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.

Joe Greene, Dan Rooney, Dan Rooney Legacy

Joe Greene embraces Dan Rooney at his number retirement ceremony. Photo Credit: Getty Images

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 move

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

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 Sherriff 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.

Dan Rooney, Dan Rooney Steelers practice, Dan Rooney legacy, Dan Rooney obituary

Dan Rooney leaving the practice field before the 2006 NFL Championship game. Photo Credit: Pittsburgh Tribune Review

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

As Steelers Nation mourns Dan Rooney’s passing and takes stock of his legacy, 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 obituary, Dan Rooney decisions, Dan Rooney Lombardi trophies

Dan Rooney, sitting in front of the Steelers 1st five Lombardi Trophies. Photo Credit: Steeles.com

1965: Accepting Buddyy 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.

  • 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.

Buddy Parker, Dan Rooney fires Buddy Parker,

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

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).

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.

Bill Nunn Jr., Bill Nunn Steelers, Bill Nunn Steelers draft room

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

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, Art Rooney Jr.

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.

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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.

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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.

Tom Donahoe, Tom Modark, Dan Rooney, Bill Cowher, Steelers 1992 draft room

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.

Ben Roethlisberger, Mike Tomlin, Dan Rooney, Super Bowl XLIII

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.
Ben Roethlisberger, Ashley Roethlisberger, Patrica Rooney, Dan Rooney

The Rothlisbergers and the Rooney’s stand outside the US ambassador’s residence in Ireland. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

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.

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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 – Understanding 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, Chuck Noll obituary, chuck noll biography, chuck noll steelers

Chuck Noll was one of the most enigmatic figures to don the NFL head coach headset. Photo credit: Walter Iooss Jr., Sports Illustrated via MMQB

“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 is still trying to tie his record of our 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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Bill Nunn, Jr. Pittsburgh Steelers “Ace in the Hole” 1924-2014

Bill Nunn, Jr. the longest-tenured member of the Pittsburgh Steelers scouting community has passed away from complications suffered from a stroke on the eve of what would have been his 46th NFL Draft. Nunn was 89 and is survived by his wife Francis, daughter Lydell, and son Bill Nunn III.

  • A great many fans in Steelers Nation will react to news by asking, “Who is Bill Nunn?” 

The answer to that question is that nobody whose name isn’t “Rooney” or “Noll” had a bigger role in securing those six Steelers Lombardi trophies than Bill Nunn.

In the battle reverse the Pittsburgh Steelers first 40 years of straight losing:

  • Dan Rooney operated as the statesman orchestrating behind the scenes, 
  • Chuck Noll served as the field general, 
  • Art Rooney, Jr. and Dick Haley coordinated the logistics and material, 

And Bill Nunn Jr. acted as the Steelers Ace in the Hole.

Nunn could play that role because he brought something to the Steelers that other NFL teams were either unready or unable to embrace.

Blindsiding the NFL with Colorblindness

The National Football League began as an integrated organization, however by 1933 the league’s final two African American’s had left the league which stayed segregated until 1945. Integration came slowly to the NFL following World War II, in well into the 1960’s many NFL teams enforced unofficial quota systems limited the number of black players they selected.

Art Rooney Sr. was in no way a racist but the same cannot be said for some of his coaches, such as Bill Austin, who Roy Jefferson overhead making racist comments.

Whether Austin factored race into his draft decisions or not, when first approached by the Steelers Bill Nunn, who then worked as a sports columnist at the Pittsburgh Courier, rebuffed the Rooneys, saying he didn’t like the way they did business.

  • Dan Rooney called him in for a face-to-face meeting which ended with Nunn agreeing to work part time for the Steelers.

With Chuck Noll’s arrival in 1969 Nunn’s status shifted to full time, and six seasons later the Pittsburgh Steelers won their first Super Bowl. Nunn explained the transformation this way:

To me, Dan and Chuck were the same type of person. I don’t think they see color, and I don’t say that about a lot of people. I say that sincerely. When we used to line up the draft board, Chuck wasn’t concerned with the dots.

Nunn, a former college athlete of course understood athletics and had annually produced an All-African American team based on players from HBC (Historically Black Colleges) rosters.

  • But it was Nunn’s network of connections at those schools that made him so invaluable to the Steelers. 

