9 Steelers Decisions that 20/20 Hindsight Reveals as Mistakes

“They” say hindsight is 20/20. My grandmother, Bloomfield born and bred who raised her family in Baldwin swore by what “They” said. Our family said goodbye to her 25 years ago but we still joke about Grandma’s unwavering confidence in the wisdom of “They.”

  • But “They” are right on 20/20 hindsight.

Mike Tomlin’s decision to sack Matt Canada and shatter franchise precedent and make the first in-season firing of a coach since 1941 brings that reality home.

With that in mind, let’s take a look at some decisions that the Steelers franchise made that looked reasonable at the time, but 20/20 hindsight revealed to be wrong.

Franco Harris, Franco Harris Seattle Seahawks

A sight Steelers Nation should have never seen. Photo Credit: X

1. Involving Noll’s Assistants in the Draft Evaluation Process

The Steelers dynasty of the 70’s was founded on dominating the draft.

Steelers 70's, Draft, war room, dick haley

Tim Rooney and Dick Haley in Steelers 70’s Draft War Room

And Pittsburgh’s system worked perfectly. Art Rooney Jr., Bill Nunn Jr., Dick Haley, Tim Rooney and the other scouts would set the draft board and Noll would make decisions based on those boards. Sure, Noll had to be talked into drafting Franco Harris, but the fact that he allowed himself to be swayed proves it worked.

  • In 1976 the NFL moved the draft from right after the Super Bowl to the spring.

On paper the move should have allowed the vaunted Steelers drafting organization to sharpen its edge even more. The change had the opposite effect. In general terms, it allowed Noll to micromanage the draft process. Specifically, it allowed Noll’s assistants to get more deeply involved in the evaluation process.

As Art Rooney Jr. wrote in Ruanaidh, some of Noll’s assistants were good. Others either didn’t take its seriously or were up to it. Thus the Steelers went from winning 4 Super Bowls in the 70’s to going .500 in the 80’s.

2. Counting on Terry Bradshaw’s Return to Full Health

You know the drill here. Elbow problems surfaced for Terry Bradshaw in early 1983. He had surgery. He promised to be back. The Steelers counted on that, and passed on Dan Marino and drafted Gabe Rivera instead.

Yeah, bad idea.

Even if Bradshaw could have bounced back to full health, he clearly wasn’t going to play more than a couple-of-three more seasons. Drafting Marino doesn’t necessarily equal another Lombardi in the 80’s or early 90’s, but not doing it was a mistake.

3. Forcing Tom Moore Out and Hiring Joe Walton

Tom Moore, Bubby Brister, 1989 Steelers

Tom Moore and Bubby Brister at Three Rivers Stadium in 1989. Photo Credit: Locallife.com

The 1989 Steelers “shocked the world” by losing their first two games 92-10 and rebounding to make the playoffs, scoring a tremendous upset of the Oilers in the Astrodome, and coming with in a dropped pass AND a bobbled snap of the reaching the AFC Championship.

  • And they did it despite and offense that ranked 28th in a 28 team league.

After the season was over Tom Moore was nudged out under pressure from the front office. To replace him, Chuck Noll hired Joe Walton.

At the time, letting Moore go didn’t seem like such a bad idea. And although Walton had failed as a head coach, he was still seen as having a good offensive mind.

Walton’s offenses under-achieved in Pittsburgh for 2 years. As Merril Hoge once explained “Joe Walton came in and it wasn’t a good fit for the offense. Tom Moore had us drilled… we were young, our offense was starting to come around, and we had to start over.”

Walton went on to found Robert Morris’ football program but never returned to the NFL. After leaving Pittsburgh Tom Moore built on his legacy and established himself as one of best offensive minds in football history.

4. Letting Kevin Greene Go

This decision doesn’t get talked about much for two good reasons. First, the Steelers really didn’t have the salary cap space to resign Kevin Greene. Second, because Jason Gildon was a pretty good player. (Greene himself said in the Steelers Digest during the Steelers 1995 season that “Jason’s ready.”)

But Kevin Greene went on to play for 4 more years, amassing 52 sacks before retiring after 1999. Jason Gildon had 31.5 sacks during the same time period.

In short, Greene was a great while Gildon was only good, and who knows, had they kept Greene through 1999, maybe the Steelers find a place for Mike Vrabel.

5. Not Finding a Place Rod Woodson in Pittsburgh

Rod Woodson, Terry Glenn, Steelers vs Patriots, Fog Bowl II

Rod Woodson can’t stop Terry Glenn in his final game as a Steeler. Photo Credit: CBS Sports.com

Ooh, does this one still hurt. Rod Woodson famously tore his ACL in the Steelers 1995 opener. He returned for Super Bowl XXX but was far less than 100%. He returned for a full season in 1996 but and, having turned down a contract extension the previous summer, reached the free agent market in the spring of 1997.

  • The Steelers did make him another offer and pressured Woodson to accept it. Rod declined.

The Steelers were concerned he could no longer be an elite corner, and Tom Donahoe and Bill Cowher balked at Dan Rooney’s suggestion of moving him to safety due to other injury concerns.

After two more years at corner for the 49ers and the Ravens, Baltimore moved him to safety, where Woodson would make four straight Pro Bowls at safety including Super Bowl apperances with the Ravens and Raiders.

By June of 1997, Dan Rooney was already on record comparing Woodson’s departure to that of Franco Harris.

6. Letting Mike Vrabel Walk

Mike Vrabel Steelers, Mike Vrabel sack Drew Bledsoe, Steelers vs Patriots divisional playoff

Mike Vrabel strip-sacks Drew Beldsoe to seal the win in he ’97 AFC playoffs. Photo Credit: Christopher Horner, Tribune Review

Few saw this one as a mistake in real time. The Steelers had drafted Mike Vrabel in 1997 as a defensive tackle, and he played well in spot duty, helping the 1997 Steelers seal a divisional playoff win over the Patriots with a strip-sack of Drew Bledsoe.

  • The Steelers asked Vrabel to lose weight and move to outside linebacker.

Vrabel complied, but the injury bug hit him hard in subsequent training camps, preventing him from staking a claim to the starting outside linebacker role. But by the time Vrabel reached free agency after the Steelers 2000 season, Joey Porter had exploded for a 10.5 sack first season as a starter and Jason Gildon had 13 and a half sacks of his own.

But Gildon only had 2 good years left in him, while Mike Vrabel went on to become a multi-purpose superstar for the Patriots, helping them win 3 Super Bowls.

7. Keeping James Harrison in 2017 without a Plan

People often forget that James Harrison actually retired in 2014. But Jarvis Jones injury made that journey into his “Life’s Work” rather short, and it was Harrison coming off the bench to start full time that spurred the Steelers 2016 turn around.

  • When the Steelers resigned Harrison in the spring of 2017, it seemed like a no-brainer.

