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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That all changed in 1972 with the arrival of Harris.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • Much like Franco.
  • Much like Steelers fans.

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

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

  • That’s right, I said “The world.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

RIP, Franco.

 

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Times Change: Damontae Kazee hit on Chris Olave vs. Gary Jones on Don Bebbe

“Times change Myron,” was the quote Myron Cope used to lead off a chapter in his book Double Yoi. Dan Rooney supplied the quote in response to Myron’s protest over the Steelers decision to ban smoking effective January 1st, 1990 in the press room because secondary smoke had been bothering assistant coaches.

  • Cope pointed out that The Chief, Art Rooney Sr. had been a smoker, prompting the response from Rooney.

When Cope shared that story in his 2003 book, the memory of someone smoking (that’s tobacco smoking kids) in an enclosed era like a pro football press room was already anachronistic. Today its almost impossible to imagine that something like that ever occurred, let alone was ever “normal.”

  • And this week Steelers Nation got another reminder of just how much “normal” has changed on the football field.

What was the best play made last week by the Steelers defense in the win over the Saints? Levi Wallace’s interception? Perhaps Damontae Kazee’s pick? Maybe one of Alex Highsmith’s sacks? Or Robert Spillane’s stuff of Andy Dalton on 4th down?

Damontae Kazee, Chris Olave, Steelers vs Saints

Chris Olave gets a big hit from Damontae Kazee after a tough catch. Photo Credit: Twitter

All good candidates indeed. But you know what? If a  DeLorean burned some rubber on Carson Street, and out strut an analyst from 20 years ago, there’s a fair bet they’d have told you the best play was Damontae Kazee hit on Chris Olave. Alas, thanks to Roger Goodell’s YouTube police, you can’t see the play on this site, but check it out on YouTube, we’ll wait.

Yes, that was one hell of a hit.

In another generation even though Olave held on to the ball, such a hit would have been though of as a tone setter. This isn’t hypothetical conjecture, it actually happened.

The high mark of the Steelers 1993 season came on November 15th, 1993 at Three Rivers Stadium where the Steelers shut out the Buffalo Bills 23-0. Early during the game, another Steelers reserve safety, Gary Jones, delivered this hit on long time Steelers nemesis, Don Beebe. Again, thanks to Roger Goodell’s YouTube police, you can’t see the play on this site, but check it out on YouTube, we’ll wait

It is the exact same kind of hit. The difference is that Kazee got flagged 15 yards for a personal foul, admonished on air by the commentators and then fined for the hit. Gary Jones? Well, you can hear Al Michaels, Dan Dierdorf and Frank Gifford talking about what great of a hit it was.

Yes, as Dan Rooney reminded Mryon Cope, “Times change.”

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Emperor’s Wisdom: 5 Chuck Nollisms to See Steelers Nation Through the 2022 Season

These are tough times for the Pittsburgh Steelers and their fans. The team holds a 2-6 record at the bye week and the franchise appears to be fated for its for its first losing season since 2003. Oddly enough, its during tough times like these that Steelers Nation would do well to lean into the wisdom of Chuck Noll.

  • Chuck Noll, the head coach who altered the course of the franchise, was never known for his colorful quotes.

As Myron Cope remembered in Double Yoi, after one of Noll’s pre-Super Bowl press conference, a national reporter taped a blank page to the wall of the press room titled, “Highlights of Chuck Noll’s Press Conference.”

Yes, Nollism’s were rare. That’s what makes them so special. Here are a few that are relevant to 2022 Pittsburgh Steelers.

Chuck Noll, Chuck Noll St. Vincents, Steelers practice no numbers

Chuck Noll in his element with the Steelers at St. Vincents. Photo Credit: Al Tielemans/Sports Illustrated

1. “When you’re losing, everything they say about you is true”

This quote from Noll underlines his understanding that the NFL is a bottom line business. There may be, as his successor Bill Cowher often reminded, a “Fine line between winning and losing,” but Noll knew that when you end up on the wrong side of that fine line, no one cares why, even though some might think they do….

2. “…the question they’re really asking is ‘Why don’t you win?’”

After the 1989 Steelers started the season losing to the Browns 51-0 and to the Bengals 41-10, as vulchers circled over Three Rivers Stadium, ESPN dispatched Pete Axthelm to Pittsburgh to ask Noll “Has the game passed you by?”

Noll dodged the direct question while delivering a truthful response, by responding “When people ask that question, its like when they ask, ‘Why don’t you use the shotgun?’ ‘Why don’t you throw to the tight end?’ and what they’re really asking is, ‘Why don’t you win?’”

  • He was right then and his words of wisdom apply today.

Pat Freiermuth, Najee Harris, Steelers vs Bears

Pat Freiermuth and Najee Harris celebrate in the end zone. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Should the Steelers use Derek Watt more in the offense? Yes, I certainly think so.

But I wouldn’t care if the Kenny Pickett was playing as well as Ben Roethlisberger did in 2004. Nor would we care about how Mike Tomlin was splitting carries between Jaylen Warren and Najee Harris if they were pounding offenses the way Jerome Bettis and Duce Staley were during that same Steelers 2004 season.