With the Steelers running one of the limited number of color blind scouting operations in 1969, and Nunn scouting the HBC circuit, the Steelers drafted Ernie Holmes, Joe Gilliam, Glen Edwards, Frank Lewis, Donnie Shell, L.C. Greenwood, Mel Blount, and John Stallworth.

  • Note, that’s half of the Steel Curtain and two NFL Hall of Famers, acquired thanks to active resistance to the prejudice that ruled the day

While finding these players was important, but Nunn’s role was far from limited to scouting the HBC’s under the radar. He also negotiated player contracts and ran the Steelers training camp for several years. But it is his work as a scout that made him famous, as the next section makes clear.

Steelers 1974 Draft: Nunn Helps Author the Greatest NFL Draft in History

The Pittsburgh Steelers 1974 Draft was the best in NFL history bringing the team four Hall of Famers named Lynn Swann, Jack Lambert, John Stallworth, and Mike Webster.

Nunn had a pivotal role in helping the Steelers identify Stallworth, who was a college student at Alabama A&M, first feigning illness and then helping hoard the only tape that existed of Stallworth. Noll had had his eye on Stallworth for a long time, and wanted him in the first round. Nunn talked him into drafting Swann.

Then Noll wanted him in the second. Art Rooney Jr. protested, recommending Lambert. The Steelers had dealt their third round pick, but Nunn coolly assured Noll “’The average (team) isn’t looking at him like we are.’”

The Steelers had to sweat out the third round, but when the 4th arrived, Stallworth was there, and the rest is history.

Pillar of the Steelers Franchise

Nunn continued to work in the scounting department until he “retired in 1987.” For a few years he and his wife wintered in Florida and returned to Pittsburgh, but eventually tired of the snowbird’s life.

  • And that “retirement” was in name only. 

Nunn continued to work in the Steelers scouting department as a Senior Assistant of Player Personnel, evaluating video and participating in the Steelers draft War Room, which is appropriately titled “The Bill Nunn Draft Room.”

Make no mistake about it, Nunn’s role wasn’t as a figure head or elder statesman, he was an active participant of the Steelers scouting team. In fact, as reported by Andrew Conte of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, Nunn suffered his stroke while evaluating players on the South Side.

Kevin Colbert would send young scouts to study film or watch tapes at Nunn’s side. As Steelers Digest editor Bob Labriola wrote on steelers.com

Around the Steelers organization, it was no secret that if you sat next to Bill Nunn and kept your mouth shut and your ears open you would walk away knowing more than you did when you first sat down.

For the firs time since 1947, Bill Nunn’s chair will be empty for the Steelers on draft day. His presence will be missed. Steel Curtain Rising offers its sympathy, thoughts and prayers to Nunn’s wife and children.

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Steelers Nation Bids Farewell to LC Greenwood; The Steel Curtain Stands at Quarter Strength

Pittsburgh was never always synonymous with “Defense.” Chuck Noll began to changing that in 1969.

Noll inherited the 4th pick in the 1969 NFL draft thanks to Bill Austin’s “error” in not allowing him to pick O.J. Simpson. The Emperor picked Joe Greene instead in the first round.

  • Piece one of the Steel Curtain was in place
  • Nine rounds later he added piece two:  L.C. Greenwood

In 1971 he added Dwight White in the 4th round and then Ernie Holmes 4 rounds later.

And in an ironic twist of destiny, the good Lord has decided to take them back from us in reverse order.

Art Rooney Jr. Finds the Man with the Yellow Shoes

Chuck Noll employed many means in transforming the Pittsburgh Steelers from doormat to dominance. But one often overlooked aspect is his total colorblindness when it came to selecting players.

  • Noll didn’t care if you were black, white, yellow, or purple, he only cared if you could play.

With Noll’s attitude and Bill Nunn’s connections in the HBC network the Steelers uncovered gem after gem in the drafts of early 70’s while many other teams handicapped themselves with color quotas.

Art Rooney Jr., head of the Steelers scouting department, fully embraced this philosophy, having fought Noll’s predecessors who refused to pick African American players simply because they had already taken two of “them.”

And so it was that Art Rooney Jr. found himself on the campus of Arkansas A&M in late 1968. He was down there to check out some halfback whose name history has forgotten. He was also interested in looking at a defensive end named Clarence Washington.

