Pittsburgh’s Forgotten Linebacker: Remembering Mike Merriweathers Steelers Career

Like most Pittsburgh Steelers fans who were teenagers in the mid-to-late 80’s, I wanted my very own jersey.

Of course, the problem with that time in Steelers history, is they were pretty awful. Less than a decade after guys like Mean Joe Greene, Terry Bradshaw and Franco Harris were doing things on the turf of old Three Rivers Stadium that would forever make them immortals, Pittsburgh’s professional football roster was full of mere mortals, especially during a stretch from 1985-1988, when the Steelers went a combined 26-37 and didn’t make the playoffs once.

  • Still, though, I wanted my own jersey, which, as a 15-year old back in ’87, became my big Christmas present.

So, who did I pick?

Receiver Louis Lipps, the 1984 NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year and two-time Pro Bowler, was the obvious choice. Believe it or not, kicker Gary Anderson, by that point, also a two-time Pro Bowl player, would have been a pretty decent choice (told you the roster was filled with mere mortals in those days).

Mike Merriweather, Edmund Nelson, John Elway, Steelers vs Broncos 1984, Mike Merriweather Steelers career

Mike Merriweather and Edmund Nelson close in on John Elway. Photo Credit: Pin Interest

But while Louis Lipps and Gary Anderson were certainly some of the very few stars  for the Steelers of that era, perhaps the most shining one was outside linebacker Mike Merriweather

A third round pick out of the University of Pacific in  the 1982 NFL Draft, Mike Merriweather ascended to the top of the depth chart of Pittsburgh’s transitioning defense in 1983, starting 16 games, but only recording a half a sack.

The following season, however, Mike Merriweather would burst onto the NFL scene in a big way, as he totaled 15 sacks (a team record that stood for 24 years until fellow outside linebacker James Harrison broke it by one in 2008 – although Kevin Greene did briefly tie the record in 1994 only to see the sack negated on a penalty) and made his first Pro Bowl.

Mike Merriweather couldn’t duplicate his ’84 sack barrage in subsequent years, recording a combined 15.5 between ’85-’87, but he still performed at a high enough level to make two more Pro Bowls. And in 1987, his first-team All Pro honor matched the ones he received in 1984 and 1985.

With those years as a backdrop, it was easy to see why I decided to go with MIke Merriweather’s No. 57 jersey for my Christmas present for the 1987 holiday season.

  • I enjoyed my jersey, wearing it to school once a week throughout the remainder of my freshman year.

Tenth grade was a different story. I still wore the jersey to school, but I received mocking comments such as, “Where’s your boy, Merriweather?”

Sadly, while the Steelers were enduring a 5-11 season in 1988 (their worst record since 1969), Mike Merriweather wasn’t around to help, as a contract dispute with the team led to a season-long holdout.

Since true free-agency didn’t exist in those days, Mike Merriweather didn’t have much leverage. It also didn’t help that Merriweather had a signed contract. The Steelers didn’t contract hold outs. Dan Rooney didn’t do it for Franco Harris in 1983, he didn’t do it for Hines Ward in 2005 and he wasn’t going to do it for Merriweather in 1988.

Mike Merriweather, Robin Cole, David Little, Bryan Hinkle, Steelers linebackers 1980's, Mike Merriweather's Steelers Career

Like his counterparts of the 80’s, No. 57 Mike Merriweather’s chief sin was to merely good instead of great. Photo via: Ciudaddeacero.com

Unfortunately for players of that era like Merriweather, who was clearly capable of performing at an elite level, their only choice was to suck it up and play for whatever compensation their teams thought they deserved.

With neither side willing to budge from their position, the Steelers shipped Merriweather to the Vikings in the even of the 1989 NFL Draft in-exchange for their first round pick (24th, overall).

  • That pick became Tom Ricketts, an offensive tackle from the University of Pittsburgh, who only lasted three seasons with the Steelers.

Mike Merriweather never matched his prolific years in Pittsburgh, as he played a few seasons with the Vikings before finishing his career with both the Packers and Jets in 1993.Who knows what may have happened if Merriweather and the Steelers would have reached a financial agreement in ’88?

  • Maybe he would have stuck around long enough to be a part of Bill Cowher‘s early playoff teams of the 1990’s.

That’s a tantalizing possibility, but Steelers Digest editor Bob Labriola once chided a fan who complained about the Steelers unwilingness to pay Merriweather by reminding them that his absence in 1988 allowed Chuck Noll and Tony Dungy to get Greg Lloyd on the field. And for as good as Merriweather was, Lloyd was beter.

We do know many great outside linebackers have played for the Steelers since–including Greg Lloyd, Jason Gildon, Joey Porter, LaMarr Woodley and Harrison.

Yes, the Steelers lineage at outside linebacker is exceptional (let’s not forget about Jack Ham and Andy Russell), but Mike Merriweather was a good one, too.

He was just a bad choice for a football jersey.

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Pittsburghers Support Penguins in Stanley Cup, but Predators Evoke ’95 Steelers Run

As weird as it is to say, when you’re a fan of a very successful sports franchise, it comes with a bit of a burden.

Now, when I say “burden,” I don’t mean it’s a bad thing to watch your favorite team enjoy continued success and be judged by the number of championships it displays in its trophy case. It’s just that, well, your favorite team is judged by the number of titles it wins, which means, as a fan, you expect nothing less than achieving the ultimate victory.