Bud Dupree was slow to develop and hadn’t T.J. Watt yet. But they did draft T.J. Watt. Then, during spring workouts linebackers coach Joey Porter mentioned that the Steelers would not use a rotation at outside linebacker. Next, James Harrison was held out of practice for much of training camp.

That was derided as “click bait” but when the season arrived, Harrison played sparingly. And as we now know, he was not happy. The Steelers ended up cutting Harrison right before Christmas, Harrison signed with New England and added two sacks to his career total.

It doesn’t matter whether it was the coaches or the front office that decided to keep Harrison on the roster, if they were going to keep him they should have had a plan to use him, even as a situational pass rusher.

8. Replacing Todd Haley with Randy Fichtner

My good friend Matt C. Steel over at Steel City Insider would disagree that this looked like a good decision when it was made. And from an X’s and O’s perspective, he may be right.

  • But consider the context.

After the 2016 AFC Championship loss to the Patriots, Ben Roethlisberger dropped the “R” word. And while no one ever has or will go on the record confirming this, it is pretty obvious that letting Todd Haley go as offensive coordinator was one of his conditions for continuing to play.

Randy Fichtner, Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers vs 49ers

Randy Fichtner & Ben Roethlisberger prior to Steelers 2015 game vs 49ers. Photo Credit: AP Gene J.Puskar, via Yahoo.

And Fitchner was close with Ben Roethlisberger, he’d been with the Steelers since 2007 so he knew the personnel. It seemed like a logical decision. It was not. Fichtner’s offenses were too rudimentary and too-dependent on Ben Roethlisberger’s arm.

9. Retaining Matt Canada after 2022

Feel free to groan and roll your eyeballs back into the deepest reaches of their sockets. Many fans and members of the press pronounced this to be a bad idea when it happened.

So I’ll have a healthy portion of humble pie to go along with my crow. But take a step back and look at it as Mike Tomlin and likely Art Rooney II did in January 2022.

During Matt Canada’s first season as offensive coordinator, he had an aging franchise QB who was bad fit for his system, playing behind an offensive line held together with spit, bubble gum and duct tape.

During his second season as offensive coordinator, he had a re-tread first round quarterback in Mitchell Tribusky and a rookie in Kenny Pickett playing behind an offensive line that was being rebuilt. Once that line gelled and once Pickett settled in, the offense showed signs of life.

Alas, Pickett couldn’t carry any of his momentum into 2023 and its taken the offensive line a half season to find its moxie.

(Dis)honorable Mention – Cutting Franco Harris

This one doesn’t make the official list, because in terms of raw football Realpolitik Franco Harris’ 160 yards on 62 carries with the Seattle Seahawks suggest that the Steelers made the tough decision but also the right decision.

In his autobiography, Dan Rooney admitted to wishing he’d opend his wallet for to keep Franco in Pittsburgh. So does the rest of Steelers Nation.

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Pat Rooney, Former Steelers Minority Owner, Passes Away at Age 84

Patrick J. Rooney, Pat Rooney, Pat Rooney brother of Dan, Pat Rooney obituary

Pat Rooney stands in front of a portrait of his father Art Rooney, Sr. Photo Credit: Richard Garulich, The Palm Beach Post

Patrick J. Rooney, former minority owner and son of Steelers founder Art Rooney Sr. has passed away at the age of 84. Of all of the Rooney brothers, Pat Rooney kept the lowest profile when it came to his association with the Steelers.

Dan Rooney of course ran the team for over 50 years, guiding it from NFL laughing stock to one of the most successful pro sports franchises in history. Dan’s decisions continue to shape the Steelers today. Art Rooney, Jr. ran the scouting department and, along with Bill Nunn and Dick Haley, oversaw some of the greatest drafts in league history.

Tim Rooney never held a formal role with the franchise, yet he was the one who penned the letter to “The Chief” imploring him to force head coach Walt Kiesling to keep Johnny Unitas. (The Chief balled the letter up and threw it in the trash, explaining to his sons, “There can only be one boss.”) John Rooney, Pat’s twin, never held a role with the team either, but he helped keep the Steelers in Rooney hands when Stanley Druckenmiller tried to buy the team in 2008.

But, as Pat Rooney explained to Jim O’Brien in his 2002 book The Chief, maintained few ties to the Steelers:

The last connection I had with the Steelers’ front office, aside from my brother Dan, was Mary Regan, who had been my dad’s secretary all those years. When they left Three Rivers Stadium for the new set-up on the South Side, Mary Regan retired. When I went in there before Mary Regan was the only one who knew me. I don’t know who to see now. That’s the way it is.

That may have been the way it was, but that was a pretty remarkable comment from a man who owned a 16% stake in the team and sat on its Board of Directors.

Pat Rooney ran the Palm Beach Kennel Club when the family bought it in 1970 and he moved to Florida to run it full time in 1984.

Although he was the first brother move as far away as Florida, Pat Rooney always remained true to his roots, recounting to O’Brien how he and his brothers would give out season ticket flyers outside the steel mills during shift changes, back when season tickets cost $25 or $30 dollars.

And Rooney remained close to his brothers, as he explained to O’Brien, “I talk to John every day. I talk to Tim about three or four times a week. I talk to Art several times a week. I talk to Dan now and then. John talks to Dan almost every day, and he tells me what Dan said. I talk to Art II.”

Like Dan Rooney, Pat was involved in the America Ireland Fund and even maintained a home in County Clare for a decade, where he’d spend approximately 2 months a year.

One of Pat Rooney’s chief initiatives was to bring slot machines to the family’s race tracks. That brought the family into conflict with the NFL’s gambling regulations (oh, how times have changed), which forced the Rooney brothers to divest their interests in the race tracks.

Pat Rooney along with his brother Tim wanted to accept Stanley Druckenmiller’s offer, however his other brother’s wishes prevailed. Although Pat didn’t quite get his way, events ultimately validated his wisdom.

In Ed Bouchette’s iconic 1992 volume Dawn of a New Steel Age, when talking about the possibility of keeping the Steelers within the family, Pat Rooney predicted, “Realistically Art’s going to have to buy out the partners.”

Dan and Art Rooney II kept control of the team, with Tim and Pat completely divesting their shares as part of their estate planning, while Art Jr. and John maintained small stakes.

Patrick was predeceased by his brothers Dan and John and is survived by wife Sandra Sully Rooney and their seven children, several grandchildren and one great grandchild. Steel Curtain Rising offers them our thoughts and our prayers.

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Watch Tower: Labriola Mans Up, Trubisky Non-Story & Steelers Draft History Gem

The Watch Tower has been dim for quite a while, but its lights shine again today with a focus on a major Steelers media figure manning up, making a story out of a non-story and draft war room nuggets.