But while he was watching tape of Washington, some other kid caught his attention. The kid was 6’6”. Rooney had noted that the kid was too tall for his position. Defensive ends that tall aren’t supposed to have leverage.

  • But this kid had leverage, and nothing stopped him in getting to the quarterback.

The Kid’s name was LC Greenwood, and he became the second most recognizable name on famed Steel Curtain Defense.

Unlike Greene, Greenwood didn’t start immediately, but when he did break the Steelers starting lineup in 1971 he made noise, quickly. Greenwood:

  • Forced five fumbles in 1971
  • Lead the team with 8.5 sacks in 1973
  • Notched another 11 sacks in 1974
  • Batted down two Fran Tarkenton passes in Super Bowl IX
  • Sacked Roger Staubach four times in Super Bowl X

When Greenwood was cut by the Steelers in 1982 he had 73.5 sacks, then a franchise high and still the number two mark.

  • Steelers Digest described Greenwood as “Cool. Confident. Smooth.”

How confident?

Shortly before the 1974 AFC Championship game, Greenwood sat in the hallway outside the lock room in the Oakland Coliseum watching the Vikings and the Rams duke it out for the NFL crown. Gene Upshaw walked by and asked, “Whatta watchin LC?”

  • Greenwood deadpanned:  “Just watching to see who we’re going to play in the Super Bowl.”

Greenwood was also a leader both on and off the field, and one of the first Super Steelers to find commercial success. His Miller Light commercials were legendary.

But like so many of the Super Steelers, Greenwood’s off the field success was not simply a bi-product of his on the field fame. Chuck Noll wanted self-starters and hard workers on his team, and those traits carried the Super Steelers to success off it.

Greenwood was no exception, founding Greenwood Enterprises, which operated out of West Main Street in Carnegie and worked in engineering, coal, natural gas and highway operations. After that he led Greenwood-McDonald Supply Co., Inc., which supplied of electrical equipment to retail outlets and manufacturers.

The Steel Curtain a Band of Brothers

The quartet of Greene, Greenwood, White and Holmes started out as teammates. They grew to be friends and ultimately brothers, sticking close together long after their playing days ended.

Dwight White’s wife recalled Joe Greene being so upset he could not even speak when he learned of “Mad Dog’s” death. And the first two people at White’s funeral were Greene and Greenwood.

White of course had gone into the hospital for back surgery, and ended up dying of a lung clot. As reported by Rick Gosselin of the Dallas Morning News, the normally upbeat Greenwood told Joe Greene he was apprehensive about his own back surgery due to what had happened to White.

But Greenwood, hobbled by a back injury, in pain and walking around on a walker and needed the surgery. Midway through the Steelers embarssing 0-4 loss in London to the Vikings, Greene got a call from Mel Blount informing him that Greenwood had died of kidney failure.

Now only Joe Greene remains, and the Steel Curtain permanently stands at quarter strength.

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Bill Austin, Former Pittsburgh Steelers Coach, 1928-2013

Bill Cowher once remarked that he didn’t know who had coached the Pittsburgh Steelers prior to Chuck Noll.

Well they did play professional football in Pittsburgh before The Emperor’s arrival, and the man who preceded him was Bill Austin who passed away Thursday evening at his home in Las Vegas, reports Allan Robinson of the Pittsburgh Tribune Review.

From Nixon to Austin

History will note that Bill Austin was the last Pittsburgh Steelers head coach hired by franchise founder Art Rooney Sr. And even in that respect, Austin represented something of a transition.

“The Chief” Art Sr., was first an exceptional human being, second an outstanding citizen and ambassador for the city of Pittsburgh, third a phenomenal athlete, and fourth a ace horse race odds maker.

  • He was not, however, a good football man.

The Steelers did nothing but lose during the 35 years that Art Sr. ran the franchise. Despite suggestions of his later life moniker “The Chief” Rooney was not one to meddle or micro manage the decisions of his coaches. “There can only be one boss” Rooeny explained to his five son’s as they vigorously protested Walter Kiesling’s decision to cut Johnny Unitas – without so much as allowing him to throw a pass in practice.

  • In short, Rooney believed in hiring someone to do a job and then standing behind them – the only problem was “The Chief” never hired the right people.