3. “Back to Basics”

Whenever the Steelers would hit a rough stretch, Chuck Noll would begin the week with one of his “back to basics” speeches. Noll was a fundamentalist. He lived and died by the credo that you win by doing ordinary things extraordinarily.

That philosophy is what led him to critique and correct the pre-snap stance of Andy Russell, one of the few good players he inherited from Bill Austin, transforming a Pro Bowl player into someone who, arguably broached Hall of Fame level under Noll

This pearl of wisdom relevant to the entire 2022 Pittsburgh Steelers squad, but particularly the offense. Lost in all of the anger directed at Matt Canada and his “one touchdown a game” offense is the fact that this is young and inexperienced unit.

Extra focus on “the little things” like avoiding illegal formation penalties, or footwork to get your feet in in bounds, would be invaluable for this offense.

  • Doubt that, do you?

Well consider the penultimate drive against Miami. Kenny Pickett moved the team to the 3rd and 1 on the 1 yard line, only to see penalties on successive plays push the offense back 10 yards when he threw an interception. The “little” things add up, particularly when you don’t have a Hall of Fame quarterback.

4. “If everyone can be just 1% better, we’ll be 22% better as a team”

Teamwork drove Chuck Noll. He talked about it in his Hall of Fame induction speech. He relentlessly reminded his players that geese flew much faster in formation than alone.

The 2022 Steelers need to take this to heart, whether this means holding a block a second longer, concentrating just a bit more on the cadence of the snap count, or focusing on executing their exact assignment on a play.

Dwayne Woodruff, Mel Blount, Steelers vs Dolphins

Dwayne Woodruff and Mel Blount close on Duriel Harris. Photo Credit: Getty Images, via the SportingNews

This is mentality was in evidence during the Steelers win over Tampa Bay, and something they should embrace coming out of the bye week.

5. “Life is a journey in which you never arrive.”

This Nollism isn’t oft repeated, but I remember Mel Blount and Ray Mansfield talking about it during an NFL Films clip on Chuck Noll. As Blount explains, Noll preached this to his team at the peak of their Super Bowl runs in an effort to ensure that their success never went to their heads.

  • Suffice to say the 2022 Steelers are on anything but a Super Bowl run.

And that’s their fans need to keep Noll’s wisdom front of mind. The Steelers are rebuilding. Rebuilding is a process, not an event. And because its a process, that’s why its painful as it is far more like rehabbing an injured joint than pulling off a Band Aid.

So expect that results, at least at first, to be measured by progress before those measurements come via victories.

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

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

Photo credit: WTAJ

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tunch Ilkin was 63.

 

 

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Why Joe Walton’s 2nd Act at RMU Ellipses the “What IFs” from His Time with Steelers

Beaver Falls native and former Pittsburgh Steelers offensive coordinator Joe Walton passed away earlier this week at age 85. Joe Walton devoted his adult life to football and, when assessing his contribution to Western Pennsylvania football, he leaves an important lesson: Sometimes second acts can ellipse unanswered questions.

Walton Cut Teeth in Pittsburgh, then Made It Big in New York, Washington

Joe Walton, Louis Lipps, 1991 Steelers

Joe Walton and Louis Lipps in 1991. Photo Credit: Getty Images, via Sporting News.

Joe Walton was an Academic All American and team captain for the Pitt Panthers where he played from 1953 through 1956. In the NFL he played tight end for 4 seasons in Washington followed by 3 more for the New York Giants.

Walton then picked up a whistle, stop watch and clip board, joining the Giants first as a scout, then as wide receivers coach, then as offensive coordinator. During the 70’s he went back to Washington to work as running backs coach and offensive coordinator, before heading north on I-95 in 1981 towards New York, this time to join the Jets.

He served first as the Jets offensive coordinator, then as head coach from 1983 to 1989. There, Walton fielded two playoff teams, in 1985 and 1986, but struggled outside of that.

On Valentines Day 1990, Chuck Noll announced that, 33 years after leaving, Joe Walton was coming home to Pittsburgh to serve as the Steelers Offensive Coordinator.

Two “What IFs” Define Joe Walton’s Tenure as Steelers Offensive Coordinator

Joe Walton’s time as Steelers offensive coordinator generated a lot of sound and fury and in the end it signified the end of The Emperor’s reign in Pittsburgh. Suffice to say, it was not a success. (For a full account of Joe Walton’s time as Steelers offensive coordinator, click here.)

  • Yet, Walton’s time in the Black and Gold left us with two big “What IFs.”

The first “What IF” is, what if Chuck Noll had stuck with Tom Moore or handed the reigns to his offense to someone else? The 1989 Steelers, in spite of the story book nature of their season, had finished 28th in total offense. The “front office,” (most likely Tom Donahoe pushing Dan Rooney) wanted change.

As Merril Hoge told Gerry Dulac in the Post-Gazette in November 2009, 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.”