Mitch Trubisky, Mason Rudolph, Kenny Pickett, Steelers 2022 quarterback competition

Mitch Trubisky, Kenny Pickett and Mason Rudolph. Photo Credit: Brandon Sloter / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images and The Athletic.)

Bob Labriola Mans Up

Dick Haley’s death marked the passing of yet another of the architects of the Steelers Dynasty of the 1970’s.

As Haley’s role in building four Super Bowl Championships doesn’t get the attention that Dan Rooney, Chuck Noll, Art Rooney Jr. and Bill Nunn Jr.’s roles do, the Watch Tower made an extra effort to soak up as much as possible from his eulogies.

So the Watch Tower reached out to Ron Lippock who seemed to have published the quote before, and the Steelers Takeaways author confirmed that the quote indeed had come from his 2012 interview with Dick Haley.

Lippock contacted Labriola, and to his credit the editor of Steelers.com immediately manned up:

Rampant content stealing is a depressing downside of the digital age. Often, if not most of the time, it it’s not a question of who has the idea, the insight or who is breaking news, but who has the ability to push it to their followers. Rarely do those who engage in that behavior recognize it let alone apologize for it.

Bob Labriola, who assuredly made an honest mistake, acknowelged it immediately and made things right. In doing so, he set an example for all of us. Good for you Bob.

Mitch Tribusky Staying with Steelers – The Non-Story of the Century

Art Rooney II does his annual State of the Steelers sit down with the press after the season is over, and he rarely, if ever, speaks after that.

  • But the flip side is that the Steelers President isn’t coy.

Yes, he is guarded with his words. But if he says the Steelers are leaning in certain way, expect his lieutenants to follow in that direction. After the 2009 season he said the Steelers need to run better. And guess what? The Steelers ran better in 2010. In January 2017 he said the Steelers would probably draft a quarterback, and sure enough they picked Joshua Dobbs.

So when Art Rooney II opened the 2023 off season by confirming that the Steelers expected Mitch Trubisky back,  that should have ended any and all questions about Trubisky’s future in Pittsburgh.

Except the opposite happened.

Omar Khan, Pittsburgh Steelers General Manager Omar Khan

Pittsburgh Steelers General Manager Omar Khan, Photo Credit: Nola.com

When Omar Khan spoke to reporters at the NFL Combine a month later, reporters asked him if Tribuisky would be back, Khan confirmed he would, and the exchange spawned dozens (if not hundreds) of stories from both bloggers and the professional press alike.

  • But you’d figure that the “story” would have ended with Khan’s comments.

Except it didn’t.

One month later reporters asked Mike Tomlin about Tribuisky at the NFL Owners Meeting, where Tomlin confirmed (again) that the Steelers were keeping Tribuisky. And again the exchange spawned dozens (if not hundreds) of stories from both the professional press and bloggers alike.

In the past the Watch Tower has wondered, “If a reporter breaks news and it doesn’t go viral is it still a scoop?” with Jim Wexell getting Ben Roethlisberger on the record confirming his plans to return before the Jaguars playoff game, only to have Roethlisberger say the same thing after the loss and have it treated as “new news.”

  • Here, the opposite has happened.

Each of the Steelers top three officials all confirmed that Mitch Tribuisky was in the team’s long term plans, yet somehow both bloggers and writers kept spinning yarns about scenarios that would see him leave Pittsburgh right up until Trubisky signed signed a contract extension.

Who knows? Maybe next off season reporters can try coaxing Khan, Tomlin or Rooney into saying, “Yes we’ll wear dark jerseys at home and white ones on the road next year” to see if that generates page views.

Donahoe’s Reveal on Steelers Draft Strategy in the ‘90’s

Tom Donahoe joined the Pittsburgh Steelers in 1986 as a BLESTO scout and quickly rose to Director of Pro Player Personnel and Development in 1989 before ascending to  Director of Football Operations in 1992, upon Chuck Noll’s retirement.

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

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

With Bill Cowher, Donahoe oversaw the Steeler return to contender status during the 1990’s, but ultimately clashes with The Chin came to a head in 1999, and Dan Rooney sided with his head coach.

Still, Donahoe’s service to the Steelers from ’86 to until early 2000 make him one of the organization’s most informed insiders from that period. Yet, he’s seldom spoken about the organization since leaving.

Jim Wexell has changed that in a big way to the tune of a 4,301 word interview as part of research for his book On the Clock, the History of the Steelers Draft. Wexell shared the full interview with Steel City Insider subscribers last spring.

The interview is a pure gold for Steelers history buffs, as Donahoe shares insights into how stars from the ‘90s  like Greg Lloyd, Rod Woodson, Dermontii Dawson, Levon Kirkland, Joel Steed, Darren Perry, and Chad Brown made their way to Pittsburgh.

Donahoe also offers draft room back stories about players such as Alan Faneca, Hines Ward, Deshea Townsend and Aaron Smith who’d go on to help Bill Cowher and Mike Tomlin win Super Bowl XL and Super Bowl XLIII.

Any one of Donahoe’s 36 answers would  suffice to earn Wexell Watch Tower kudos, but here’s an exceptional exchange:

Q: Did it hurt you guys economically not having the new stadium in free agency?
TD: It was a challenge. But we always tried to prepare for the guys that we thought were probably not going to be here to replace them. Maybe not to the same degree but we would at least have a player waiting in the wings where we wouldn’t have to just go out and buy a free agent. Although we did that the one year with Kevin Greene. He was a great pickup for us at that time. But Chad Brown was a tough loss.

Tom Donahoe’s answer might not qualify as “news” or a “revelation” for fans who suffered through those annual free agent exoduses during the 1990’s. But, to the Watch Tower’s knowledge, this is the first time that someone from the organization actually confirmed that anticipated free agent losses shaped the Steelers draft strategy in the 90’s.

And for that Jim Wexell earns a double dose of Watch Tower Kudos.

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Former Steelers Personnel Director Dick Haley, 1937-2023, Embodied the “Steelers Way”

Former Pittsburgh Steelers Director of Player Personnel Dick Haley passed away at the age of 85 on Friday March 10, 2023. Haley, along with Art Rooney Jr. and Bill Nunn Jr. architected the most dominant dynasty that the NFL has ever seen.

In many ways Dick Haley’s story is the antidote to the “me” centeredness that plagues modern narratives of organizational success.

Dick Haley, Chuck Noll, Steeler Training Camp 1991

Dick Haley and Chuck Noll at St. Vincents in 1991. Photo Credit: George Gojkovich, Getty Images via FOX News.

To hone in on what I’m talking, just think of how the smart advice to job hunters today is to be ready to show the value that you added to company and to always use the word “I” aned never “we” during interviews. Scaling up a bit, think of how the story of every successful tech startup gets tethered to the biography of entrepreneur who gets credit for it all. If you doubt this then ask if the names “Jobs,” “Musk,” “Gates” or “Brandsen” ring a bell.