But by the early 1960’s Dan Rooney began to assume more and more control of the Steelers operations. When Dan tired of Buddy Parker’s alcohol induced shenanigans he convinced his father to take Parker up on often repeated threats to resign.

Two weeks prior to the Steelers 1965 season Parker informed Dan he was trading defensive end Ben McGee (who went on to be a Pro Bowler). Dan told him they’d discuss it in the morning. Parker balked, insisting he was the coach. Dan put his foot down. Parker offered to resign.

  • Dan called his bluff.

That left the Steelers without a head coach two weeks prior to the regular season. Dan and Art Sr. turned to Mike Nixon, but they knew he was not the man for the job. Art. Rooney even advised Nixon to turn down the offer.

  • They were right. Nixon won two games and was gone.

Finally, Dan Rooney had the chance been waiting for, the opportunity to put his own stamp on the selection of the Steelers head coach.

In his self titled autobiography Dan Rooney explained that he began an exhaustive search, that included Bill Austin, then a coach for the Los Angles Rams. Austin interviewed well, Rooney admits.

But then Art Sr. called Vince Lombardi, who had mentored Austin, and Lombardi give Austin a glowing recommendation.

That was enough for The Chief. Dan protested, insisting that the selection process must move forward, but The Chief had spoken, and Austin took the reigns of the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Austin in Pittsburgh

In his book From Black to Gold author Tim Gleason rated Pittsburgh Steelers head coaches not named “Noll,” “Cowher,” or “Tomlin.”

Austin came in at #6 – out of seven by Gleason’s rendering. As Gleason explains “Bill Austin was Walt Kiesling reincarnated, without Kiesling’s good qualities.

Bill Austin you see, was a true disciple of Vince Lombardi. In fact, he did all he could to emulate Lombardi. But, as Gleason quote Steelers legend Dick Hoak, “’His problem was that he tried to be someone that he wasn’t.’”

Dan Rooney recounts how Andy Russell told him that former Packers on Austin’s Steeler squads remember Austin quoting Lombardi speeches verbatim. Alas, channeling his inner Lombardi didn’t work for Austin.

  • It also had disastrous effects on the Steelers.

Austin did walk Lombardi’s walk in one aspect – he was demanding of his players. In fact, he ran them into the ground, once demanding that his players practice at game speed resulting in:

  • Linebacker Bill Saul suffering a career-ending knee injury
  • Defensive end Ken Koratus spraining an ankle that slowed him for the entire season
  • Running back Jim Butler injuring a knee that cost him most of a season
  • Defensive back Paul Martha cracking his helmet in two and getting a concussion in the process

Worse yet, all of this happened on the fields of St. Vincents, sabotaging the Steelers season before it began.

The One Thing Austin Did Right….

Bill Austin started out the 1968 0-6. Then he did something that many at the time would categorize as a mistake.

  • He coached the Steelers to two victories and forced a tie in the third.

After that he went back to his losing ways, finish 2-11-1. But Austin’s mid-season “sin” cursed the Steelers with the fourth pick in the 1969 draft, robbing Pittsburgh of the chance to draft the consensus number one overall pick USC star running back O.J. Simpson.

  • Yes, it was Austin cost the Steelers a shot at O.J. Simpson. Bill Austin, it seems, wasn’t even smart enough to play for draft position….

….And Steelers Nation has thanked him since, as Chuck Noll used that self same pick to draft Joe Greene.

The rest is history.

Thanks Bill. May you rest in peace.

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Remembering Ron Erhardt’s Tenure as Steelers Offensive Coordinator, 1992-1995

Most people forget the Buffalo Bills were heavy favorites to win Super Bowl XXV. Reality turned out to be different.

People remember Scott Norwood’s last second missed field goal. They recall how Bill Parcells and Bill Belichick’s defense disrupted the K-Gun offense that was supposed to end a decade of NFC Super Bowl dominance.

  • But the game’s real story was New York’s offensive game plan.

The Giants came out with 3 tight ends and handed off to 33 year old O.J. Anderson. Anderson could only grind out 3 yards and change a carry, but New York fed him the ball anyway and dared Buffalo to stop them.

The Bills couldn’t.

Like a Burmese python, the Giants smothered the oxygen out of the game, leaving none for the Bills vaunted offense to take flight. New York possessed the ball for an unheard of 40 minutes, including 22 in the second half.