“What IF” Chuck Noll had resisted front office pressure to fire Tom Moore and/or handed the reigns to someone else? Bill Cowher’s success with the 1992 Steelers suggests those 1990 and 1991 teams were capable of much more. But we’ll never know.

  • The second “What IF” revolves around whether Walton scuttled Bubby Brister’s development.

Dwight Stone, Dwight Stone Steelers career

Dwight Stone’s Steelers career ran from 1987 to 1994. Photo Credit: Amazon

Statistically speaking, Bubby Brister’s 1988 and 1989 seasons was pretty pedestrian, even by the standards of the day. But Bubby Brister had play making potential, and could be downright deadly when hooking up with Dwight Stone and Louis Lipps downfield.

  • But Walton’s offense centered around running backs and tight ends.

That suited Neil O’Donnell fine, but Bubby Brister hated it with a passion. Walton insisted to Myron Cope that he used the same offense and same playbook at with great success at Robert Morris, explaining that “It was just that Brister couldn’t remember the formations.”

There’s no reason to doubt Walton on this one, especially given the difficulty Brister had when Mike Shanahan tried to hand him the Broncos offense in 2000, after John Elway retired.

But Brister’s raw talent was undeniable, and one has to wonder how it might have developed with a different mentor. Again, we’ll never know.

Walton Soars in Second Act with Robert Morris

As Ed Bouchette reported in the Dawn of a New Steel Age, Joe Walton asked Dan Rooney to consider him as Chuck Noll’s replacement, but his wish went nowhere.

But Walton did fulfill his desire to stay in Pittsburgh when he was hired in 1993 to found Robert Morris University’s football program.

As the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review’s Jerry DiPaola explains:

He did it all with the Colonials: hiring coaches, purchasing equipment and recruiting athletes for the inaugural season of 1994. He started that season with 64 freshmen at a school that never had football and ended up leading the team to a 7-1-1 record. He won his first game 21 days after the start of training camp and immediately ran off a five-game winning streak.

Under Walton’s guidance, Robert Morris went 115-92-1 while winning 6 Northeastern Championships. According to Don Hansen’s National Weekly Football Gazette, Robert Morris won NCAA I-AA mid-major national championships in 1999 and 2000.

  • Many if not most Steelers fans will always remember Walton for his time as offensive coordinator.
  • Most Pittsburghers probably will too.

That’s unfortunate. Joe Walton’s “Life’s Work” was certainly coaching, and he truly excelled in his vocation at Robert Morris. While it is easy to cite his record and say “It speaks for itself,” that would be wrong, or at least incomplete.

Current Robert Morris coach Bernard Clark Jr. drives this point home, explaining, “The first time I heard former student-athletes talk about coach Walton, not one mentioned how good a football player he made them. They all spoke about the men he helped them become. That is the sign of a great teacher….”

Amen to that.

Joe Walton’s decision to return to his Pittsburgh roots as Chuck Noll’s final offensive coordinator might not have borne fruit, but his choice did pave the way for him to become a mentor to hundreds of young men at Robert Morris.

And in that sense, his contribution to Western Pennsylvania was likely larger than it ever could have been with the Steelers.

What a worthy second act.

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1996 Pittsburgh Steelers: The Bus Arrives in the Steel City!

I want to retire here, Coach.” “I want you to retire here because this is your bleepin’ city, and you’re my bleepin’ guy!” – Jerome Bettis and Bill Cowher on the sidelines of Three Rivers Stadium, fall 1996

The Steelers entered the 1996 offseason on the heels of their greatest campaign since the glory days of the 1970s when they won four Super Bowls in six seasons. While Bill Cowher had led Pittsburgh to its first Super Bowl in 16 years, however, the Steelers 1995 season ultimately ended in disappointment thanks to a 27-17 loss to the juggernaut Dallas Cowboys in Super Bowl XXX.

Rebounding from a Super Bowl loss is never easy, but the 1996 Steelers had some unusual challenges to master.

Jerome Bettis, Steelers vs Rams, Leslie O'Neal, Jon Witman

Jerome Bettis steamroll the Rams. Photo Credit: Peter Diana, Post-Gazette

Free Agent Exodus from Pittsburgh Continues – With a Twist

As is often the case in the salary cap era, the Steelers would see significant roster turnover during the ’96 offseason. Some notable departures included starting quarterback Neil O’Donnell, who left for the Jets as a free agent; outside linebacker Kevin Greene, who inked a deal with the expansion Carolina Panthers; and right tackle Leon Searcy who signed with the rival Jacksonville Jaguars.

Greene’s shoes would be filled by Jason Gildon, a third-round pick in the 1994 NFL Draft. Jim Miller, a sixth-round pick out of Michigan State in ’94, would ultimately beat out veteran Mike Tomczak and youngster Kordell Stewart in training camp and be named the starting quarterback for the start of the ’96 season.

Another departure was unexpected; I’m talking about promising young running back, Bam Morris, who was cut after pleading guilty to a felony charge for marijuana possession.

While the Steelers still had Erric Pegram, they would need to find a replacement and that’s where history was made.