As a Steelers fan, I can attest to this quite well, considering anything less than a championship became unacceptable the moment Chuck Noll led his team to a fourth Lombardi trophy in six years in January of 1980, capping off a decade of dominance in the 1970’s that is perhaps unmatched in professional sports history.

The 21 playoff appearances, 15 division titles, four Super Bowl trips and two Lombardi trophies the organization has achieved since have only reinforced the belief among Steelers fans that, again, anything less than ultimate victory is totally unacceptable.

Penguins vs Predators Stanley Cup

Photo credit: Stamford Advocate

With their team going for its second-straight Stanley Cup, and fifth since 1991, Pittsburgh Penguins fans have certainly taken up residence in the same arena of high expectations as those who root for the Steelers. With their team employing some of the best hockey players on the planet–including Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin–nothing but a Stanley Cup parade is acceptable around  these parts (Mike Sullivan is the team’s fourth head coach since Crosby went to his first Stanley Cup Final back in 2008).

Yes, despite their team playing in its fourth Final in nine years and achieving the ultimate success just one year ago, the fans won’t be feeling anything but sorrow unless the Penguins (currently tied 2-2) win the Cup once again.

But you know whose fan base won’t be feeling anything but joy, regardless of how the Final turns out?

  • The one that belongs to Pittsburgh’s opponents, the Nashville Predators. 

An expansion team who came into the NHL in 1998, the Predators had never won a division title nor advanced past the second round of the playoffs, before entering the 2016/2017 postseason as the last seed in the Western Conference (and, based on overall record, the last seed in the entire NHL playoffs).

When you think of great hockey towns, Nashville certainly never comes to mind. However, after almost doing so last year, the Predators sold out all of their home games at Bridgestone Arena for the 2016/2017 regular season.

Maybe that’s why the Predators, despite their nondescript history, rolled right through the Western Conference playoffs and advanced to their first ever Stanley Cup Final.

  • When hockey season is in full-swing, Nashville is unofficially dubbed “Smashville,” and it appears the Predators southern fans have embraced the image.

I know one thing for sure, the city is absolutely drunk off of hockey, as the fans are experiencing this kind of run for the very first time.

In Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final, played at Pittsburgh’s Consol Energy Center on May 29, a Predators fan made news by throwing a catfish on the ice (a tradition at Predators home games) and was removed from the arena, before being arrested and charged with several crimes (all the charges have since been dropped).

Jake Guentzel, Penguins vs Predators, 2017 Stanley Cup

Jake Guentzel celebrates goal by Evgeni Malkin. Photo Credit: Gene J. Puskar

Coming into the playoffs with the second most points in the NHL and having to outlast the teams who were first and third in points just to make it to the Eastern Conference Finals, the Penguins are certainly in no mood for shenanigans. Neither are their fans, who are now mocking the love-fest Predators fans are enjoying with their team.

  • Ah, but to be that innocent of a fan once more and enjoy something for the very first time.

That kind of feeling usually only happens once.

It  did for me 22 years ago, when the Steelers defeated the underdog Colts in the AFC Championship Game and advanced to Super Bowl XXX to take on the heavily-favored Dallas Cowboys, winners of two of the previous three Super Bowls.

As a youngster in the 1980’s, the Steelers dominance of the previous decade seemed almost mythical after the legends began to retire one-by-one and were replaced by a far-less talented group of players.

However, as Noll gave way to Bill Cowher, and he rejuvenated the team and brought the magic back to the fan base, you could sense the passion and the hunger once more.

  • I know I was super-hungry for some form of championship-success. And when it finally happened after many years of depressing seasons and excruciating playoff exits, I was simply euphoric.
Neil O'Donnell, Super Bowl XXX

Neil O’Donnell in Super Bowl XXX. Photo Credit: McMillian & Wife

Again, Pittsburgh was a huge underdog, but I didn’t care. I soaked in every minute of the two-week build-up to the Super Bowl. I read every article I could get my hands on. I watched every news report and special dedicated to the Black and Gold.

  • Even though the Steelers infamously came up just short against Dallas thanks to too many Neil O’Donnell to Larry Brown connections, I had the time of my life.

In-fact, other than the euphoria that followed Jerome Bettis, Troy Polamalu, Hines Ward, Joey Porter and Ben Roethlisberger leading the Steelers to their the Super Bowl XL victory in Detroit (the franchise’s first title in 26 years), the Steelers trip to Super Bowl XXX may have been my happiest time as a sports fan.

Sadly, unless the Pirates actually make a World Series appearance before I die (it hasn’t happened since I was seven), I may never get to experience that kind of feeling again.

I gotta tell ya, I’m not sure which fan base I envy more:

  • The one with the previous success and high expectations or the one that is enjoying everything for the very first time.

I do know one thing: While Penguins fans won’t truly enjoy themselves unless their team wins another Cup, Predators fans are already at the party and having a grand old time.

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Steelers 2017 Summer Reading Recommendations & Poll

Memorial Day weekend has arrived, and with it the unofficial beginning of summer. Neighborhood pools are opening, kids are looking towards the end of school, backyard barbecues are getting fired up and…

  • …The NFL’s true off season is about to begin.