  • Smash Mouth Football had perhaps never reached a higher pinnacle than Super Bowl XXV.

After the game Steelers Digest editor Bob Labriola penned a column praising the Giants for the upset. He then broke down the Giants offensive roster along side the Steelers roster, arguing that the Steelers were at least equal to the Giants.

The 1990 Steelers had followed up on their storybook 1989 season with a disastrous trek up Walton’s Mountain. Joe Walton’s offense relied on finesse and gimmicks and stood as a stark contrast to New York’s physical, bruising style.

For another year, Labriola’s column was nothing more than a trivial, but poignant reminder of what Chuck Noll’s final years might have been.

When Chuck Noll decided to hang it up in 1991, Labriola’s speculations became a lot less trivial.

That’s because Bill Cowher selected Ron Earhart, the architect of the ’90 Giants Super Bowl offense, to be his first offensive coordinator.

Sadly, Ron Earhart passed away at age 80 in Boca Raton, Florida, and Steel Curtain Rising now mourns his loss and celebrates his memory.

Throw to Score, Run to Win

Unlike his predecessor Tom Moore and his successors Ken Wisenhunt and, yes, Bruce Arians, Moore can stake no claim to a piece of the Steelers Six Lombardis.

But he nonetheless made an important contribution to Steelers football, which deserves to be recognized and celebrated.

  • Erhardt’s off quoted philosophy was simple: “Throw to Score, Run to Win.”

In other words, get a lead and take the air out of the ball.

To fans who feel that the Steelers went pass happy under Bruce Arians, a few video tapes from the Erhardt Era should serve as the perfect antidote.

Erhardt, in a word, liked to run the ball. During his tenure in Pittsburgh, Ron Erhardt’s offense never dipped below 5th in rushing attempts, and was number 1 in rushing yards in 1994 and 4th and 6th in 1992 and 1993 respectively.

  • Earhart allowed for zero ambiguity about the Steelers identity, they were a physical, Smash Mouth Football, power rushing team.

He also simplified the offense greatly. Joe Walton’s playbook had hundreds of plays and dozens of formations and a scheme for every situation – and he’d call any one of them in the heat of a game, whether the Steelers had practice it or not.

In contrast, as reported by Ed Bouchette in the Dawn of a New Steel Age, Erhardt based his offense on a “dirty dozen” plays which he hammered into his team in practice.

Erhardt wasn’t perfect. Buddy Ryan’s 46 defense had befuddled Erhardt when the two faced off in the NFC East, and the ’93 Houston Oilers defense manhandled Erhardt’s offense not once but twice that season.

And when Barry Foster went down for the season in mid-1993, Erhardt failed to fully exploit the rushing talents of Merril Hoge. To wit, after Foster’s injury the Steelers won the games where Hoge got significant carries and lost those where he remain an afterthought.

Bill Cowher fired wide receivers coach Bob Harrison after the 1993 season, replacing him with Chan Gailey. Under Gailey’s influence the Steeler’s offense opened up, including the increased use of 4 wide receiver sets in the later half of 1994 and 5 wide receivers in 1995.

As recently reported by Ed Bouchette in PG Plus, the Steelers had agreed to allow Erhardt to coach out the final year of his contract in 1995 and then make way for Gailey. Erhardt had a change of heart and wanted to stay, but Cowher declined to renew his contract, promoting Chan Gailey to offensive coordinator instead.

Erhardt coached the New York Jets offense for Rich Kotite in 1996 before retiring.

Ron Erhardt wasn’t one of the “great” offensive minds to serve in Pittsburgh, but he did inject physicality back into Steelers football at a time when it was needed. Steel Curtain Risings thoughts and prayers go out to Ron Erhardt’s family.

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Steel Curtain Now Permanently at Half Strength: Dwight White 1949-2008

2008 is not shaping up to be a kind year to the Steel Curtain. In January, Ernie Holmes was taken from us, and then Myron Cope passed away, silencing Steelers Nation’s definitive voice. Sadly, Dwight White joined them today.

  • Nature sometimes has a way with working its ironies.