The Bus Arrives in Pittsburgh

You might remember the 1996 NFL Draft as the one where the Steelers selected offensive tackle Jamain Stephens in the first round… if you immediately went into a coma the moment Stephens’ name was called.

However, if you’re like most Steelers fans, you probably recall the ’96 draft as the one in which Pittsburgh sent a second-round pick to the Rams in exchange for some guy nicknamed The Battering Ram. That was Jerome Bettis moniker when he was a rookie phenom in Los Angeles. However, Bettis had already fallen out of favor with his Rich Brooks by the time the Rams moved to St. Louis for the 1995 season, which was basically a lost one for the third-year back from Notre Dame.

There were questions about Bettis’s dedication, attitude and work ethic. Fortunately for the Steelers, the Rams were intent on drafting Nebraska running back, Lawrence Phillips, a young man who had already been in trouble for far worse things than a lack of dedication — including physically assaulting his ex-girlfriend while at Nebraska.

Bill Cowher and Tom Donahoe did their due diligence and ultimately traded a 2nd round pick and 4th round pick for the Rams 3rd round pick and Jerome Bettis

Opening Day Disaster Strikes the Steelers. Again. 

So how would the Steelers follow up their 1995 AFC Championship season?

  • Would they suffer a Super Bowl hangover, an affliction that often affects the previous year’s Lombardi runner-ups?
  • Would they take it one step further and finally grab that One for the Thumb?

If you simply went by the first game of the season, a 24-9 road loss to an expansion Jaguars team that had already proven to be a thorn in the Steelers’ side a year earlier, you may have thought the ’96 season would be a long one.

Not only was Jim Miller bad in his starting debut; he was so bad, Bill Cowher replaced him at halftime with Mike Tomczak — a move that would prove to be permanent. Things got worse for the Steelers. Their most fierce pass-rusher and the soul of their defense — legendary outside linebacker Greg Lloyd — was lost for the year with a torn patella tendon.

Uncertainty at quarterback. Both Quiver and Quake, the two main cogs in the Steelers Blitzburgh defenses of 1994 and 1995, were now absent. Jerome Bettis’ debut amounted to 57 yards on 14 carries. The Steelers suffered so many injuries at linebacker that coaches talked about moving to a 4-3.

  • It seemed like the Steelers ’96 campaign was quickly spiraling out of control.

The last three opening day games had been total disasters, with thing getting progressively worse for Pittsburgh. Yet, the Steelers bounced back each time. Could they do it again?

The Bus Roars and the Steelers Rumble

Jerome Bettis, Steelers vs Chiefs

Jerome Bettis rushes in the Steelers 17-7 win over the Chiefs. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

Fortunately the Steelers were ready to do it again. They righted the ship and won nine of their next 11 games.

Jerome Bettis quickly proved to be the ideal running back for Bill Cowher, the Steelers and the city of Pittsburgh. His size, running style and body type was the perfect formula for Cowher’s Smashmouth philosophy. Bettis himself recognized this, proclaiming that running behind the Steelers offensive line was “like running down hill.”

  • Jerome Bettis returned to his Pro Bowl form by rushing for 1,431 yards and scoring 11 touchdowns.

Bettis was such a sensation, Myron Cope, the late, great former radio analyst, aptly named him “The Bus,” a nickname that would stick with him forever. If there were questions about Bettis’s character, they were erased well before the ’96 season was over. Perhaps the most notable victory during Pittsburgh’s 9-3 start was a 42-6 thrashing of the Rams, Bettis’s former team, on November 3 at Three Rivers Stadium. The Steelers jumped out to a 14-0 lead on two touchdowns by Bettis — including a tough three-yard score and a 50-yard touchdown where the big guy outran the entire Rams’ defense.

  • Bettis wasn’t the only star for the Steelers season, however.

Rod Woodson, who was lost in Week 1 of the ’95 campaign with a torn ACL, returned to his Pro Bowl and All-Pro form in ’96. But perhaps the biggest surprise was the contributions of Chad Brown, an inside linebacker by trade, who was forced to slide over to outside linebacker to replace the injured Greg Lloyd. Not only did Chad Brown, a second-round pick in 1993, fill Lloyd’s shoes, he sprinted in them to the tune of 13 sacks. Those numbers coupled with Jason Gildon’s seven sacks made the absences of both Lloyd and Greene much more palatable.

  • Thankfully, Mike Tomczak was up to the task of managing the Steelers’ offense efficiently.

He wasn’t great by any stretch, but he was just the kind of veteran presence a conservative young coach like Cowher could heavily lean on. Stewart, the young quarterback who was lovingly dubbed “Slash” for his ability to fill many different roles — including passer, receiver, runner and even occasional punter — returned to serve as same all-around weapon that he was during his 1995 rookie campaign.

Maybe it was because the novelty had worn off, maybe it was because he was feeling the pressure, but the “Slash” phenomenon simply didn’t feel as magical.

  • You could say the same for the 1996 Steelers as a whole.