While the Steelers still have a few more weeks of OTA’s and minicamp, we’re rapidly approaching the one time of the year when there really is no real football news to be had. Once upon a time that was the norm, form February to March, with the exception of the NFL Draft. But the world’s changed, and Steelers Nation now demands its dose of Steelers news on a daily basis.

  • That’s dosage will be hard to get pretty soon.

Every off season since this sites founding, yours truly has thought fill the void with reviews of the books we’ve read on the Steelers. Well, that hasn’t happened yet, and probably won’t happen this year. But this year we thought we’d take a mini-step in that direction by publishing our Steelers Summer Reading Poll, with capsule summaries of each of the books in our library.

Steelers 2017 Summer Reading, Their Life's Work, The Ones Who Hit the Hardest, Dawn of a New Steel Age

Image via Pittsburgh Magazine

Take a look at the list below and vote for your favorites:

Which Steelers book(s) do you recommend for 2017 summer reading (multiple votes encouraged)

Dan Rooney’s self-titled autobiography is a must read for any serious Steelers fan and includes all kinds of insights, including the revelation that Dan, haunted by missing out on Dan Marino, push to draft Ben Roethlisberger.

Ruanaidh has been described as a giant love letter by Art Rooney Jr. to his father. That’s accurate. Another excellent “Fly on the Wall” read from a man who helped architect the Pittsburgh Steelers rise from NFL doormat, to the best football team the league has or ever will see.

Sports Illustrated once described Myron Cope as the soul of the Pittsburgh Steelers and here the Steelers soul tells his tale in Double Yoi a book filled with insights about various Pittsburgh Steelers from the glory years until the Kevin Colbert and Bill Cowher Era including chapters devoted to Terry Bradshaw, Kordell Stewart, Dwight White and Ernie Holmes.

  • Their Life’s Work by Gary Pomerantz isn’t as good as all the hype the book got when it was published in 2013 – it is far better.

Pomerantz give a detailed look at the Life and Times of Joe Greene, Mike Webster, Franco Harris and the rest of the Super Steelers. While Pomerantz clearly holds deep admiration for his subjects, the author pulls no punches with frank discussions of the toll that steroids and head trauma took and continue to take on Pittsburgh’s heroes.

Chuck Noll, His Life's Work Michael MacCambridge’s

His Life’s Work is one I’ve only thumbed through, but Michael MacCambridge’s work is the first and certainly to be the only authorized biography of Chuck Noll. One only needs to glance through this historic book to see that MacCambridge has unearthed unparalleled insights into the man known as the Emperor while unearthing a trove of facts about his time with the Steelers.

Steeler Nation documents the road trip Jim Wexell took in 2007 in a quest to understand the phenomenon that is Steelers Nation and is truly a work of art. His interview with legendary Steelers linebacker Greg Lloyd is worth the purchase price alone.

In The Ones Who Hit the Hardest Chad Millman and Shawn Coyne prove that sports books can go a level deeper, as they detail the Steelers and Cowboys rivalries by comparing the two team’s on the field rivalry with the social and economic transformations that both communities were experiencing in the 1970’s. Click here for a full review by Behind the Steel Curtain founder Michael Bean.

Cowher Power is a compilation of articles published by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette from 1992 to 2005, published by the newspaper following the Steelers victory on Super Bowl XL. A nice table book which unfortunately contains more than a few factual errors which really weaken its quality.

From Black to Gold is the only book on this list to get a full review here. Written by Tim Gleason, aka Mary Rose from the Golden Age of Behind the Steel Curtain, From Black to Gold is an excellent book that succeeds in covering ground that professional writers have missed.

Andy Russell, Jack Ham, Jack Lambert, Steelers Linebacker 70's

Jack Ham, Jack Lambert and Andy Russell. Photo via SteelersUK.com

Andy Russell’s A Steeler Odyssey balances tales of the Pittsburgh Steelers transformation under Chuck Noll, with stories about Russell’s travels around the world with Ray Mansfield, Lynn Swann, and Mel Blount as well as Russell’s stories about his attempts to build his business. Another book that is a worthy investment of your time and money.

Dawn of a New Steel Age is the book Pittsburgh Post-Gazette writer Ed Bouchette wrote during the crippling 1992 Pittsburgh newspaper strike which describes the end of the Chuck Noll era and the beginning of Bill Cowher’s reign, including profiles on players such as Hardy Nickerson, Rod Woodson, and Neil O’Donnell. In the late 1990’s I saw a review of this book that described it as “The best insider book ever.” The observation is probably more correct today than it was then.

Men of Steel by Jim Wexell contains capsule profiles of Pittsburgh Steelers from the Mike Tomlin era all the way back to portraits of men who played for the likes of Jock Sutherland and Walt Kiesling. While the book’s overall quality does take a hit due to some surprising factual errors, its individual portraits form veritable mosaic that depicts franchise as a whole.

Bill Cowher, Kordell Stewart

Bill Cowher and Kordell Stewart. Photo Credit AP Gene Puskar

Dare to Dream and Keep the Faith were penned in 1996 and 1997 by Jim O’Brien and contain stories both about the Steelers from the Cowher-Donahoe era as well as stories about the Super Steelers. O’Brien’s book, The Chief, tells the story of Art Rooney Sr. though the words of those who he touched, and includes rare profiles of Tim, John and Patrick Rooney.

