rooney in turn offered to make him a lifetime employee of the team.

  • Dan Rooney’s deft handling of a delicate situation remains important for several reasons.

First, he proved that “The Steelers Way” – a middle path between the extremes that normally govern most franchise operations – worked. Second, he also showed that it was possible to honor loyalty and tradition while forcing difficult changes. Third, move also saw the elevation of Tom Donahoe’s profile in the organization, which would be critical to the Steelers success in the 1990’s.

1992: Hiring Bill Cowher

NFL owners face a daunting task when forced to replace a legendary NFL coach. There are a lot more Richie Petitbons and Ray Handleys than there are Jimmy Johnsons. But replacing a legend was just what Dan Rooney needed to do after Chuck Noll stepped down on December 26th 1991.

Rooney left the day-to-day mechanics of the search to Tom Donahoe, but the Steelers employed a methodical approach that saw the Steelers interview well over a dozen candidates. Rooney wanted, although he didn’t insist on, a candidate who had a link to the city. He also made it clear he didn’t want to consider re-tread coaches.

  • The process of course ended with Dan Rooney selecting Crafton native Bill Cowher.

The move proved, once again, that Dan Rooney was an owner who was capable of moving outside of his comfort zone. Chuck Noll was about as stoic as an NFL head coach can be, while Bill Cowher was an extrovert’s extrovert.

Dan Rooney decisions, Dan Rooney, Bill Cowher, Dan Rooney hires Bill Cowher

Bill Cowher and Dan Rooney after Cowher’s signing as Steelers head coach in 1992. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

Likewise, Rooney’s decision dispensed with any illusion that sentimentality guided his decision making. Joe Greene had entered the process as a favorite, but Rooney set aside the tremendous affection and respect he holds for Joe Greene, and determined that Mean Joe wasn’t ready to be a head coach.

While some fans might still insist that Dan Rooney was too patient with Bill Cowher’s repeated AFC Championship losses, a little 20/20 hindsight shows that Bill Cowher’s ability to make it that far with a rookie quarterback once and Kordell Stewart twice is a testament to Cowher’s coaching acumen.

The Steelers won more games during Bill Cowher’s tenure than any other NFL team and of course brought the Lombardi Trophy back to Pittsburgh in Super Bowl XL.

2000: Replacing Tom Donahoe with Kevin Colbert

As hinted above, Tom Donahoe certainly deserves more credit than he gets for the Steelers reclaiming the mantel of contender in the 1990’s. In the days before Heinz Field was built, the Steelers struggled to compete in free agency. Tom Donahoe helped map out the Steelers strategy of resigning key free agents before their contracts expired, and he uncovered under the radar free agency signings such as Kevin Greene, John Williams and Ray Seals.

Dan Rooney, Dan Rooney decisions, Tom Donahoe, Bill Cowher, Tom Modark, Steelers 1992 Draft

Tom Donahoe, Tom Modark, Dan Rooney and Bill Cowher in the Steelers 1992 draft room. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

Likewise, Donahoe’s ability to find mid and late round draft gems allowed the Steelers to continually reload in the face of annual free agent exoduses of the mid-90’s.

  • But, as the breakdown between Noll and Art Rooney Jr. illustrated, having a great coach and a great front office matters not if the two men don’t get along.

Bill Cowher and Tom Donahoe worked well together at the beginning, but their relationship quickly deteriorated. The rift became public after Fog Bowl II and, by 1999, they were barely speaking to each other. Dan Rooney had to make a choice, and he chose Cowher over Donahoe, a move that was extremely unpopular both inside and outside the South Side.

  • For the record, my own first reaction was that Rooney had chosen the wrong man.

But Tom Donahoe floundered as president of the Buffalo Bills, while Kevin Colbert gave Cowher his second wind.

Want to know why the Steelers were champions in the 00’s but only contenders in the ‘90’s? Look no further than Kevin Colbert’s 15-1-1 record with first round draft picks and his uncanny ability to uncover undrafted rookie free agents such as Willie Parker and James Harrison. Clearly, Dan Rooney knew more than his critics.

2004: Drafting Ben Roethlisberger

After the 2002 season, the Steelers thought they had a Super Bowl quarterback in Tommy Maddox. While Maddox struggled in 2003, quarterback wasn’t perceived as a major area of need heading into the 2004 NFL Draft.