They did win the old AFC Central again — by one game over the upstart and playoff-bound Jaguars — but were denied a bye thanks to a 1-3 slump to close out the regular season.

Patriots Puncture “Flat” Steelers in ’96 Playoffs 

The 10-6 Steelers entered the postseason as the number three seed, and who would their opponents be on Wild Card Weekend? The same Cinderella Colts team that narrowly lost a thriller in the AFC title game at Three Rivers the season before. After falling behind 14-13 at the half, thanks in part to a pick-six thrown by Tomczak, the Steelers dominated the final two periods, scoring 29 unanswered points in a 42-14 victory that allowed the home folks to breathe much easier this time around.

  • Victory came at a price however, as Jerome Bettis injured his groin during this game

The Steelers would miss Jerome Bettis a week later in the AFC Divisional Playoff game at New England. This was one of those games when something just wasn’t right. Fog engulfed old Foxboro Stadium leading to the name Fog Bowl II

Mike Tomczak had started and won Fog Bowl I while at Chicago, but both Tomczak and the entire team played the entire game as if they were in some sort of a fog. Tom Donahoe would describe the performance as “flat” providing the first public glimpse a rift between Cowher and Donahoe. 

The Steelers fell behind 21-0 in the first half. In the second half, Bill Cowher inserted Kordell Stewart, as he’d done in the season finale against Carolina and then again against the Colts in the playoffs.

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

In both cases Kordell had sparked the Steelers offense, alas he could not summon the magic a third time, as the Steelers only managed a field goal in the third quarter.

The Steelers defense was little better, while it held the Patriots offense in check for much of the 2nd half, it failed to make any game-changing plays. 

  • Ultimately, the 1996 Steelers season would end with them to Parcells Patriots 28-3. 

While the Steelers 1996 campaign never quite carried the mystique as the previous two seasons that ultimately ended in the AFC Championship Game and Super Bowl, Bill Cowher deserves credit for managing the loss of his starting quarterback, losing his best defensive player on opening day, seeing his starting running back get arrested, and dealing with additional unrest at the quarterback position all the while keeping his team on track as a Super Bowl contender.

Impressive as those accomplishments are, they over overshadowed by something far more important:  

  • The arrival of Jerome Bettis “The Bus” in Pittsburgh.

Early in 1996 it was clear that Jerome Bettis was the franchise running back that Pittsburgh had tried and failed to find when drafting the likes of Walter Abercrombie and Tim Worley. By the end of the season it was evident that that Jerome Bettis was a “face of the franchise” type of transformational in the mold of Franco Harris.

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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Rebound: Steelers Comeback, Beat Colts 28-24 as Roethlisberger Recovers Long Ball

The Pittsburgh Steelers defeated the Indianapolis Colts 28-24 at Heinz Field to improve their record to 12-3. That descriptive statement is correct. But it is hardly accurate as it fails to capture the decisive nature of the victory, including:

  • The dramatic, 17 point, second half comeback they authored
  • The fact that the win captured the AFC North crown for Pittsburgh
  • The sudden change in the tone and tenor of entire last month

The Steelers already had a playoff spot locked up, and the Browns cooperated by losing to the lowly Jets, thus they were ceding the AFC North to Pittsburgh anyway. But in beating the Colts, the Steelers showed something new, something they hadn’t shown all year.

The question the Steelers still must answer is: Was it just a blip or was it a true take away?

Diontae Johnson, Steelers vs Colts

Diontae Johnson catches a 39 yard bullet for a touchdown. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

First Half = SOS

If you’ve seen the Steelers last four games in December, you’ve already seen the Steelers first half effort against the Colts.

Jonathan Taylor, Minkah Fitzpatrick, Steelers vs Colts

Jonathan Taylor scores a touchdown. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Sure, T.J. Watt forced a fumble that Mike Hilton recovered. And while it was hardly a sure thing that Pittsburgh would convert that fumble into points on the board (see Benny Snell getting stuffed), James Conner did get the Steelers in the end zone to start the 2nd quarter. But by that time Jordan Berry had already punted 3 times and the Colts already had a touchdown.

Other than that it was ugly.

  • The Steelers punted on their next two series.
  • The Colts scored two touchdowns on theirs.

Sure, a penalty negated a Nyheim Hines 68-yard run that almost certainly would have resulted in another touchdown for the Colts, but Indianapolis was getting the ball back to start the 2nd half and a 28 to 7 lead only seemed to be a question of “When” and not “If.”

When in Doubt, Turn to the Terrible Towel…

Sometimes the stars line up. It was on December 27th 1976 against the Baltimore Colts that Myron Cope unleashed the Terrible Towel. The talisman that binds Steelers Nation was born.

Originally, the Terrible Towel was only supposed to be for playoff games or special regular season games where Cope would put out his call for the Towel. Could it awaken the Steelers from their slumber? Without Cope around to put out his “official” call would it help the Steelers “Snap out of it?”

  • There was one way to find out.

So yours truly went to his bottom drawer, opened the ziplock bag that holds the Terrible Towel that my mother bought for me at Pittsburgh’s South Side Hospital just after saying goodbye to my grandfather for the final time. The Terrible Towel was deployed.