Just Play the Game by John Steigerwald goes into detail about all three major Pittsburgh sports teams and its media landscape. Steigerwald pulls no punches and pointedly refuses to genuflect at the altar of political correctness. Even if you disagree with much of Steigerwald’s political world view, he offers valuable insights on the Steelers and he is an accomplished writer.

Matt Lode’s 100 Things that Every Steelers Fans Should Know and Do Before They Die’s title is self-explanatory. It also lists Steel Curtain Rising as one of the best Steelers blogs out there, so that alone makes it a great book!

Share Your Steelers Summer Reading Recommendations

There are obviously a lot of other books written about the Pittsburgh Steelers, some good, some bad and some in between. Please take a moment to share your Steelers summer reading recommendations either by writing your choices in the poll or leaving a comment.

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How Ladarius Green Highlights Steelers Tight End History of Boom-Bust “Splash Personnel Moves”

As expected, the Steelers release of Ladarius Green has sparked a lot of finger pointing and recriminations in Steelers Nation. A headline accompanying Ed Bouchette’s article in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette described Ladarius Green’s acquisition as “’Worst signing ever.’”

  • That’s a pretty harsh claim, but one which will hold some truth if Bouchette’s reporting is accurate.

But if you cast aside some of the sound and fury surrounding what clearly is one of Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin’s major personnel failures, you’ll find that it unfortunately fits the Steelers boom-bust history with splash personnel moves at tight end.

Heath Miller, Steelers tight end history

Heath Miller catches a pass in the Steelers 2012 loss to the Cowboys @ “Jerry’s World.” Photo Credit: USATSI via CBS Sports

Steelers Boom-Bust History of “Splash Personnel Moves” @ Tight End

Larry Brown and Randy Grossman held down the tight end duties as the Super Steelers were cutting their teeth. Two Super Bowls into their run, Noll realized that Larry Brown was an even better tackle and made the move. Noll would later say that Larry Brown’s play at right tackle merits Hall of Fame consideration.

Drafting tight end Bennie Cunningham in the 1st round of the 1976 NFL Draft was one of the things that allowed Noll to make that move. While Cunningham split the starting duties with Grossman, by any measure Bennie Cunningham was an extremely solid player, giving Terry Bradshaw a reliable alternative to Lynn Swann and John Stallworth.

  • Count picking Bennie Cunningham in the first round as the Steelers first successful “Splash Personnel Move” at tight end.

As the Steelers championships of the 70’s faded into the mediocrity of the 1980’s, the tight end disappeared from Chuck Noll’s offense. As Noll once explained, “When people ask ‘Why don’t you throw to the tight end?’ ‘Why don’t you use the shotgun’ they’re really asking ‘Why don’t you win?’”

Well, People asked “Why don’t you throw to the tight end? a lot in the mid-1980’s, and in 1989 the Steelers decided to rectify that via Plan B Free Agency when they signed Mike Mularkey from the Minnesota Vikings.

  • Mularkey had an explosive season as the Steelers starting tight end, bringing down 22 passes and scoring a touchdown.

No, that’s not a typo. 22 receptions is a partly by 2017 standards, but remember:

  • The NFL was less pass happy then, and even by the era’s standards, the Steelers were “a running team”
  • Mularkey’s predecessor Preston Gothard combined passing total for 1987 and 1988 was 22 passes
  • Louis Lipps was the 1989 Steelers leading receiver with 50 catches.

So count the Plan B Free Agency signging of Mike Mularkey as second successful “Splash Personnel Move” move at tight end.

Since the 1989 signing of Mularkey worked out so well (OK, its really because Joe Walton was now the offensive coordinator), the Steelers decided to make another in 1990 by taking Eric Green in the 1st round of the 1990 NFL Draft.

Eric Green, Steelers tight end history

Eric Green in the Steelers 1994 season opening-loss to the Cowboys. Photo Credit: Mike Powell, Getty Images via BTSC

Eric Green of course held out for all of training camp, missed the first month of the season, then exploded as “Green’s second, third, fifth, sixth and seventh career catches were for TDs for touchdowns.

Although the 1990 Steelers would struggle and ultimately self-destruct under Joe Walton’s offense, one positive from that otherwise deeply disappointing season was that Pittsburgh looked to have found a transformational player. And to be honest, it would be grossly unfair to label Eric Green as a bust.

And Eric Green’s performance on the field never came close to approaching that level thanks to injuries, drug suspensions and flat out want-to. And then there was Green’s infamous “Super Bowl Rap Video” prior to the 1994 AFC Championship game.

  • Count Eric Green as one failed Steelers “Splash Personnel” move at tight end.
Mark Bruener, Jerome Bettis, Steelers tight end history

Mark Bruener prepares to block for Jerome Bettis @ Three Rivers Stadium. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

The Steelers replaced Eric Green by taking Mark Bruener with their first round pick in the 1995 NFL Draft. Although Mark Bruener never caught more than 26 passes in a season, it says here that Burner was an excellent pick by the Steelers. Had Steel Curtain Rising existed in the 1990’s it would have argued (possibley incorrectly) that Mark Bruener catch rate and Percentage passes for touchdowns would have indicated he should have been targeted more often.

But even if Mark Bruener couldn’t have been a more of a receiving threat, he provided the Steelers with consistency at tight end for almost a decade.

