Bill Austin, Former Pittsburgh Steelers Coach, 1928-2013

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

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

From Nixon to Austin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • Dan called his bluff.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bill Austin in Pittsburgh

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

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

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

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

  • It also had disastrous effects on the Steelers.

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

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

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

The One Thing Austin Did Right….

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

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

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

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

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

The rest is history.

Thanks Bill. May you rest in peace.

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3 thoughts on “Bill Austin, Former Pittsburgh Steelers Coach, 1928-2013

  1. We think of the Steelers now has the class of the league, always making the right decisions and hiring the right people. But the Austin hiring was “classic” bad team operations: If the guy was associated with a good operation, he must be good by association, so let’s get that guy. Thanks for the history lesson. Some of that stuff I knew. Some, I didn’t. Like, for example, the chance at OJ. I’d say things worked out pretty good in the end.

  2. Thanks Tony.

    I think this shows the importance to Due Diligence. If you start a process (such as selection) follow it.

    When I used to live in the states I saw a company start to interview people, stop after they found one they liked, and then they’d uncover something they didn’t like and have to start the process all over again.

  3. Thank you for sharing wonderful history, facts, insights & opinions. Wonderful to see folks are not just preserving Steelers & Pittsburgh history, but, enjoying it thoroughly. There is no disputing what was said, however it’d of been nice to of reflected on him in a “kinder light”. “Never” being stressed & in italics – standing out.. unnecessary. O.J.? One could contemplate the cause & effect should be of been drafted. It’s a great & welcomed article, it’s just, I recall folks home in Pittsburgh? Leaving the frustration at the stadium & speaking well of anyone afterwards, belief or hope in the good within. Should it seem there was no good to mention? Pull a tab & switch to a different player, coach, topic, etc. Yes, you spoke truths. A wonderful read. A bit more strength to wording not as harsh, simply stands out. Not the Burgh I recall. I’m grateful also for the Martha mention as I’d not remembered that concussion. I mean no harm, to simplify? No matter what age you reach… homesickness will not discriminate. Yinz take care & thanks for a wonderful spark of several memories.

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