Second Half: The Old Mr. Roethlisberger Roars to Life

The Steelers started the 2nd half as they’ve started every other quarter, by throwing it. But this time Ben Roethlisberger was connecting on his short routes. Then after 3 straight completions, Ben Roethlisberger rifled the ball out towards Chase Claypool with a pass that flew 45 yards in the air. For much of the year the best result of pass attempts like this has been to draw a pass interference penalty.

  • This time it was different. This time Roethlisberger was on the money and Claypool hauled in a 34 yard completion.

But the Steelers drive sputtered as Pittsburgh failed to convert on 4th and one. But the defense held and on Pittsburgh’s very next snap, Ben Roethlisberger fired a bullet that traveled 50 yards to Diontae Johnson for a 39 yard touchdown. The Steelers were in it again.

But against the Bills and then against the Bengals the Steelers offense had shown spurts of life only to fall short.

  • This time the Steelers were in it to win it.

    Eric Ebron, Steelers vs Colts

    Eric Ebron scores a touchdown in the 3rd quarter. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla

Eight plays (and two pass interference calls) later Roethlisberger was hooking up with Eric Ebron from five yards out to cut the Colts lead by three. The Steelers look a more methodical approach to their next drive, burning 4 and a half minutes off of the clock. James Conner actually got in a double digit run and two double–digit receptions.

But before they reached the Red Zone, Ben Roethlisberger let it rip to JuJu Smith-Schuster from 25 yards out and another touchdown strike. There were seven minutes and 38 seconds left in the game, and the Steelers were up 28-21, enjoying their first lead in 10 quarters…

…Could they hold it?

Steelers Defense Delivers

The revival of the Steelers offense in the 2nd half will dominate the conversation by the virtual water coolers in Steelers Nation Monday morning.

  • But 180 degree pivot authored by Pittsburgh’s defense was just as important.

I’ll let the film review delve into the nuances of the 2nd half adjustments that Keith Butler made, but several players stepped up at critical times in the 2nd half.

Cam Heyward, Philip Rivers, Steelers vs Colts

Cam Heyward sacks Philip Rivers. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

The Colts had their way with the Steelers defense in the first half, and they began the 2nd half marching down the field again. But once they got in the Red Zone, Stephon Tuitt sacked Philip Rivers on third and 3 forcing a field goal.

Its never good to be down 24-7, but that sure beats 28-7. Particularly when your defense can pitch a shut out. Which is what Pittsburgh’s defense pitched on the Colts next 5 drives:

  • Avery Williamson stuffed Jonathan Taylor and Indy’s 1 to help keep them bottled up
  • Williamson began the next drive with a sack, setting up a 3 and out
  • With the Colts at mid field, Cam Heyward sacked Philip Rivers on 3rd and 5 forcing a punt
  • Next, Alex Highsmith pressured Rivers into throwing a pass that Mike Hilton picked off
  • Finally, on 4th and 8 Highsmith again pressured Rivers into an incomplete pass

The Colts scored on their first drive of the 2nd half. They gained 52 yards in just over a minute on their last. In between they netted 45 yards on 14 plays that amounted to 3 punts and an interception.

Those numbers add up to a Steelers defense that delivered.

Can Steelers Sustain This?

Pittsburgh’s comeback wasn’t perfect. Ben Roethlisberger threw at least two passes that should have been intercepted. The running game remains AWOL. They couldn’t kill the clock. Nonetheless, just like back in like September, October and November it was enough to win.

But it is incorrect to say that in the 2nd half Steelers suddenly looked like their former 11-0 selves. Incorrect for a good reason:

  • Ben Roethlisberger’s ability to draw blood with deep balls was something new.

The question is: Was Ben just coaxing the last few long-balls that his arm has left in it or has Roethlisberger reestablished a rhythm with his deep ball?

Time will tell. But one thing is certain today:  If Ben Roethlisberger has recovered his deep ball, then then the Steelers are again legitimate Super Bowl contenders.

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James Harrison Needs to Get Over Himself and See How Petty His Feud with Mike Tomlin Has Become

COVID-19 is radically transforming our world. Not even the NFL is immune. Yet, Coronavirus can’t touch James Harrison’s status as the “gift that keeps on giving” to Pittsburgh Steelers bloggers.

Seriously. Just when you think there’s nothing left to add James Harrison’s story, a new chapter emerges. No disrespect to Antonio Brown, but James Harrison out does him when it comes to controversy. Heck, Harrison might give Terry Bradshaw a run for his money at this rate.

Football news has been slow during the pandemic, but Steelers Nation can count on James Harrison to speed it up. And that’s actually a real shame. For James Harrison.

James Harrison, Mike Tomlin, Feud, Steelers vs Seahawks

James Harrison and Mike Tomlin after Steelers ’15 loss to Seahawks. Photo Credit: Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

And so it was that James Harrison went on Willie Colon’s Going Deep Podcast talking about a wide range of topics. From a journalistic standpoint, Harrison’s interview with Colon was revealing.