For the last 50 years the Pittsburgh Steelers have been one of the most successful organizations in professional sports, and it certainly is tempting to apply this same “who is the singular genius behind it all” mentality to them.

  • Tempting, but ultimately unsuccessful.

I once asked Ed Bouchette during a Post-Gazette on-line chat, “Who was most responsible for the scouting success of the 70’s? Art Rooney Jr., Bill Nunn or Dick Haley.” Bouchette’s response was unequivocal: Each one of them always insisted that it was a team effort.

How refreshing.

Refreshing, if not surprising, because this emphasis of team over the individual is the very essence of the Steelers Way.

Dick Haley’s Role in Architecting the Steelers Dynasty

Art Rooney Jr. professionalized the Steelers scouting organization. Bill Nunn used his connections with the HSB network to give the Steelers “Ace in the Hole” on draft day. But Dick Haley’s contributions were equally critical.

Sure, Rooney spotted Jack Lambert pulling cinders out of his skin while practicing on Kent State parking lot, just as Nunn got near-exclusive access to John Stallworth’s tapes from Alabama A&M. But Dick Haley validated the evaluations of both players.

John Stallworth, Super Bowl XIII, Steelers vs Cowboys, Lynn Swann, Benny Barnes, Charlie Waters

Super Bowl XIII: John Stallworth is headed to the end zone. Benny Barnes and Charlie Waters can only look on. Photo Credit: Focus on Sport/Getty Images via FanSided

Art Rooney introduced the use of computers, making the Steelers one of the first NFL teams to bring IT into the scouting department. But Dick Haley balanced the quantitative with the qualitative by trusting his eyes.

As he explained to Pittsburgh Sports‘ Ron Lippock in 2012, “Yeah…I say it often I know – ‘Don’t tell me how fast or big a player is, just tell me how good he is.’ Just big and fast won’t work. Big, fast and good….we’ll take that player!”

He further detailed to Lippock, “Lambert was a good example. He was only 202 pounds in training camp. He was 6’5″. Ham was 209 pounds. Webster was only 250 pounds – tell Webster he wasn’t big enough.”

The results of this team driven approach to scouting speak for themselves:

  • 4 Super Bowls in 6 years
  • 73 Pro Bowl selections during the 70’s
  • 2 Super Bowl victories over a 2-time Super Bowl Champion, the team to accomplish that
  • The 1974 Draft yielding 4 Hall of Famers plus 1 undrafted rookie free agent Hall of Famer
  • 10 Hall of Famers

Dick Haley’s role in architecting that dynasty should be enough to earn him a spot in Canton alongside Bill Nunn (Art Rooney Jr. belongs in the Pro Football Hall of Fame too.) But Haley’s contribution to the Steelers legacy extends beyond the 70’s. And since its seldom discussed elsewhere we’ll do it here.

Steelers of the 80’s: Friction Between Coaching and Scouting = Stagnation

Business analysts love to talk about “process.” And Pittsburgh’s process for building the dynasty of the 70’s was simple: Art Rooney Jr., Bill Nunn, Dick Haley, Tim Rooney and other Steelers scouts would evaluate prospects and build the draft board, and Chuck Noll would draft the players.

  • Peek back at the bullet points above to see how well it worked.

But then in 1976 the NFL moved the draft from just after the Super Bowl to March. In theory the extra time should have helped an organization like the Steelers.

  • Instead, the exact opposite occurred.

The increased time allowed Chuck Noll to start micromanaging the process. He started challenging draft board rankings. He got his assistant coaches more involved in scouting. As Art Rooney Jr, declared in his book Ruanaidh, some of them weren’t up to it.

The organization also began to outthink itself. They’d pass on guys whom they’d rated highly thinking, “How’s he gonna beat out Stallworth or Lynn Swann?” or “Is this kid really gonna push Greenwood or Mean Joe for playing time?”

David Little, Mel Blount, Marcus Allen, 1983 AFC Divisional Playoffs

David Little helps Mel Blount bring down Marcus Allen

At its best, that led to the Steelers trying to replace guys like Lambert and Ham with the likes of David Little and Bryan Hinkle. At it its worst it produced draft picks like Darryl Sims.

  • That created tension and communication dysfunction between Art Rooney Jr. and Chuck Noll.

By the 1986 season tension got so bad that Dan Rooney had to make a decision, and he fired his brother, leaving Dick Haley as head of scouting.

Haley’s Role in Building the “Blitzburgh” Teams of the ‘90s

The quick and easy take away from Dan Rooney’s decision to fire his brother is to look at what happened next and say, “Well, that I didn’t work.” After all, Chuck Noll only won one more playoff game (but man, it was a heck of a win) followed by deeply disappointing campaigns in 1990 and 1991.

  • However, communication did improve between scouting and coaching, for a while at least.

In both 1987 and 1988 Chuck Noll drafted Hall of Famers in the form of Rod Woodson and Dermontti Dawson. And while the Steelers did need a lot of luck to land Woodson, those weren’t isolated examples.

Greg Lloyd, Greg Lloyd Steelers Career

Greg Lloyd during the Steelers 1995 playoff win over Browns. Photo Credit: Getty Images, via Zimbo.com

The Steelers 1987 draft also delivered Thomas Everett, Hardy Nickerson, Greg Lloyd and Merril Hoge. 1988 brought John Jackson to Pittsburgh. The Steelers 1989 draft featured Carnell Lake, Jerrol Williams, D.J. Johnson, Jerry Olsavsky and Carlton Haselrig.

And it is true that by 1990 some of the same communication breakdowns between scouting and coaching resumed, but even those drafts delivered players like  Justin Strzelczyk, Neil O’Donnell and Ernie Mills who helped the 1995 Steelers reach Super Bowl XXX.

Dick Haley left the Steelers after Dan Rooney promoted Tom Donahoe to Director of Football Operations when Chuck Noll retired. Haley worked as the New York Jets Director of Player Personnel from 1992 to 2000, and then served as their General Manager during 2000 and 2001.

But even if Dick Haley left Pittsburgh in 1992, his finger prints are just as much a part of the success first part of the Cowher Era as they are of the first Super Bowl Era of 1970s.

No, when they write the story of Super Bowl XXX, they don’t list a tally of players from the Dick Haley era just as they don’t do a tally of Tom Donahoe players on the Super Bowl XL and Super Bowl XLIII squads. Nor should they.

  • Because each front office executive’s success = the Steelers success.

Indeed, the late Dick Haley was a walking embodiment of “The Steelers Way.” May he rest in peace.

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

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

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

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

John Rooney, Pittsburgh Steelers minority owner, John Rooney Obituary

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

John Rooney – Teacher Turned Business Man

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

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

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

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

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

  • This is hardly surprising.