  • Count Mark Bruener as a third successful Steelers “Splash Personnel” move at tight end.
Tommy Maddox

Tommy Maddox

The emergence of Tommy Maddox at quarterback in 2002 tempted Bill Cowher to open up the passing game and the Steelers went out and signed Jay Riemersma to give Tommy Gun another target. When the Steelers won their 2003 opener over the Ravens, Bill Cowher cited Jay Riemersma’s presence over the middle as one of the reasons for their success.

  • Unfortunately, the rest of Jay Riemersma’s Pittsburgh Steelers career would consist of 22 games and 15 catches.
  • Count Jay Riemersma’s as a second failed Steelers “Splash Personnel” move at tight end.

The Steelers responded to the Jay Riemersma failure by drafting Heath Miller in the 1st round of the 2005 NFL Draft. Heath Miller’s resume needs to review here. Over the course of 11 seasons, Heath Miller established himself as the best tight end in Steelers history, and Heath Miller’s legendary dependability made gave Ben Roethlisberger as close to an automatic catch as is practically possible.

  • Count Heath Miller as a fourth successful Steelers “Splash Personnel” move at tight end
Heath Miller, Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers tight end history

Heath Miller and Ben Roethlisberger

When Heath Miller retired, the Steelers acted boldly, as Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin traveled to Florida to convince Ladarius Green to sign with them on the first day of free agency in 2016. We know how that move turned out. Even if Ladarius Green did give the Steelers “field flipping” capability that helped secure wins against the Colts, Giants and Bengals, his signing was a mistake.

  • Count Ladarius Green as a third failed Steelers “Splash Personnel Move” move at tight end

Although both men were successful, it’s hard to label the acquisitions of Larry Brown or Randy Grossman as a “Splash Personnel Move” as one arrived to the Steelers as a 5th round pick and the other an undrafted rookie free agent.

But since their arrival, the Steelers have invested 4 first round draft picks and 3 major free agent signings in trying to acquire a marquee tight end and their record is 4-3. Take this for what it is, but the odds indicate that whether move the Steelers make at tight end in the 2018 off season, it will be a success.

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Steelers Release Greg Warren, Highlighting Difference Between 2 Super Bowl Eras

And then there were two. “Real” football news can be quite rare in late May of any year, but the number of Super Bowl veterans on the South Side dwindled to two as the Steelers released Greg Warren, who handled the long snapping duties for the team since 2005, earning him rings in Super Bowl XL and Super Bowl XLIII.

Although the Steelers kicked off their 2017 season by signing Greg Warren to their customary 1 year deal in February, Warren’s release is hardly a shock. The Steelers turned heads in the 2017 NFL Draft when they used their sixth round pick to draft long snapper Colin Holba of Louisville.

Greg Warren, Steelers Greg Warren Super Bowl Eras

Greg Warren tackles Solomon Patton early in the first quarter of the Steelers 2014 loss to Tampa @ Heinz Field. Photo Credit: Joe Sargent, Getty Images

The move was instantly panned by both professional journalists as well as bloggers (this site included), but Jim Wexell and other reporters informed that the Steelers had legitimate concerns about Greg Warrens durability. It would seem like those concerns were well founded, as Greg Warren himself related:

I would first like to thank the Steelers organization, coaches and training staff for their help and advice over the last few weeks. I had full intentions of playing this upcoming season, but in light of new information I’ve recently received from my doctors relating to a past injury, it has been determined that trying to compete in the 2017 season may be a risk to my long-term health. After discussing this with the Steelers, we have decided it would be in everyone’s best interest to release me at this point.

Signed in 2005, Greg Warren played in 181 regular season games, more than any other Steeler at that time, for coaches Bill Cowher and Mike Tomlin. With Warren’s release, only Ben Roethlisberger and James Harrison remain as veterans from the Super Bowl XL and Super Bowl XLIII championship squads.

Greg Warren’s Release Highlights Differences Between Steelers 2 Super Bowl Eras

Let’s admit it, when you think of “Steelers Super Bowl Eras” the name of Greg Warren doesn’t jump out at you. If you’ve got a long view of things, the names Terry Bradshaw, Joe Greene, Franco Harris, Lynn Swann and Jack Lambert spring to mind.

And you probably associate the Steelers second Super Bowl era with players like Jerome Bettis, Troy Polamalu, Hines Ward, Joey Porter, and perhaps Willie Parker. But Greg Warren has provided vital stability during his era, and highlights how different the Steelers second Super Bowl Era has been from the first.

  • Chuck Noll’s Super Bowl teams were drafted together, matured together, won Super Bowls together, and then got old together.

Unfortunately, for reasons that go well beyond the scope of this blog post, Chuck Noll, Art Rooney Jr., Dick Haley and Bill Nunn struggled to restock the Steelers roster, even after mediocre records improved their drafting position.

Steel Curtain, 1974 AFC Championship, Steelers vs Raiders, Joe Greene, Jack Lambert, Dwight White, Ernie Holmes, L.C. Greenwood, LC Greenwood

Dwight White, Joe Greene, Ernie Holmes, Jack Lambert and L.C. Greenwood in the 1974 AFC Championship Game. Photo Credit: SI

This second era has been different, largely thanks to Dan Rooney’s wisdom, the Steelers were able to draft a franchise quarterback and add him to a team that was already Super Bowl ready.