He reaffirmed his love for Dick LeBeau. He contrasted how players partied heavily the Bill Cowher era as compared to the atmosphere on Mike Tomlin’s watch. He left no doubt that Kevin Colbert stood shoulder to shoulder with him in 2010 when Roger Goodell unfairly scapegoated him for hits to the head. He shed light on a previously unreported clash with Bruce Arians that started when he bumped into Ben Roethlisberger.

Our knowledge about the inner workings of the Steelers of the 00’s and the ‘10’s is richer for Harrison’s chat with Colon. Then, after referencing his $75,000 fine  Roger Goodell slapped on him for his legal hit of  Mohamed Massaquoi he dropped this bomb:

And I ain’t gonna lie to you, when that happened, right? the G-est thing Mike Tomlin ever did, he handed me an envelope after that. I ain’t gonna say what, but he handed me an envelope after that.

Of course James Harrison was implying that Mike Tomlin was paying the fine for him. Harrison knew what he was doing would set off a firestorm. That was his intention all along.

And that’s the problem.

James Harrison Needs to Get Over Himself

Reaction has been swift to Harrison’s bomb. Art Rooney II issued an unequivocal denial. Harrison’s agent Bill Parise declared that the exchange “Never Happened.” Harrison himself partially walked back comments, clarifying that Mike Tomlin never paid him to hurt anyone.

  • This came after Sean Peyton suggested the Steelers should face some sort of Bountygate investigation similar to what he was subjected to.

Hum. It seems like Harrison is confronting the law of unintended consequences, doesn’t it? He wanted to poke his former coach. He wanted to make some mischief? But get him and the organization into real trouble? Not so much.

Two years into his definitive retirement from the NFL, three things are clear about James Harrison:

  1. He has a knack for creating controversy
  2. He knows it.
  3. He still holds a grudge against Mike Tomlin.

The end between Harrison and the Steelers was a train wreck. As Art Rooney II immediately confessed, there was blame to go around. But Harrison’s situation was hardly unique. Both Franco Harris and Rod Woodson left Pittsburgh with bruised egos and hard feelings.

  • But both men moved on and ultimately reconciled with their first NFL franchise.

Rod Woodson, Steelers vs Oilers, Three Rivers Stadium, 1992 Steelers

Rod Woodson terrorized the Houston Oilers

Whether James Harrison reconciles with the Steelers is his choice. Regardless, he would do well follow Rod Woodson’s lead. Even when blood was bad in the ‘90’s, Woodson never resorted to taking petty potshots of the kind at Harrison is taking. (Even if Woodson was on the receiving end of some of those from Tom Donahoe.)

James Harrison again insisted to Colon that he’d been promised more playing time and made no bones about mailing it in once when he didn’t get it. Even promises were made, Harrison must take responsibility for his own actions.

Yes, Harrison could still contribute in 2017. But rookie T.J. Watt was better than Harrison. Faking injuries, sleeping through meetings or going home when deactivated is no way to prove you deserve to play.

  • As the late Myron Cope argued, the Pittsburgh Steelers yield nothing to the rest of the NFL when it comes to its linebacking legacy.

James Harrison has earned his place alongside Jack Lambert, Jack Ham, Kevin Greene, Greg Lloyd, Joey Porter and other Steelers linebacking legends. His continued cheap shots won’t change that.

But how James Harrison transformed himself from a practice squad bubble baby into a an NFL Defensive Player of the Year who made game a changing play in Super Bowl XLIII was always part of his mystique.

Now he’s tarnishing that mystique. James Harrison needs to get over himself and see just how petty his one-sided feud with Mike Tomlin has become.

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Steelers Didn’t Draft Emmitt Smith in ’90 Because of Tim Worley… But It Actually Worked Out

Steelers fans always like to play the “what if?” game.

For example, what if Franco Harris and Rocky Bleier weren’t injured for the AFC Championship Game against the Oakland Raiders in 1976? What if the Steelers had actually drafted Dan Marino back in 1983? What if Pittsburgh’s coaches had recognized the talent they had in this Johnny Unitas fella, a ninth-round pick out of Louisville in 1955, instead of cutting him in training camp without letting him take a snap that summer?

  • The reason I put Unitas last in those aforementioned examples is because I want to prove a point.

Sure, the ending may have been different for those ’76 Steelers had Franco and Rocky been healthy for that conference title game against those hated Raiders. And, obviously, had Pittsburgh selected Marino in ’83, how could that have possibly been a bad thing for a franchise whose 1970s Super Bowl dynasty was running on fumes and about to come to a complete stop?

Jerome Bettis, Brian Urlacher, Steelers vs. Bears, '05 Steelers

Jerome Bettis shows Brian Urlacher who is boss. Photo Credit: Ezra Shaw, Getty Images via The Sun.

As for keeping Johnny Unitas around, on the other hand? Sure, it may have led to championship success much sooner than anyone would have imagined. But would it have led to Chuck Noll, Mean Joe Greene, Terry Bradshaw, those four Super Bowls in the 1970s and the franchise’s rise to one of the marquee teams in all of professional sports?