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

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

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

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

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

John Rooney’s Role in the 2008 Ownership Restructuring

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

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

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

  • That’s where things got sticky.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Franco Harris, Franco Harris obituary

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

Getting to Know Franco

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

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

As for Franco Harris? Franco could run through walls.

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

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

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

Franco Harris, Terry Bradshaw, Lynn Swann

Learning about Franco

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

  • Yes, I certainly watched games where he played.

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

“Don’t Over Coach Him”

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

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

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

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

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

The Immaculate Reception

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

  • But there’s a reason why.

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

“Give Me the Ball.”

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

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

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

  • Franco ran 22 yards for a touchdown.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • Through it all, Franco Harris maintained his humility.

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • That’s just who Franco Harris was.

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

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

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

Franco Harris, Mateo Labriola, Steelers Argentina

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Look Far, Stay Close: Steelers Hire Omar Kahn to Replace Kevin Colbert

After interviewing 16 candidates from around the NFL to find Kevin Colbert’s replacement, Steelers President Art Rooney II settled on one who has been in his own back yard since 2001, naming Omar Khan as the next General Manager.

Omar Khan, Steelers General Manager, Kevin Colbert

Omar Khan and Kevin Colbert at St. Vincents. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Omar Khan joined the Steelers in 2001, one year after Kevin Colbert arrived, serving as football operations coordinator and was named as Vice President of Football and Business Administration in 2011, one year after Kevin Colbert officially got the title of general manager.

In a statement released by the team, Khan commented:

I am extremely excited for this opportunity to be the General Manager of the Pittsburgh Steelers. I would like to thank Art Rooney II, Mike Tomlin, and Kevin Colbert for their support throughout this process. I am ready for this challenge and grateful to continue the success we have had on the field during my first 21 years. I look forward to completing our football operations staff and working tirelessly to build another championship football team for Steelers Nation and our community.

The choice of Khan does represent a bit of a departure for the Steelers in that his background is on the business side of the operations, as opposed to scouting. (Although Khan did gain scouting experience while working with the New Orleans Saints.

Andy Weidl of the Philadelphia Eagles, who was also a finalist to replace Colbert, will reportedly join the team as Assistant General Manager, although the hire has not yet been announced.

There’s been no word on what role if any Brandon Hunt, the Steelers current Pro Scouting Coordinator will play with the organization. Hunt interviewed and was a finalist for the job.

Steelers MO: Look Far for Coaches, Stay Close for Front Office

In another sense the Steelers decision to promote Khan from within is in keeping with their MO for hiring a front office head. For all intents and purposes, Art Rooney Jr. was the first head of the Steelers scouting department.

And when Chuck Noll retired and Haley left the Steelers, Dan Rooney promoted Tom Donahoe as Director of Football Operations. When the breach between Bill Cowher and Tom Donahoe became unbridgeable, Dan Rooney again interviewed candidates from across the league, only to settle on Kevin Colbert, who was not only a Pittsburgh native, but an alumni of North Catholic, the same high school that Rooney and Donahoe had attended.

  • That stands in contrast to their MO for hiring coaches.

Dan Rooney hired Chuck Noll from outside the organization (OK, it’s not like Bill Austin’s staff was stocked with up and comers). When Noll stepped down, the smart money was on Joe Greene as his replacement.

But an exhaustive search lead them to Bill Cowher. When Bill Cowher hung it up, the front runners to replace him were Russ Grimm and Ken Whisenhunt. Both men were serious contenders and Grimm was one of the finalists, but the job ultimately went to Mike Tomlin, who was with the Minnesota Vikings.

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1999 Pittsburgh Steelers: Cowher Donahoe Feud, Tears Team Apart, Comes to a Head

The Pittsburgh Steelers opened 1999 in unfamiliar territory:  Instead of playing in the post season, they were watching from home. You can criticize the Steelers brain trust of Bill Cowher, Tom Donahoe and Dan Rooney for many of their 1999 off season decisions.

  • But there is one thing they refused to do following the first losing season of the Cowher era: Panic.

Kordell Stewart struggled mightily in 1998. So the Steelers response of firing Ray Sherman and replacing him with Kevin Gilbride was expected. Giving Stewart a 5-year extension that would pay him 27 million more dollars was decidedly unexpected. Yet that’s just what the Steelers did.

Kordell Stewart had hardly been the only one at fault during the up-and down 7-4 start and the ensuing game season-ending meltdown. The offensive line, secondary, and wide receiver had been weak spots.

So the Steelers let Carnell Lake go, a mainstay in the defensive backfield since 1989, and replaced him with Travis Davis. Former first round wide receiver Charles Johnson was allowed to walk, too. They also brought in not one, but two tackles, Wayne Gandy and Anthony Brown.

  • And, with the 13th pick in the 1999 NFL Draft, the Steelers took wide receiver Troy Edwards.

Today, we know that Troy Edwards was a bust, but the pick was popular at the time. But there’s a backstory behind the pick.

As Troy Edwards’ name was being sent to the podium, the Steelers were on the phone with Jevon Kearse. This factoid only emerged in 2016, but today it tells us something very important about how and why the Steelers 1999 season unfolded the way it did.

Kordell Stewart, Phil Daniels, Wayne Gandy, Steelers vs Seahawks

Philip Daniel sacks Kordell Stewart on 3rd down. Photo Credit: Archie Carpenter, UPI

1st Browns Game Bookend: The Caffeine Laced Sugar High

The Cleveland Browns returned to the NFL after a 3-year hiatus on September 12th 1999 against the Pittsburgh Steelers. The city of Cleveland was ecstatic. The Browns were back!

Richard Huntley, Steelers vs Browns

Richard Huntley runs over the Browns. Literally. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

  • The celebration ended quickly.

The Steelers amassed a 20 to 0 zero half time lead, which became a 27 to 0 3rd quarter lead after the first two series. Bill Cowher pulled Kordell Stewart in favor of Mike Tomczak and then Pete Gonzalez. Jerome Bettis gave way to Richard Huntley and then Amos Zereoue. The Steelers won 43 to 0, registering their first shutout in two years.

ESPN commentator Joe Theismann went so far as to compare the 1999 Steelers offense to the 1995 edition which had taken them to Super Bowl XXX.

  • The new Browns were an expansion team, so a Steelers’ victory was expected.

But Pittsburgh made it look easy, incredibly easy. Was the 1998’s 0-5 implosion  just a mirage?

2nd Browns Game Bookend:  The Bottom Falls Out

Three Rivers Stadium welcomed the Browns for the first time in 3 years in week 9 of the 1999 season. The Steelers were on a 3 game winning streak. Cleveland came to Pittsburgh seeking its first win.

  • The Browns opened with a touchdown drive.

During the entire first half, the Steelers could only muster a meager Kris Brown field goal in response. But at least the Browns hadn’t sniffed another score. Kris Brown booted another field goal to start the first half. Then, with victory in their grasp, the Steelers made two critical errors:

  • Richard Huntley scored a touchdown midway through the 3rd quarter.
  • Yet Bill Cowher opted to go for two and the Steelers failed.