And, when the Steelers turn came to draft, the focus was on picking Arkansas tackle Shawn Andrews. But Rooney, haunted by the ghosts of the 1983 draft and the team’s two decade struggle to replace Terry Bradshaw, steered the conversation toward Ben Roethlisberger.

Like his choice of Chuck Noll, this decision speaks for itself. There are 3 quarterbacks in this era who wear multiple Super Bowl rings. Roethlisberger is one of them for a reason.

2007: Signing Off on Mike Tomlin’s Hire

You’ll find no shortage of fans in Steelers Nation who’ll disagree with this one. They’re entitled to their opinions of course. The facts however speak for themselves.

  • Taking over a Super Bowl contender is no sure bet to success (just ask Ray Handley or Mike Martz for that matter.)

But Mike Tomlin took an 8-8 2006 Steelers squad and brought home an AFC North Division title in his first season, and bagged Lombardi Number Six in his second in Super Bowl XLIII.

Dan Rooney, Dan Rooney Decisions, Mike Tomlin, Ben Roethlisberger, Dan Rooney decisons

Ben Roethlisberger, Mike Tomlin and Dan Rooney celebrate the Steelers victory in Super Bowl XLIII. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

Two years later he got the team back to the Super Bowl but fell short. Since then has overseen a rebuilding effort without going under .500, and included and an almost heroic turnaround from a disastrous 2-6 start in 2013.

By all accounts, it was Art Rooney II who made the decision to hire Mike Tomlin in 2008, but Dan Rooney signed off on the choice.

2009: Accepting the Ambassadorship to Ireland

Dan Rooney’s decision to accept his country’s call to service at age 77 to work as the United States ambassador to Ireland speaks volumes about his character and his commitment to serving the greater good.

  • But it also had an important impact on the Steelers.

Accepting the ambassadorship meant that Dan Rooney had to relinquish any formal role with the Steelers and the NFL. While Art Rooney II had been given the role of “President” of the Steelers in 2004 and had been groomed to take control of the team in since the early 1990’s, he would now need to go it alone.

  • Art Rooney, in effect, had a chance to do what few in his position would ever get a chance to do: He got to test drive running the Steelers on his own.

When asked about Steelers issues while he was ambassador to Ireland, Dan Rooney routinely rebuffed and redirected questions to his son. While that was to be expected, if press accounts are accurate, Rooney really did remove himself from decision making.

He did, however, resume his role as Chairman in 2012, and you can imagine that he and Art II had plenty of discussions over what went right and what went wrong during his absence and this can only help Art Rooney II make better decisions moving forward.

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Pittsburgh Steelers Chairman Dan Rooney Dies

The news is hitting Steelers Nation like a shock wave:

  • Pittsburgh Steelers Chairman Dan Rooney has passed away at the age of 84.

No cause of death has been reported and the news comes as a shock as there have been no reports of Rooney battling health problems. Nonetheless, it caught this blogger’s attention that Dan Rooney appeared to be absent in the photo that the Steelers published following the 2016 NFL Draft.

"Dan

Dan Rooney was born in 1932, one year before his father Art Rooney Sr. founded the Pittsburgh Steelers, then known as the Pirates. Although he was the owner’s son, Dan Rooney literally pulled the pro football equivalent of working his way up from the shop floor onward, first working as a ball boy, then working in various aspects of the Steelers management.

  • During this time the Pittsburgh Steelers were the worst franchise in the NFL.

Those lessons were not lost on Dan Rooney, however. Quite the contrary, Rooney learned from his father’s mistakes, and by the time Art Rooney Sr. turned over control of the franchise to him in the 1960’s, Rooney was already laying the blueprints for the foundation that would support the greatest dynasty the NFL has ever known.

It was at Dan Rooney’s behest that the Steelers parted with Buddy Parker, who insisted trading away draft picks in favor of washed up veterans. It was Dan Rooney who convince the Pittsburgh Courier’s Bill Nunn Jr. to begin scouting for the Steelers. Bill Nunn’s connections of led the Steelers to draft such veterans as Mel Blount, John Stallworth and L.C. Greenwood.

