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.

Bill 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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2008 Death of Dwight White, Steelers Legend, Dropped Steel Curtain to Half Strength

2008 was not a kind year to the Steel Curtain. In January, Ernie Holmes died in a car accident, and then Myron Cope passed away, silencing Steelers Nation’s definitive voice. Sadly, in June of 2008 Dwight White joined them.

  • 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 offers living proof of Cope’s contention.

Growing up in 70’s suburban Maryland in a household where sports held a low priority, I knew very little of Dwight White and Ernie Holmes.

Dwight White, Roger Staubach, Super Bowl X, Steelers vs Cowboys

Dwight White closes in on Roger Staubach in Super Bowl X. Photo Credit: Joe Caneva, AP via

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 Steelers 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.

  • Dwight 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 IX. 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.

Here are four of Dwight White’s best plays from Super Bowl IX, courtesy of Steel City Star:

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. Dwight 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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2008 Death of Myron Cope, Terrible Towel Inventor, Silenced Voice of Steelers Nation

In February 2008, Steelers Nation lost a definitive voice with the death of Myron Cope, Terrible Towel inventor and legendary voice of the Pittsburgh Steelers. No Steeler summed up Cope’s legacy better than Art Rooney II when he explained that “Myron Cope brought the Steelers closer to the fans.” Myron Cope was, as Sports Illustrated, opined in 1992, “the soul of the Pittsburgh Steelers.”

myron cope, steelers nation, WTAE, 1929-2008

Steelers Nation Still Honors Myron Cope

In an age when sports broadcasting is increasingly defined by either former athletes who are there by virtue of their names or professionals who excel in their drive to be vanilla, Myron Cope brought a new meaning the term “color commentator.”

  • Cope was a character and, to his credit, he made no apologies for that.

Growing up in Maryland, my exposure to Myron Cope did not come until the 1987 season’s final contest. Sitting on an 8-6 record, Pittsburgh needed only to beat the “Cleve Brownies” at home to clinch a playoff berth in that strike shortened season.

Heading into Pittsburgh the day after Christmas, we had just reached WTAE’s range as Browns were in the process of putting the Steelers away. Suddenly safety Cornell Gowdy returned an interception for a touchdown. “We got ourselves a football game, we got ourselves a football game!” boomed the speakers.

The Steelers went on to lose that game 21 years ago, but I remember Myron Cope’s accounts of the second half as vividly as if they’d happened yesterday. When Brian Hinkle went down “ooh, that hurts, that hurts!” Later, Jack Fleming spotted one of the team captains jumping up and down after a disputed call Cope interjected “is it for joy or for anger? Fleming, is he jumping joy or for anger?!”

Up to that point 95% of my experience with football on the radio had come from listening WMAL’s Redskins broadcast team of Sonny, Sam, Frank, and Huff. While those guys bled red and yellow just as profusely as Myron bled Black and Gold, an important difference was apparent:

  • Myron’s wit was legendary, but he called the game as he saw it, and he never took himself too seriously.

In fact, in his book Double Yoi, Myron Cope made a point of saying that, as opposed to his writing, he did not take broadcasting seriously at all. Case in point, writing about creating the Terrible Towel in Steelers Digest, he said he’d been asked to come up with a gimmick, and “I am a gimmicly kind of guy.” (Interestingly enough, this account conflicts with recently published accounts.)

Yet Myron never let his antics interfere with his insights into the game. I remember an outbound PA Turnpike trip as the Steelers played the Vikings in the third game of the 1989 season. Myron Cope, true to form, came out with gems like, “and there’s Mike Mularkey arguing with the Minny Vike defender saying ‘now don’t you give me any of that mularkey….”

But at a crucial point in the game a Steeler receiver had been ruled out of bounds. Before the next play could be called Myron exclaimed, “Both feet were in bounds, both feet were in bounds. Did you see it Fleming? Did you see it? Tell me, am I right or are my eye balls LYING TO ME? He got both feet in bounds. FLEMING did you see what I saw!” The officials reviewed the play, and sure enough, the Steelers receiver had gotten both feet in bounds.

  • Myron Cope’s contribution to the game was unique.

He invented the Terrible Towel. In Steelers 1989 draft, Cope coaxed coaches into drafting Carlton Haselrig, a college wrestler who never even played football. Haselrig made the 1992 Pro Bowl as a guard. In 1992, late in a Sunday Night Match up against the Chiefs, Cope realized that Barry Foster was sitting on the bench only a few yards shy of a 100. He pounded on the glass of the press box to make the assistant coaches next to him aware of this. Foster got his 100.

Whether it was with his Christmas songs, nick names like “Drac Lambert,” or “the Bus,” the enthusiasm Myron Cope shared with fans was contagious. He brought a vivid tone and texture to football games that took on a life of its own, at least in Steelers Nation.

  • Its not so much that no broadcaster will never leave a bigger footprint on that game, its that none will ever leave better one.

Rest in peace Myron Cope, Steelers Nation misses you! Double Yoi!

[Lectores de Español, para leer un articulo sobre Myron Cope hagan clic acá.]

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In Memory of Steel Curtain Legend Ernie Holmes

News travels fast these days, and today the news was not good.

  • As we all now know, Ernie “Fats” Holmes, one of the founding members of the Steel Curtain has passed away.

The truth is that I am not old enough to have real memories of Steel Curtain legend Ernie Holmes. All I really know is from the lore inspired by his legend. Still his name was always familiar to me.

My grandparents bought me a Steelers 50 Seasons poster back in 1982, and it hung on my walls until I was in my mid-20’s. I can still see the poster, there on my wall, complete with the quad-colored image of Joe Greene, Dwight White, and L.C. Greenwood the four members of the Steel Curtain, with Ernie Holmes picture shadowed in blue, complete with the arrow shaved into his head.

My only other real memory of Ernie Holmes is sitting there in the Captial Centre, watching WrestleMania 2 on Closed Circuit TV, and my shock at seeing him introduced as a participant into the Battle Royal in Chicago as a last minute substitute for Ed Too Tall Jones (or was it William Perry?)

I can also remember leafing through my first Steelers media guide on my 17th birthday, and my surprise at learning that Chuck Noll had traded Ernie Holmes Tampa Bay. Later, when I learned of Holmes larger than life personality, it was not hard to understand why he was traded nor should it have been surprising that he wound up dabbling in the squared circle.

Comments are open on this blog, and any of you reading this who DO have memories of Holmes are invited to share your stories.

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