So instead of 13 to 7, the Steelers led 12 to 7.

Still, the Steelers kicked another field goal to start the 4th quarter, making it 15 to 7. That made the lost point inconsequential. Didn’t it?

With about 7 minutes left, the Steelers forced a Browns punt and simply had to kill the clock. Yet after Jerome Bettis gained 6 yards, Kordell Stewart misfired to Mark Bruener. Then he tried a bubble screen to Troy Edwards.

Phil Dawson, Steelers vs Browns

Phil Dawson kicks the game winner in 1999. Photo Credit: Browns.com

  • But John Thierry blew by Wayne Gandy and intercepted Stewart’s pass.

The Browns scored a touchdown 3 plays later, but their 2 point conversion failed leaving the game tied. This time the Steelers tried pounding the ball, calling 7 straight running plays but were forced to punt at the 2-minute warning. The Browns milked all but 2 seconds off of the clock before kicking the game winning field goal.

The Steelers had opened the season by welcoming the Browns back to the NFL by wiping the floor with them. Nine weeks later they were wiping egg off of their faces after giving the Browns their first win since 1995.

After the game, team leader Levon Kirkland confessed, “I’m not going to say it’s the most embarrassing loss, because you never know what’s going to come up next.”

The worst part of it all? Kirkland was right.

In Between the Browns Bookends: Torment and Tease

So what happened in between those Browns bookend games? The Steelers followed their opening day romp over the Browns with a lackluster win over a middling Ravens team. The Steelers returned to Three Rivers Stadium to suffer a 5-interception blowout loss to the Seahawks, followed by 17-3 home loss to the Jaguars that saw free agent tackle Wayne Gandy give up sacks on back-to-back drives that resulted in safeties.

Doug Flutie, Jeremy Staat, Steelers vs Bills

Jeremy Staat closes in on Doug Flutie. Photo Credit: Post-Gazette.com

  • The Steelers followed that with a 24-21 loss to the Bills

After the game Bill Cowher commented that Kordell Stewart could have benefited from seeing Doug Flutie in action. This was ironic, because Stewart’s success in 1997 helped pave the way for Flutie’s NFL return.

For as bleak as things looked during those three losses, the Steelers rebounded with three straight wins. Their win on Monday Night Football against the defending NFC Champion Falcons ended with not one, but two “Who wants it more?” 4th quarter goal line stands.

Pittsburgh followed that with a 27-6 road win over the San Francisco 49ers and by all appearances, the Steelers had done what so many previous Bill Cowher teams had done before them: Right themselves after stumbling early.

Wrong. The Steelers had only set themselves up for a bigger fall.

Worst 8 Game Stretch Since 1969

The 1999 Steelers fulfilled Levon Kirkland’s worst fears by losing 7 of their next 8 games and in the process looked worse than any Steelers team had looked since 1969. Chuck Noll’s 1986 and 1988 teams had finished 6-10 and 5-11, but at least both of those squads were playing their best football by season’s end.

But The 1999 Steelers found new ways to get worse as fall faded into winter.

Qadry Ismail, Steelers vs Ravens, Dwyane Washington

Quadry Ismail scorches Steelers. Photo Credit: Post-Gazette.com

The bottom fell out of the defense. On the road against the Titans, Chris Sanders hauled in a 46- yard reception as Travis Davis and Scott Shields essentially “watched.” Two weeks later Qadry Ismail came to Pittsburgh and scorched the Steelers secondary for 258-yard, 3-touchdown game.

During a loss to a terrible Bengals team Bill Cowher benched Kordell Stewart. Fans cheered as Mike Tomczak took the field, but the results were the same.

The Steelers did secure a post-Christmas win over the Carolina Panthers. But that win came by way of Shar Pourdanesh replacing the inept Anthony Brown and Chris Conrad who’d been alternating at right tackle, and some mid game snow that inspired Jerome Bettis to a 100-yard game.

Chad Scott, Steelers vs Panthers, Fred Lane

Chad Scott stuffs Fred Lane for a 3 yard loss. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

The season ended with a sloppy 47-36 loss to a Tennessee Titans backup squad that featured Bobby Shaw flashing a Superman shirt in front of cameras following a garbage-time touchdown, yet another safety and Levon Kirkland getting muscled out of bounds by Neil O’Donnell following an interception. Worse yet, although the Steelers started at the Titans 5-yard line and ran 6 plays, they still failed to score.

For the record, the 1999 Steelers final record was 6-10, but this was by far the worst Steelers squad since Chuck Noll’s 1-13 1969 team.

Cowher-Donahoe Feud Comes to a Head

The 1999 Steelers finished 6-10, and looked a lot worse than their 7-9 1998 predecessors in doing so. But the difference wasn’t driven by talent: The 1999 team was rotting at its core.

The feud between head coach Bill Cowher and Director of Football Operations Tom Donahoe that had been simmering for years was consuming the team. Donahoe’s “flat” comment following Fog Bowl II first exposed the tensions between the two men but by 1999, things had become unmanageable.

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

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

The fact that the front office and head coach weren’t even on the same page regarding the first round draft reveals just how deep the dysfunction sank.

  • Things regressed as the season wore on.

In the week leading up to the Bengals loss, 3 separate national stories reported that Bill Cowher was planning to leave the team. Tom Donahoe had strong relations with the press, and could have swatted it down with an off-the-record denial.

Steel Curtain Rising has zero evidence to suggest that he declined an opportunity to do so. But after the Steelers laid an egg against the Bengals, Donahoe was on the record and his tongue was particularly sharp as he quipped, “Let me say this, I think we’re more talented than Cleveland and Cincinnati.”

A few days later, Cowher insisted that he was staying, and retorted, “I know what my responsibilities are to this football team and what I’m here to do. That’s to coach a football team, to coach the players I have.”

Late in the season as losses cascaded into bigger, uglier losses, Lee Flowers called out his teammates for “loafing.”

  • Flowers was right. The circus atmosphere of the season finale proved it.

Normally, when players quit on a losing team, it is an indictment of the head coach. But by 1999, this wasn’t a “normal” Steelers team. In his self-titled autobiography, Dan Rooney reveals that Bill Cowher barred Donahoe from attending coaching meetings because he thought he was a “spy.”

Cowher’s instincts were correct. After the season it was revealed that Tom Donahoe had been privately bashing Cowher to the press.

  • Front office-coaching tension is normal and, in the right dosage, healthy.

But even the most brilliant football minds can’t function successfully if they can’t cooperate. The Pittsburgh Steelers are anything but immune. Art Rooney, Jr. led the greatest scouting team pro football has or ever will see. Chuck Noll was one of the greatest coaches in the game.