  • His most important decision of course came in 1969 when Rooney hired Chuck Noll.

Chuck Noll would go one to be the first NFL coach to win 4 Super Bowls, and the only man to win 4 championships in 6 years. Dan Rooney did it again in 1992 when he hired Bill Cowher and, while the decision to hire Mike Tomlin is reported to have been Art Rooney II’s, Dan fully signed off on that move as well.

It should also be noted that, during the 2004 NFL Draft, while the Steelers were on the clock it was Dan Rooney who spoke up and suggested Ben Roethlisberger‘s name when Cowher and Kevin Colbert appeared ready to draft an offensive line man.

Aside from giving the franchise a legacy of stability in the “Not for Long” league, Rooney’s wise management decisions directly resulted in the Steelers winning 6 Super Bowls, or more than any other franchise.

Editors Note: Steel Curtain Rising will have further coverage on Dan Rooney’s life and legacy. Check back soon.

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Watch Tower Special Edition: Reviewing Chuck Noll’s Obituaries

Former Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Chuck Noll’s death in June left the scribes of Steelers Nation with a daunting task. Namely, how to sum up the accomplishments of a man who accomplished so much, and said so little.

chuck noll steelers day tribute obituary press coverage

As Steelers Nation prepares to celebrate Chuck Noll Day as the Steelers open the 2014 NFL season vs. the Cleveland Browns, Noll’s former team, the Watch Tower takes a look at the coverage of Noll’s life and times.

Breaking the Story, Kudos to the Tribune Review

Chuck Noll died on a Friday night, a terrible time for news coverage, even in the age of the 24 hour news cycle. The arrival of Twitter has made the art of “Breaking a story” largely an academic question left to journalism geeks. Nonetheless, the Pittsburgh Tribune Review draws kudos for getting the story out first.

The Tribune Review immediately published two stories by editor Jerry DiPaolia, someone who hasn’t written on the Steelers much lately. Still, both of his stories were on the mark, and they were clearly written. The Post-Gazette’s Ed Bouchette got something up there quickly as well, but it wasn’t until the next day the Gerry Dulac’s official obituary went up.

  • Dulac’s obituary was good, and clearly pre-written as it included quotes from the late Bum Philips. 

However, for 24 hours, the Dulac obituary was all the Post-Gazette had. In a word, the Watch Tower was ready to pounce. By the next day, the Post-Gazette publish a storm of excellent stories, including one for Dan Rooney which must be regarded as a coup.

Behind the Steel Curtain Editor, (full disclosure, the yours truly also writes for BTSC) explained the rationale in the terms which his site approached it.  A figure as monumental as Noll deserves a pause before rushing to publication.

Noll Finally Gets His Due in Death

When discussions of who the greatest coach in history is, Chuck Noll’s name rarely got mentioned while he was alive. And Noll undoubtedly loved it that way. Those honors typically go to Bill Walsh, Don Shula, Vince Lombardi, Bill Parcells, and/or Paul Brown.

However, time and time agin the terms “greatest coach ever” or “only coach to win four Super Bowls” were said and written time and time again.

  • And so they should be. 

But as fitting as that is, Noll the man got equal coverage. Ivan Cole of Behind the Steel Curtain talked about Noll’s commitment to merit and equality, without regard to race. BTSC’s Jack Finn similarly argued that Noll’s greatest contributions were not his trophies, but rather the integrity of his identity and purpose. Neal Coolong of BTSC, in one of his best pieces ever (which is saying something) honed in on the fact that no one else has approached 4 championships in six years.

Rocky Bleier wrote a moving tribute on Sports Illustrated. Dejan Kovacevic, at the time still with the Tribune Review discussed the vital contribution to civic pride delivered by Noll’s Steelers. (A day late and a dollar short, Ron Cook wrote a similar story.) The Post-Gazette’s Gene Collier employed his dry wit and his understated, yet penetrating insight to produce an excellent piece.

Steelers.com went all in on the coverage, as would be expected and even offered gems from Hines Ward and Rod Woodson, two players not often associated with Noll.

BTSC and Scott Brown Get Kudos for Best Noll Coverage

Journalism serves many functions, and its basic function when someone passes away is to tell his or her story and covey  their contributions.  As the above sampling reveals (and this is only a sampling) many of Steelers Nation’s best scribes did an excellent job of doing just that.