It just doesn’t seem possible that all those dots would have still connected the exact same way and led us to where we are today with regards to the Steelers iconic status.

And that brings me to the 1990 NFL Draft, and the Steelers decision to trade their first-round pick to the Cowboys (17th, overall) and move back four slots.

Eric Green, Robert Jones, Steelers vs Cowboys 1994

Eric Green in the Steeler-Cowboys 1994 season opener. Photo Credit: Mike Powell, Getty Images via BTSC

With the pick the Cowboys secured from Pittsburgh, they selected running back Emmitt Smith from Florida. And with the 21st pick the Steelers acquired from Dallas, they drafted tight end Eric Green from Liberty University.

  • Even if you’re a casual fan of the NFL and its history, you no doubt know that the Cowboys won that deal with a bullet.

Yes, Eric Green stormed onto the scene and was a bit ahead of his time for the position with his size, speed and athleticism. After a lengthy holdout, Eric Green went on to have a fairly sensational rookie campaign that included seven touchdown catches.

Eric Green played five seasons in Pittsburgh, making the Pro Bowl in 1993 and 1994, before leaving as an unrestricted free agent.

In the end, Eric Green wasn’t the one that got away. After signing a huge free agent contract with the Dolphins, Green bounced around the NFL through the 1999 season before calling it a career.

  • Overall, Eric Green’s 10-year career, it was merely okay. It was one of unfulfilled potential, due mainly to his weight issues, drug problems and a lack of a great work ethic.

As for Emmitt Smith, he couldn’t have fulfilled his potential any better if he were a fictional running back created by some Hollywood writer.

Not only did Emmitt Smith quickly become one of the cornerstones of those Cowboys Super Bowl teams of the 1990s, when he finally hung up his cleats following the 2004 season, he was the NFL’s all-time leading rusher, with 18,355 yards, a record that still stands today.

And that’s why you’ll often see those “What if?” articles pop up around draft time regarding that 1990 trade with Dallas, and how the Steelers really screwed up.

  • They obviously did, but that’s still revisionist history.
Tim Worley, Merril Hoge, 1989 Steelers Dolphins, Steelers vs. Dolphins

Merril Hoge acts as lead blocker for Tim Worley. Photo Credit: Spokeo

If you look at that 1990 draft in context, there was no way the Steelers were going to select Smith or any other running back, not after spending the seventh pick of the 1989 NFL Draft on Tim Worley, running back, Georgia.

And while Tim Worley’s NFL career made Green’s look downright Hall of Fame-worthy (drug issues quickly derailed Worley’s career, and he was out of football following the ’93 season), he showed great promise in his rookie season with the 1989 Steelers, rushing for 770 yards and scoring five touchdowns.

Besides, while the Steelers didn’t find their franchise back in Worley, they thought they’d discovered one in Barry Foster in 1992, when he set a single-season team record for rushing yards with 1,690. And while Foster didn’t have the hunger to be a workhorse running back over the long haul (he left football after the 1994 campaign), the Steelers long search for a long-term franchise running back ended during the 1996 NFL Draft, when they traded a second-round pick to the Rams for the services of Jerome Bettis.

  • Need I say more?

With his size, willingness to punish tacklers and desire to be the workhorse, was there a more perfect running back for the Steelers and the City of Pittsburgh than Jerome Bettis, the man the late, great Myron Cope quickly dubbed The Bus?

In 10 seasons with the Steelers, Bettis rushed for 10,571 yards. By the time Bettis retired after the 2005 season, not only was he fifth all-time in NFL history with 13,662 rushing yards, he left Ford Field in Detroit, Michigan, his hometown, with the Steelers’ fifth Lombardi trophy in hand, following a 21-10 win over the Seahawks in Super Bowl XL.

Jerome Bettis Super Bowl Ring, Steelers Super Bowl XL Ring,

Steelers Super Bowl XL Ring. Photo Credit: Peter Diana, Post-Gazette

Think about the kind of career Jerome Bettis had in Pittsburgh, and how it never would have happened if the selection of Worley in 1989 hadn’t prevented the Steelers from drafting Smith one year later.

  • Would you trade the actual story of Jerome Bettis as a Steeler for a hypothetical one involving Emmitt Smith?

If you’re all about the numbers and Super Bowl titles, maybe you would. But there’s no predicting how Smith would have fit in with Pittsburgh, a team that was suffering from a great malaise in 1990 and about to go through a massive transition at head coach, from the legendary Chuck Noll to Bill Cowher in 1992.

And there certainly is no way to predict with any certainty that Emmitt Smith would have been able to lead the likes of Neil O’Donnell (Larry Brown’s best friend, no, not that Larry Brown) to even one Super Bowl title, let alone three.

  • Nope, I can’t imagine a Steelers history without a chapter that includes Jerome Bettis.

Like Bill Cowher told him on the sidelines at old Three Rivers Stadium back in ’96:

“This is your bleepin city. And you’re my bleepin guy.”

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