  • Yet, by the mid-80’s the two men couldn’t function together.
  • By 1999 Bill Cowher and Tom Donahoe had reached the same juncture.

Dan Rooney again had a decision to make. And once again, Dan backed his coach over the front office and fired Tom Donahoe.

Thanks for visiting. To access our full series on Bill Cowher click here (and scroll up or down).

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John Stallworth’s Steelers Career: An Improbable Journey from Overlooked Draft Pick to Hall of Famer

NFL Hall of Famer John Stallworth defies the odds with luck, skill, and often times a combination of both. You can chalk his latest exploit to the latter.

The Steelers ownership restructuring became public in July of 2008, and the Rooneys promised that their new investors would include “one very recognizable name.”  That person was of course Steelers Hall of Fame wide receiver John Stallworth who officially became a minority owner in 2009.

In doing so, John Stallworth took yet another step in his improbable journey. Click below to jump into one of the legs of that journey or scroll down to follow along for the full ride.

John Stallworth, Rod Perry, Super Bowl XIV

John Stallworth catches the go ahead touchdown in Super Bowl XIV. Photo via Newspress.com

From Alabama A&M to the Steelers 1974 Hall of Fame Draft

Stallworth played at Alabama A&M, one of the many historic black colleges (HBCs) that the Steelers scoured while many NFL teams, the demise of Jim Crow notwithstanding, still consciously overlooked.

According to Art Rooney, Jr.’s book Ruanaidh, the Steelers had rated him as one of the top collegiate receivers as early as 1973. When Chuck Noll first learned of Stallworth, he immediately pronounced him as first round pick and feared that Pittsburgh wouldn’t get a chance to pick Stallworth when the word got out on him.

  • By both happenstance and design, the word on John Stallworth never got out

In his self titled autobiography, the late Steelers Chairman Dan Rooney recounts how a team of BLESTO scouts had the ill fortune to time John Stallworth on a wet track. Ever wise, Steelers scout Bill Nunn feigned illness and stayed an extra day in Alabama, ran Stallworth on a dry track, and he got the time he wanted.

Nunn, who had extensive connections with the HBC community, coaxed Alabama A&M into sending films of Stallworth to the Steelers. This was long before the days of Mel Kipper and the cottage industry that today envelops the NFL draft.

A single tape on John Stallworth existed, and it was so impressive that Bill Nunn conveniently “forgot” to return it, giving Pittsburgh an effective a monopoly on information about Stallworth. (Art Rooney, Jr. insists that he instructed Bill Nunn and Dick Haley return the tapes, but he’s also clear that he wasn’t overly upset that they didn’t.)

Steelers 70's, Draft, war room, dick haley, Bill Nunn, Art Rooney Jr.

Tim Rooney and Dick Haley in Steelers 70’s Draft War Room

Nonetheless, Noll feared that the Senior Bowl would spill the secret on Stallworth, but the fates shined again on the Steelers, as Senior Bowl coaches kept moving him back and forth from receiver to defensive back.

The Steelers picked Swann first in the 1974 NFL Draft. The Steelers had no third round choice, so Noll wanted to pick Stallworth second. The scouts steered him towards Jack Lambert second, and then held their collective breath.

But Stallworth was there in the fourth round, and the Steelers picked him.

The Glory Years of the Super Steelers

Of the four Hall of Famers the Steelers picked in 1974, Stallworth was perhaps the most under appreciated.

  • Ray Mansfield almost immediately pronounced Mike Webster as his successor, and Noll immediately worked Number 52 into the line up
  • Lambert quickly made his impact felt both on and off the field
  • Having dazzled at USC, Lynn Swann was a known commodity

Lynn Swann actually had fewer catches than Stallworth as a rookie, but Swann had more touches, returning 41 punts for an amazing 14.1 yard average.

In 1975 both men became starters, and but the spotlight remained on Swann. During the regular season he caught 49 passes, more than doubling Stallworth’s total, and his acrobatic catches made during his MVP performance in Super Bowl X set a new standard for wide receiving excellence.

As is well documented, the Steelers defense of the 70’s was so dominant that it prompted the NFL to change the rules to favor the passing game. As Bob Labriola of Steelers Digest wrote, while everyone worried about how these changes would affect the Steelers defense, Noll plotted to unleash his offense.

Stallworth Second Fiddle to Swan?

In the minds of many fans, Swann was the star of the tandem, while Stallworth was the “possession receiver.”

  • But Swann and Stallworth were both stars

In 1978 Stallworth grabbed 20 fewer balls than Swann, but he averaged five more yards per catch. Together, the two men totaled 102 catches for nearly 1,600 yards and 20 touchdowns.

Stallworth caught 2 touchdowns to Swann’s one in Super Bowl XIII, including a 75 yard touchdown that Stallworth largely made happen after the catch. Unfortunately, leg cramps kept Stallworth out for most of the second half.

The following year, Stallworth lit it up. He led the team with 70 catches becoming the first Steeler ever to get break the 1000 yard receiving mark.

Super Bowl XIV – Hook and Go into History

John Stallworth’s performance in Super Bowl XIV was legendary.

The Steelers opened the second half trailing, but a downfield strike from Terry Bradshaw to Lynn Swann gave Pittsburgh the lead. But the Rams immediately struck back, and Pittsburgh opened the fourth quarter down 19-17.

They’d also lost Lynn Swann for the game. His back up, Theo Bell was also hurt, leaving Jimmy Smith to step in, a man who would play 7 years and total 113 receptions.

Already stifling the Steelers running game, the Rams defensive coordinator, Bud Carson, summed it up best, “All we needed to do was double cover John Stallworth.”

Good luck.

  • Faced with third down on their own 27, Chuck Noll ordered Terry Bradshaw, “Go for the big one,” recounts Art Rooney Jr.

The name of the play was “60-Prevent-Slot-Hook-And-Go.”

The play hadn’t worked in practice. Bradshaw didn’t think he could do it. And Stallworth had doubts that it would work.

But it did.

Bradshaw rifled to Stallworth, who caught the ball at the Rams 32, never broke stride in route to a 73 yard touchdown. Stallworth put so much space between himself and the defender that the official signaled touchdown before number 82 even crossed the goal line. The NFL Super Bowl XIV highlight film does not confirm this (you can’t see any touchdown signal), but that is how I remember it.

L.C. Greenwood, Jack Lambert, Super Bowl XIV

L.C. Greenwood during the Steelers Super Bowl XIV win. Photo Credit: Bill Smith, NFL via NFL.com

Bradshaw and Stallworth would work their magic one more time that evening. After Jack Lambert had stopped a Rams drive cold at the Steelers 33, two runs to Franco Harris and Sidney Thornton yielded 3 yards, the Steelers were faced with third and 7 at their 33.

Again Chuck Noll ordered Bradshaw to go deep. He called Hook and Go again, hitting Stallworth again for 45 yards, bringing the Steelers to the Rams 22 and setting up the touchdown that cemented the Steelers fourth Super Bowl Championship.