  • However, even when it comes to something boiler plate like an obituary, also involves uncovering new information.

The prize for doing that in the case of Noll’s death was clearly won by ESPN’s Scott Brown and Behind the Steel Curtain’s Homer J. aka Mike Silversteen.

One of the ways in which Scott Brown approached Noll’s death was to get on the phone with his former players, and share their thoughts. Brown deserves credit for doing it the old fashioned way, in actual conversations with sources as opposed ot simply lifting comments off of Steelers.com.

  • But Brown went beyond simply talking to old players.

He also talked to Bill Cowher, and in the process got a priceless piece of information about a plane ride between Noll and Cowher which occurred shortly after Cowher had been hired.

While the conversation Brown reports reveals nothing earth shaking, it’s an amazing look at the inner workers of the Steelers circa 1993. When Noll retired he held the title of “Administration Advisor” but that was always seen as simply ceremonial title. And, by and large part it was. But Brown’s reporting shows that Noll still had enough of a connection to the team that he’d ferry his successor on scouting missions.

  • Perhaps similar stories like this are common knowledge in the inner circle, but nothing like this was never made public – until Scott Brown.

While Brown’s revelation is important, it nonetheless sits in second fiddle to the journalistic coup found in Behind the Steel Curtain’s Renegade preseason special.

BTSC’s Homer J. is a former journalist from ABC Radio who was present at the Immaculate Reception and clearly maintains sources within the Steelers organization. The Watch Tower has already praised his ability to deliver details on just how and why Mike Tomlin dazzled Dan and Art Rooney during the interview process.

  • But that accomplishment pales into comparison with his latest.

It had been known for years that Noll’s health was failing, and that he was either suffering from Alzheimer’s or Alzheimer’s like symptoms in addition to heart and back problems. The Steelers, their former players, and Noll’s family protected his privacy with a shroud of secrecy.

  • But in BTSC’s Renegade, Homer J. does what no other journalist did – provide details on Noll’s final hours.

Moreover, to his credit, he delivers those details in a dignified way, that does The Emperor justice. If you haven’t read Homer’s piece yet, take the time to click here and do so now. You’ll be glad you did.

Thanks for visiting. To read more analysis of the media that cover the Steelers, click here to read more from Steel Curtain Rising’s Watch Tower.

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Chuck Noll Biography – 6 Moments that Defined the Unassuming Steelers Legend

How do you summarize a legend’s life in a single article? Steelers Nation’s scribes faced just such a dilemma with the passing of Chuck Noll.

How to tell the story of someone so accomplished, yet so humble; at once intelligent but unassuming; demanding while soft spoken; so devoted to singleness of purpose yet dedicated to a variety of pursuits.

How else to explain a an who sits among the greatest NFL coaches yet is frequently forgotten when “The Greatest” conversation starts because he actively deflected credit for himself? Preparedness was Pittsburgh’s calling card under Noll. So how do you explain how he was home for dinner every night while his contemporaries slept on couches in their offices?

It is a daunting task. To perhaps the key to decrypting the cryptic Chuck Noll it is best to start with the “exceptions,” or moments where he departed from the script. Click on the links below to see how those “off script moments” formed the foundations of Noll’s defining moments with the Steelers.

1. “Losing has nothing to do with geography.”
2. “They think the just won the God damn Super Bowl.”
3. “Go for the big one.”
4. “Sidney Thornton’s problems are great, and they are many.” – The Emperor in Winter
5. “Potentially, we have a good team.” – The Emperor’s Lash Hurrah
6. “Time to smell the flowers….”But first….
7. The Emperor Is Dead – Long Live Steelers Nation

Chuck Noll, sideline

Chuck Noll Calling Plays in the Heat of Battle

“Losing has nothing to do with geography.”

When you think of “Attitude” and “Steelers” you usually think of a young Joe Greene tossing the ball into the stands in frustration, or Greg Lloyd’s “Just plain nasty,” or perhaps Joey Porter calling out Ray Lewis.

  • The mild mannered Noll, it would seem, was the antithesis of attitude.