In his 2002 autobiography, Double Yoi, Myron Cope dedicated an entire chapter, “Half of the Steel Curtain,” to Holmes and White. He argued that while Joe Greene and L.C. Greenwood received their just accolades, Holmes and White were too often overlooked. Whether it be because of Divine will or a random act, all three were called away from Steelers Nation in a span of less than six months.

This author is a testament to Cope’s contention. Growing up in 70’s suburban Maryland in a household where sports held a low priority, I knew very little of White and Holmes.

I of course knew about “Mean Joe Greene.” While the Steelers were busy winning their third and fourth Super Bowls, some of the other kids on Wendy Lane and I used to play “Super Steelers” pretending that the Steelers had super powers. If memory serves, Joe Greene could turn himself into a giant at will. (Lynn Swann had super speed. Franco could bust through walls. Terry Bradshaw threw exploding footballs and could hit anything he aimed for. Although I was yet to be acquainted with The X-Men at age six, Chuck Noll played a professor Xavier-like role.)

While L.C. Greenwood held no place in our parthenon of made up Super Heroes, I distinctly remember a friend preparing to go into his Five Mississippi rush in a game of Nerf football saying, “I’m L.C., I’m L.C.” and knowing immediately he was talking about L.C. Greenwood of the Steelers.

Like Ernie Holmes, “D. White” was just a name and a face that I knew from Steelers 50 Seasons poster that hung on my wall for so many years. I didn’t learn just how distinguished a member of the Steel Curtain that Dwight White was until I was in college.

  • White was one of the top story tellers of the Super Steelers.

His comments on the NFL Flims tribute to Chuck Noll that appeared on the back end of the Steelers 1992 season in review are priceless.

Ray Mansfield sets the stage, recounting how John Madden capped the Raiders victory over the Miami Dolphins by proclaiming “the best two teams in football played to day, and it’s a shame that one of them had to lose….” Continuing, Mansfield explains that Noll came in the locker room the next day, with a determined look on his face, saying “They think the just won the God Damm Super Bowl… But let me tell you something, the best God-Dammed football team is sitting right here.”

White picks up the thread, remembering “At the time, that was pretty strong language for Chuck. Later on he developed the ability to rattle it off pretty well, but at the time that was pretty uncharacteristic.” White recounts how Noll’s words set the locker room on fire, reassuring that, “From that point on, we knew we were going to win…. I mean, it was like getting a blessing to go out and beat up on somebody.”

The Steelers of course went on to upset the Oakland Raiders 24-13 in the AFC Championship, but the game that followed was perhaps White’s finest hour. As Myron Cope tells the story, White was stricken with phenomena the week of the Super Bowl. He’d lost 18 pounds and was so sick he was unable to lift his leg on the one day he tried to practice.

On the morning of Super Bowl Sunday, White left the hospital, insisting that he be taken to the Sugar Bowl. Team Dr.’s let him warm up, figuring he would pass out. White didn’t, and insisted on starting the game.

The Vikings tested White immediately. They ran directly at White on their first three runs, and White stopped them each time, tackling Dave Osborn for a loss, no gain, and a one yard gain. Topping it all off, White scored the game’s first points, sacking Fran Tarkenton for a safety. White played the entire game, save for a few plays in the first quarter. Minnesota finished the day with 21 yards rushing on 17 attempts.

When asked about it years later by Cope, White told him’’ “‘You know what? It was kind of a blur’” He also offered “‘What I remember, though, was that our players kept asking me in the huddle, “How you feeling?” It was annoying’”

White followed up this effort by sacking Roger Starbauch three times in Super Bowl X, and registered 33.5 sacks between 1972 and 1975. White retired in 1980, and 27 years later he is still 7th on their all-time sack list.

Like many of the Super Steelers, Dwight White settled in Pittsburgh, excelling at what Chuck Noll calls “life’s work.” He worked as a stock broker, ultimately becoming the Senior Managing Director in Public Finance for Mesirow Financial. White was also active in numerous Pittsburgh charities.

Ray Mansfield was the first Super Steeler to pass away, followed by Steve Furness, Mike Webster, and Ernie Holmes. As haunting as that is, the numbers paint an even grimmer picture: According to ESPN, 38 former Steelers have died since 2000, and 17 of those were 59 or younger.

But nothing is quite is poignant as the realization that, with Dwight White’s passing, the Steel Curtain now permanently stands at half strength.

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