John Stallworth in the 1980s – Resurgence Cements His Greatness

The 1980’s tested Steelers Nation. Sure, Pittsburgh would make the playoffs 4 times, win one division title and even appear in a conference championship game. But with each season, the team lost more Super Steelers to retirement, and the men stepping in were not their equals.

  • Lynn Swann, victim of many concussions, retired after the 1982 season. Stallworth would be hurt for much of the 1983 season, limited to 8 catches for 100 yards.

But in 1984, Art Rooney Jr. and his once vaunted scouting department nabbed their final first round success, by picking Louis Lipps.

weegie thompson, louis lipps, steelers wide receivers 1980's, 1988 Steelers

Steelers 1980’s wide receivers Louis Lipps and Weegie Thompson. Photo Credit: Getty Images, Pittsburgh Post Gazette

Opposing defenses couldn’t blanket Stallworth with Lipps playing opposite to him. With Lipps playing opposite of him, Stallworth made defenses pay.

  • In 1984 Stallworth caught 80 balls for 1,395 yards and 11 touchdowns; this record stood for 11 years, until Yancey Thigpen broke it in 1995
  • In 1985 he caught 75 passes for 927 yards
  • In 1986 he numbers dipped to 34 passes for 366 yards

But in the strike-shortened ’87 season, with Louis Lipps hurt and only Weegie Thompson to take pressure off of him, John Stallworth still caught 41 passes for 521 yards.

To really appreciate Stallworth’s excellence in the 80’s , consider that he was no longer catching passes from Terry Bradshaw, but rather David Woodley and Mark Malone.

The NFL took notice, as John Stallworth won the following accolades during the ‘80’s:

  • Pro Bowl, 1980, 1983, and 1985
  • Second team All Pro, 1984
  • Comeback player of the year, 1984

Stallworth a Success at “Life’s Work”

It would be unfair to label John Stallworth’s success in life after football as improbable. While the Steelers have had their share of players who’ve had difficulty with post-NFL life, far more of those Super Steelers have been just as successful at “life’s work.”

In 1986 John Stallworth founded Madison Research Corporation, which provided engineering and information technology services to both the public and private sector. He sold the company in 2006 and has since run Genius II.

During this time, despite his Hall of Fame resume, whenever NFL Hall of Fame selectors considered his name, John Stallworth confronted a tiresome chorus of “there are already too many Steelers in the Hall of Fame….” Year after year, selectors snubbed Swann and Stallworth.

  • The situation grew so perilous that Myron Cope resigned from the selection committee, fearing his impassioned pleas were hurting Swann and Stallworth

Then, with lobbying from Chuck Noll and Dan Rooney, Swann got elected in 2001. Making his feelings clear to all about who should join him, Lynn Swann asked John Stallworth to be his presenter.

One year later the John Stallworth followed his teammate into enshrinement into Canton.

Stallworth’s Shot at Something Unique

Stallworth’s business endeavors have been quite lucrative, and that led the Dan and Art II to bring Stallworth into the group that bought out the rest of the Rooney brothers.

Now that he is officially an owner, Stallworth joins the handful of former players who’ve ascended to an NFL ownership suite.

In doing so, he has given himself a shot at doing something that no one else has ever done – John Stallworth can become the first man to win a Super Bowl as a player and as an owner.

  • It has been an uphill battle. Ten years have passed and Lombardi Number Seven still eludes the Steelers.

But Stallworth is unlikely to be daunted. He’s made a career of beating the odds.

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Justice Done! Steelers Bill Nunn, Alan Faneca Elected to Hall of Fame

“Good things come to those who work and wait” or so goes the line of James Psihoulis’ “Western Pennsylvania Polka.

  • Such was the case with City of Pittsburgh and the Super Steelers.

And such is the case with the Bill Nunn Jr. and Alan Faneca’s election to the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s 2021 Class. Both men had been eligible for several rounds of voting only to be passed over in favor of others.

In some cases, such as that of Alan Faneca, he had to sit and wait as other, slightly less accomplished players got in ahead of him. Bill Nunn, who passed away in 2014 on the eve of the 2014 NFL Draft, got passed over as higher profile, more contemporary but less accomplished contributors got their tickets to Canton punched.

Joe Greene, Bill Nunn, Steelers scouts

Joe Greene and Bill Nunn observe Steelers practice together

Nunn’s Selection Affirms Role as Architect of the Super Steelers

Bill Nunn Jr. isn’t well known. Even well-educated Steelers fans may only be vaguely familiar with his name. In part, that’s because Bill Nunn wanted it that way. He didn’t believe in tooting his own horn.
Maybe that’s a good thing because the sound would have been deafening.

Bill Nunn started out as a writer and editor of the Pittsburgh Courier, one of the leading African American publications of the post-World War II period. A confrontational conversation with Dan Rooney over the Courier’s lack of Steelers coverage and the Steelers lack of inclusion of African American journalists led to Nunn joining the Steelers scouting staff.

  • There, Nunn would join Art Rooney Jr., Dick Haley, Tom Modrak and Tim Rooney to form the greatest scouting organization in pro football history.

Nunn provided connections to the nation’s network of HBCU’s, paving the way for the arrival in Pittsburgh of Hall of Famers like Mel Blount, John Stallworth, and Donnie Shell. Nunn also had a critical role in bringing players like should be Hall of Famer L.C. Greenwood and as well has his Steel Curtain brethren Dwight White and Ernie Holmes.

Nunn continued working with the Steelers “retiring” in the late 80’s, but continuing to work on a part time basis, grading players and mentoring young scouts for the Steelers organization.

Without Bill Nunn, there is no Steel Curtain, no 4 Super Bowls in 6 years. Nunn’s unspoken contributions to the Steelers wins in Super Bowl XL and Super Bowl XLIII should not be underestimated either.

Faneca Joins “The Bus,” Polamalu as in Hall from Steelers 2nd Super Bowl Era

The choice of Alan Faneca gives Pittsburgh their fourth representative from the Steelers 2nd Super Bowl era. Jerome Bettis was the first member of the Black and Gold to break that barrier. Last year the Hall granted induction to Troy Polamalu and Bill Cowher.

With Fanaca the Steelers are represented by a quartet, a number that will likely increase by one when Ben Roethlisberger joins them one day. (Hines Ward should too, but probably won’t make it.)

While Alan Faneca’s selection represents a lifetime of achievement in the NFL, he had a huge role in securing the Steelers victory in Super Bowl XL with his block that sprang Willie Parker’s 75 yard touchdown:

https://twitter.com/steelers/status/969039376054235136

The NFL’s Hall of Fame induction ceremonies will take place on August 7th 2021 where the 2020 and 2021 classes will take their places along side the other legends in Canton.

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