Except he wasn’t. Of Chuck Noll’s many contributions to the Steelers, perhaps his most important was attitude. And he made it on his very first day as Pittsburgh Steelers head coach. When asked about taking over a Pittsburgh team that had excelled at losing  40 years, Noll’s response was a concise as it was penetrating.

“Losing has nothing to do with geography.”

With a single statement, Noll erased four decades of mindset. The team’s bad habit of trading away draft picks had ended. Noll pledged to Dan Rooney to build the team up from the ground, to replace those players not good enough, and even dared to remake Pro Bowlers such as Andy Russell in his own image.

  • Likewise, losing would neither be accepted as normal, nor incite outrage, but rather serve as a tool for teaching players to improve.

Make no mistake about it, a lot of things changed in Pittsburgh when Noll arrived, but it all began with a change in attitude.
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“They think the just won the God damn Super Bowl.”

Noll didn’t do pep talks, ala Vince Lombardi or Bill Cowher. He didn’t go out for emotional hand holding the way Joe Gibbs would. Nor did he attempt to belittle his player’s with barrages of criticism like Bill Parcells.

  • No, Noll wanted players who were self-starters.

You were playing professional football, and that should serve as motivation enough. Yet perhaps his best off script moment came before the 1974 AFC Championship game. This story made it into almost every Chuck Noll obituary.

The Oakland Raiders had defeated the Dolphins, and afterwards John Madden exclaimed that, it was a great day in football when the two best teams played and it was a shame one of them had to lose.

As Ray Mansfield recounted, Noll walked into the Steelers locker room the next morning fuming, “They think the just won the God Damn Super Bowl. But let me tell you something, the best football team is sitting here right in front of me.”

Dwight White remarked, “It was like getting a blessing to go out and beat up on someone.” Andy Russell later recalled, Joe Greene stood up and proclaimed, “I am ready to play right now.” For his own part, Joe Greene said that was the one game that he entered where he knew he was going to win.

  • As it turned out, Noll’s bit of bravado worked.

The Steelers ended the half tied, after the referee had disallowed a John Stallworth touchdown. Nonplussed, the team filed off into the locker room, with no frustrations evident. Nor did panic set in when Oakland took a 10-3 lead into the fourth quarter. Lynn Swann scored one touchdown while Franco Harris rumbled for 2 more.

Noll’s stoicism was no act, yet The Emperor was savvy enough to know when to press buttons.
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“Go for the big one.”

Football, Noll repeat time and time again, was about blocking and tackling. While his contemporary Chuck Knox was known as “Ground Chuck,” Noll could have just as easily earned that nickname.

  • When in doubt, Chuck Noll ran.

But the Steelers became victims of their own success on the other side of the ball, and that prompted another off script move by The Emperor.

Mel Blount simply covered receivers too well. The NFL never has nor never will see another more physically intimidating cornerback. The NFL took notice, and took notice of the fact that TV Ratings and passing go hand in hand, and enacted the “Mel Blount Rule” making it harder to cover receivers downfield.

  • This put an already aging Steelers defense at a disadvantage.

Noll however, transformed advantage into disadvantage, by unleashing Terry Bradshaw’s arm and making full use of the talents of Swann, Stallworth, and Bennie Cunningham. Yes, the Steelers still ran. Franco Harris, Rocky Bleier and Sidney Thornton rushed for a combined 4184 yards in 1978 and 1979.

  • But it was Noll’s decision (and ability) to attack through the air that kept the Steelers ahead of Landry’s Cowboys in Super Bowl XIII.

A year later, with the Steelers trailing in the 4th quarter of Super Bowl XIV, on third down at their own 27 Noll ordered Bradshaw to “Go for the big one” calling “60-Prevent-Slot-Hook-And-Go.

The play hadn’t worked all week in practice, and Noll had relentlessly preached that if you couldn’t perform in practice, you’d fail on Sundays. Again, Noll knew when to make exceptions to his own rules – and 73 yards later John Stallworth put the Steelers ahead with a touchdown.

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“Sidney Thornton’s problems are great, and they are many.” – The Emperor in Winter

Had Noll retired after Super Bowl XIV the national press would have had no choice to accept Chuck Noll as the greatest coach of the modern era. But he didn’t retire, and instead coached the Steelers through a decade were they barely topped .500.

  • Here again, the root cause can be found in Noll’s decision to go off script.