Although only two seasons separated the Steelers last two Lombardi Trophy presentations, Mike Tomlin’s ’08 squad featured a number of new faces in important places compared to Bill Cowher’s ’05 squad. Thanks to Heath Miller’s retirement and Lawrence Timmons defection to the Dolphins, William Gay is the only other veteran from Super Bowl XLIII.

  • On a more personal level, Greg Warren’s retirement also underscores just how much perception of time evolves with age.

Born mere months before the Immaculate Reception provided the Big Bang that created Steelers Nation, I have no memories of Super Bowls IX or X. I do remember watching Super Bowl XIII but recall few details beyond my older sister asking “Who is that guy in the hat they keep showing” every time the camera focused on Tom Landry. I remember Super Bowl XIV better, and particularly John Stallworth’s game changing 60-Prevent-Slot-Hook-And-Go touchdown.

After that with my age not yet breaking double digits, I had difficulty understanding why the Steelers struggled in the early 1980’s, not wanting to accept my older brother’s explanation that “All the Steelers have are old guys and rookies.”

It was difficult to follow the Steelers growing up in suburban DC in the pre-internet age. And by the time I started following the Steelers seriously again during the 1987 season I was in high school, and I was shocked to see that Super Bowl veterans such as Stallworth, Mike Webster and Donnie Shell were still playing.

  • At time it seemed like several generations of football has passed since the last Super Bowl, when in fact less time separated the Steelers from their last Lombardi than does now.

Time most certainly does move faster as you age.

Bit contributor or not, Steel Curtain Rising Thanks Greg Warren for helping bring home One for The Thumb and then completing the Super Bowl Six Pack, and wishes him the best as he begins his “Life’s Work.”

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ESPN Lays off Jerome Bettis. Why Not Park The Bus in Pittsburgh with the Steelers Radio Network?

Thanks to legions of millennia cord cutters, ESPN is laying off people by the droves. And unfortunately, Steelers Hall of Famer Jerome Bettis is the latest victim.

That’s sad but not surprising news for Jerome Bettis, who landed a job with NBC following his retirement after Super Bowl XL. Bettis provided commentary on NBC from 2006 until 2009 but the network did not renew his contract.

Jerome Bettis, Dan Kreider, Super Bowl XL, Jerome Bettis Super Bowl XL

Jerome Bettis at Super Bowl XL. Now that ESPN has laid him off, why not park The Bus in Pittsburgh? Photo Credit: Kathleen Galligan, Detroit Free Press

From their Bettis did a stint on NFL Network, before landing at ESPN in 2013. It is quite common for retired athletes to get into broadcasting, former Steelers Lynn Swann, Terry Bradshaw and Mark Malone have made careers out of it, but those men are the exception, not the rule.

  • Joe Montana only lasted a year at NBC Sports following his retirement. Hines Ward worked for NBC for a year.

Its been speculated that Jerome Bettis will return to the NFL Network and while, that might be a good place for him, dare we ask – Why not park the Bus in Pittsburgh again? Seriously.

Bettis is probably too big of a talent for WTAE, WPXI or even KDKA, but why not add Jerome Bettis to the Steelers broadcast team? Tunch Ilkin and Bill Hargrove do a fine job on their own (although let’s face it, it’s not the same without Myron, but no one could replace Myron Cope.) Bettis would provide a new element to the broadcast.

Bettis would also be the first African American to commentate for the Steelers Radio Network, and the added diversity could only widen the commercial appeal of the broadcast team.

  • Bettis could also join Ilkin and Craig Wolfley on doing video breakdowns for Steelers.com.

Jerome Bettis is one of the most popular Steelers in over a generation. Indeed, when he entered the Hall of Fame, Jerome Bettis had the distinction of having been the face of the franchise. Yet, the ten years have elapsed since Bettis began his “Life’s Work” and the only players who remain from his day are Ben Roethlisberger, James Harrison and Greg Warren. And of course Bill Cowher followed Bettis’ lead a year later.

In other words, while popular and a fan favorite Jerome Bettis can still be counted on to provide objective commentary in the booth. So why not park The Bus in Pittsburgh?

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How Carlos Emmons’ Story Offers Hope for Steelers 2017 7th Round Draftee Keion Adams

he end of the 2017 NFL Draft in Pittsburgh saw the Steelers draft Keion Adams, outside linebacker from Western Michigan in a pick that saw immediate comparisons to Arthur Moats.

For the record, the Steelers 2017 7th round pick stands at 6’2” and weighs in at 245 and led the MAC conference with 17 tackles for a loss and posted 13 sacks over two seasons as a starter.

Keion Adams, Steelers 2017 7th round pick

Steelers 7th round pick Keion Adams closes in on Central Michigan’s Cooper Rush. Photo Credit: Bryan Bennett, Kalamazoo Gazette

If you were to play a quick game of word association with a citizen of Steelers Nation and said “Keion Adams” the likely response would be “practice squad.” And landing on the Steelers practice squad wouldn’t be a bad outcome for a 7th round pick.

  • But Steelers history suggests that Keion Adams quest to make the final 53 man roster is far from hopeless.