In 1969, Noll had no only committed the Steelers to building through the draft, but committed them ed to taking the best player available, regardless of race, school, position, or who was currently on the roster.

Bucking the rest of the NFL, Noll insisted on colorblind drafting, and with Bill Nunn’s guidance aggressively scouted the Historic Black Colleges. Terry Hanratty had been high second round pick in 1969, yet Noll didn’t hesitate at taking Bradshaw at number one in 1970. Frank Lewis and Ron Shanklin were good receivers for the Steelers in 1973, but Noll drafted to great ones in 1974. And so on.

  • But as Lombardi trophies started stacking up, the team got away from that philosophy.

Instead of taking the best player on the board, the Steelers would try to project guys who fell for one reason or another and who they thought would better fill roster holes. The decision was a disaster. As the 80’s arrived the oldest of Noll’s players reached retirement, and their replacements were lacking.

Sidney Thornton, a second round draft pick in 1977 who could have been Franco Harris’ heir apparent, once so frustrated Noll with his off the field antics, which included treating cuts with urine, that he remarked “Sidney Thornton’s problems are great, and they are many.”

Other factors contributed to the Steelers poor drafting and subsequent struggles in the 80’s, but getting away from their bread and butter was the most prominent.

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“Potentially, we have a good team.” – The Emperor’s Lash Hurrah

Telling and retelling the 1989 Steelers story is a labor of love at Steel Curtain Rising and need not be repeated in detail here. Yet, for those unfamiliar, it may have been Noll’s finest coaching job.

In 1988 the Steelers had finished 5-11, their worst since 1971, and for the first time ever, Noll had been forced to fire assistants. Nonetheless, Noll convened training camp by saying, “Potentially, we have a good team.”

  • The Steelers then promptly went out and lost their first two games, divisional ones at that, to the combined score of 92-10.

Afterwards, Noll quipped “Either we just played the best two teams in football, or we’re in for a long year.” As, I believe it was Gene Collier recalled on the day of Noll’s retirement, “The once unthinkable question was on everyone’s lips. And it wasn’t ‘Will Dan Rooney fire Chuck Noll’ but ‘How long will he wait?’”

  • Again, time had done nothing to mellow Noll’s attitude to pep talks.

Yet, he did something better, as Behind the Steel Curtain’s Michael Bean documented with Merril Hoge back in 2010:

He revisited the things that were going on in the media about us. And if I remember right, he kind of wrote some things up on the board, showed us some clips. Then he stood in front of us, paused for a second and said, ‘I believe in you.’

Hoge says that the hair still stands up on his arm when he remembers that statement. As well it should, the team rebounded to make the playoffs, upset the Oilers in the Astrodome, and came within a bad snap of doing it again vs. Denver.

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“Time to smell the flowers….”But first….

When the ’89 Steelers  season ended, Noll commented “This team is on the way up. He doubled down during the off season, talking about the “Championship caliber” talent his team had.

Yet a playoffless 9-7 season in 1990 and a mediocre 7-9 season in 1991 led even the Steelers Digest to question Noll’s assessment of the Steelers talent.

History vindicated Noll on the talent question, as Dermontti Dawson, Jerry Olsavsky, Neil O’Donnell, John Jackson, Greg Lloyd, Carnell Lake and Rod Woodson formed the backbone of Bill Cowher’s 1995 team the fell just short in Super Bowl XXX.

However, history also vindicated Noll when he decided it was time to “smell the flowers,” as he declared the day he retired.

  • But in hanging it up Noll added a punctuation mark on his greatness in his own understated way, and one that was in no way apparent at the time.

Noll’s final game took place at Three Rivers Stadium on December 22, 1991 vs. the Cleveland Browns, and the Steelers won 17-10 in a game that wasn’t as close as the score indicated. Not only did Noll win his final game, but in doing so he defeated Bill Belichick the man who 23 years later was still trying to tie his record of Super Bowls….

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Thanks Chuck

When NFL Films asked him to reflect on his time with the Steelers of the ‘70’s, Chuck Noll simply said, “It was fun. It really was fun.”

  • Yes it was fun, even for those just barely old enough to remember.

The Emperor is Dead, but Long Live the Steelers Nation he founded!

Thanks Chuck!

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