Oh, to be certain, the odds are long. He’s looking at a Steelers outside linebacker depth chart that lists Bud Dupree and James Harrison as starters, with Moates and Anthony Chickillo as backups along with 2017’s 1st round draft pick T.J. Watt ahead of him.

  • Suffice to say, Keion Adams certainly shouldn’t commit himself to a long-term lease anywhere in greater Pittsburgh.

And like seemingly every NFL draft hopful, Keion Adams has a YouTube highlight clip:

Ok… That highlight clip doesn’t exactly conjure memories of Lambert and Lloyd. Fair enough. But Carlos Emmons was in Keion Adam’s shoes once before, and his story gives the Steelers 2017 7th round pick every reason to chin up.

Carlos Emmons and the Steelers 1996 Draft Class

Future Hall of Famer Kevin Greene departed Pittsburgh following the Steelers loss in Super Bowl XXX. But one of the reasons why the Steelers were ready to let Greene go was because Jason Gildon was ready to start.

  • 20/20 hindsight tells us that Bill Cowher and Tom Donahoe made a mistake in letting the great Greene go in favor of the merely good Gildon.

But that fact wasn’t apparent on the fields of St. Vincents in the summer of 1996 and even if it had been, it would have meant nothing to Carlos Emmons, the outside linebacker that the Steelers had drafted in the 7th round of the 1996 NFL Draft.

Carlos Emmons, Steelers 7th round picks,

Steelers 1996 7th Round Pick Carlos Emmons’s story offers 2017 7th rounder hope Keion Adams. Photo Credit: Getty Images, via Rantsports.com

Mind you, as Super Bowl losers the Steelers were drafting 2nd to last in each round. That made Carlos Emmons the 242nd player drafted out of 254 names called during the 1996 NFL Draft. As if those odds weren’t daunting enough, in addition to Gildon, the Steelers had just resigned Greg Lloyd and had drafted Steve Conley in the third round.

They also had Eric Ravotti who could play on both the inside and outside and, while Chad Brown was a fixture at inside linebacker, the team knew he should shift to the outside should the need arise (as it did, when injuries felled Greg Lloyd in the season opener.)

If that didn’t complicate things enough, the Steelers also had Jerry Olsavsky, Donta Jones and Earl Holmes behind Levon Kirkland and Brown on the inside.

  • Clearly, 1996 did not figure to be a good year to be a linebacker drafted by the Steelers in the 7th round.

As you’d expect, Carlos Emmons wasn’t a player most fans were eager to get a look at once preseason started. But during the Steelers America Bowl game in Tokyo, Emmons made the most of his time and recorded a sack late in the 4th quarter.

Carlos Emmons, Steelers Carlos Emmons,

Carlos Emmons tackles a Kansas City Chief. Photo Credit: Post-Gazette, Peter Diana

Dick LeBeau and Bill Cowher continued to give Emmons opportunities in preseason and, if memory serves, he led the team in sacks during that five exhibition game series. When cut down day came the Steelers had a quandary. Their linebackers all looked good.

  • So the Steelers did the unconventional thing, and kept 10 linebackers on their 1996 opening day active roster.

Seven of those linebacker dressed for the Steelers 1996 home opener at Jacksonville, and by the end of the game only 4 of them were in uniform. Greg Lloyd tore his patella tendon, Jason Gildon suffered a knee injury, and so did Steven Conley.

Things looked so bad that Dick LeBeau openly discussed moving to a 4-3, but that wasn’t necessary as Gildon was back in the lineup sooner than expected.

Carlos Emmons had been in street clothes for the season opener, but he played in all 15 of the Steelers other games, and by the end of 1997 he was starting in after Greg Lloyd’s season ended injury. Emmons would go on to start during 1998 and 1999 before leaving for Philadelphia as a free agent, where he played for four years and then went on to play 3 more in for the Giants.

To be clear, when you talk about the Steelers lineage at outside linebacker you typically start by rattling off the name of Jack Ham, and perhaps you throw in Bryan Hinkle before getting to Lloyd, Greene, Gildon, Joey Porter, Harrison and LaMarr Woodley.

  • You never stop to mention the name “Carlos Emmons.”

But that’s beside the point. In the spring and summer of 1996, Carlos Emmons looked like a throwaway pick 7th round picks, just as many pundits have already written Keion Adams as a throwaway 7th round picks.

But Emmons never looked at himself that way, nor did the Steelers. He never blossomed into a star, but had a decent run in Pittsburgh, and overall had a decent NFL career. Fortunately for Kion Adams, Mike Tomlin, Keith Butler and Joey Porter will have him a chance to do the same.

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Steelers 2017 Draft Needs @ Outside Linebacker: High-Moderate

The narrative of the Steelers history at outside linebacker since Chuck Noll made the switch to the 3-4 in the early 1980’s might begin:

  • Many are called, few fail, but when they do the fail mightily.

For over two generations, the men who have manned the Steelers outside linebacker slots have inspired the imagination as the likes of Greg Lloyd, Kevin Greene, Chad Brown, Jason Gildon, and Joey Porter have terrorized opposing quarterbacks.

To Dick Haley, Chuck Noll, Tom Donahoe, Bill Cowher, Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin’s credit, the Steelers have had far more successes at outside linebacker than frustrations.

  • But when the Steelers have wiffed on an OLB pick, they’ve wiffed badly.

Think Alonzo Jackson and Jarvis Jones. They’ve been very few “Tweeners” in this group, save perhaps for Carlos Emmons and perhaps Jason Worilds.

Entering the 2017 NFL Draft, it is no secret the Steelers are looking to add an edge rushing outside linebacker to their team, the only question is how soon will they do it.

James Harrison, Bud Dupree, Steelers 2017 Draft Needs Outside Linebacker

James Harrison and Bud Dupree at Steelers OTAs. Photo Credit: Charles LeClaire, USA TODAY Sports via Stillcurtain

Steelers Depth Chart @ Outside Linebacker Entering the 2017 NFL Draft – the Starter

At this point in his career, the only question about James Harrison is how long he can stay a step ahead of Father Time. James Harrison was supposed to be done in after 2012. He went as far as to retire in 2014, only to be suiting up again less than a month later. That was supposed to be his swan song, but Harrison was back in 2015 and again in 2016.

After the Steelers demoralizing loss the Dallas Cowboys, Mike Tomlin reinserted James Harrison into the starting lineup.

  • The Steelers didn’t lose another game until the AFC Championship, and those two facts most certainly are not coincidental.

Another player who perhaps doesn’t get enough credit for the Steelers strong finish to 2016 is the man starting opposite James Harrison, Bud Dupree. The Steelers of course drafted Bud Dupree in the first round of the 2015 NFL Draft. Dupree started strong, but finished slow, and then missed the first half of 2016 with a groin injury.

Dupree got his first start of the season against the Bills, and registered 2.5 sacks. He followed that effort up with a sack on Christmas against Baltimore, and another in the season closer against Cleveland. He also split a sack with James Harrison in the AFC divisional playoff win over the Dolphins.

Steelers Depth Cart @ Outside Linebacker Entering the 2017 NFL Draft – Backups

Behind James Harrison and Bud Dupree the Steelers have Arthur Moats and Anthony Chickillo who split time in Dupree’s absence as starters in 2016.

When the Steelers signed Arthur Moats in 2014 he looked to be little more than a player the Steelers were taking a flyer on but, by the Steelers count, Moats has started 25 games over the past few years, and recorded 11 and half sacks.

  • Those clearly aren’t the types of numbers that get you to the Pro Bowl, let alone Canton, but they’re more than respectable given his pedigree.

The Steelers took Anthony Chickillo in the 6th round of the 2015 NFL Draft and Chickillo has already exceeded the expectations for someone picked so late. The Steelers list Chickillo as starting 7 games in 2016 during which he recorded 2.5 sacks, which is more than Jarvis Jones ever accomplished in a single season.

Steelers 2017 Draft Need at Outside Linebacker

The Steelers face two problems at outside linebacker.Steelers 2017 Draft Needs outside linebacker

Remember that Mike Tomlin explained his decision to start James Harrison by asking, “What are we saving him for?” While the move signaled the Steelers decision to officially call the Jarvis Jones experiment a failure, it also implied that James Harrison needed to be saved.

And he does.

James Harrison has shown that he can continue to play dominating football, but it is also clear that he can’t do it four quarters a game for 16 games. And unfortunately, both Arthur Moats and Anthony Chickillo play on the opposite side of James Harrison.

So the Steelers need to find and outside linebacker who they can not only bring along for the future, but they also need someone who can play well enough to get significant snaps starting on opening day.

Given that reality, the Steelers 2017 draft need at outside linebacker must be considered High-Moderate.

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Dan Rooney’s Legacy: Matching Excellence with Humility

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

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

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

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

Joe Greene, Dan Rooney, Dan Rooney Legacy

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

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

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

Dan Rooney in the Competitive Crucible of the NFL

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

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

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

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

Baltimore Colts move

Photo via Baltimore CBS Local

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

  • Dan Rooney stood in stark contrast to them all.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The other owners relented, and revenue sharing was born.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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10 Critical Dan Rooney Decisions that Shaped the Pittsburgh Steelers

As Steelers Nation mourns Dan Rooney’s passing and takes stock of his legacy, Steel Curtain Rising reviews the 10 critical Dan Rooney decisions that shaped the modern Pittsburgh Steelers and continue to impact the franchise to this day.

Dan Rooney, Dan Rooney obituary, Dan Rooney decisions, Dan Rooney Lombardi trophies

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

1965: Accepting Buddyy Parker’s Resignation

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

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

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

Buddy Parker, Dan Rooney fires Buddy Parker,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1969: Hiring Chuck Noll

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

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

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

Ironically, both men and both statements were absolutely right.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1988: Managing the Christmas Coaching Crisis with Chuck Noll

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

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

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

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

Dan Rooney, Chuck Noll, Chuck Noll Hall of Fame

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

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

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

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

1992: Hiring Bill Cowher

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

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

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

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

Dan Rooney, Bill Cowher, Bill Cowher and Dan Rooney

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

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

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

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

2000: Replacing Tom Donahoe with Kevin Colbert

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2004: Drafting Ben Roethlisberger

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

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

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

2007: Signing Off on Mike Tomlin’s Hire

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2009: Accepting the Ambassadorship to Ireland

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

  • But it also had an important impact on the Steelers.
Ben Roethlisberger, Ashley Roethlisberger, Patrica Rooney, Dan Rooney

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

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

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

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

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

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