When Christmas Came Every Friday: Missing the Days of Steelers Digest

A new entry from the Mexican WhatsApp Mesa de Acero feed made my phone buzz at 2:47 pm, local time in Buenos Aires on Thursday afternoon. I glanced down. Instantly the image of the latest Steelers Digest issue transported me back 35 years and 6000 miles away.Steelers Digest, Greg Lloyd, Greg Lloyd Darth Vader

It was the summer of 1989 and I was in the magazine aisle at Superfresh (aka A&P) in Aspen Hill’s Northgate Shopping Center. There I rummaged through preseason football magazines, searching for my fix on Steeler news. In Street & Smith’s, opposite an article on the Steelers, I saw it – an advertisement for something called Steelers Digest.

  • I didn’t subscribe to Steelers Digest that year, and it’s a decision I still regret.

(If you know the 1989 Steelers story, you’ll understand.) I don’t remember why. I probably didn’t have enough money on me to buy Street and Smiths and maybe it was gone by the time I could get back.

But I made sure to subscribe to the Steelers Digest for the next season and remained a subscriber until 2012 or 2013.

  • In those days before the internet, Steelers Digest was a lifeline.

Although I was fortunate enough to live in places that had solid sports pages, Steelers Digest offered the lone source of Black and Gold centric-coverage.

The Digest typically arrived on Fridays, following a familiar format. Bob Labriola led with a full page column. A summary of the past week’s game followed along with statics. Then came interviews with players. Each week had at least one feature story tied to the season. Myron Cope had a half page column titled “Coping” until he lost his wife Mildred in 1994.

Chuck Noll, Mark Malone

Chuck Noll and Mark Malone.

Other features were tucked further in. Vic Ketchman might have a feature on Steelers history – those were always clip and save stories. Former players such as Andy Russell and even Mark Malone would publish stories there. A Catholic Church on the North Side used to advertise mass schedules designed around Steelers games. Teresa Varley often did profiles on players or human interest stories that were always “can’t miss.”

At the end was The Overview, where Bob Labriola would print reader letters, offering what information he could about Steelers bars and responding to other questions just the way he does today in “Asked and Answered.”

Things were different then. The idea of getting a newspaper on Friday focused on last Sunday’s games seems quaint today. But back then, even though you knew the game’s results, like a fine wine, the in-depth, Steelers-focused analysis countered for its lack of freshness with maturity. In fact, the Digest’s arrival was highlight of the week.

  • Differences extended beyond the timing and delivery.

The Digest got creative in ways that would backfire in the social media age. If memory serves, when my very first Steelers Digest arrived my mom announced, “There’s something in the mail for you that called ‘Steelers Digest’ with a guy in a Superman suit on it.”

  • Sure enough, Rod Woodson was on the cover, outfitted in a Superman suit.

Can you imagine the reaction if Steelers.com tried to do something similar with T.J. Watt or Minkah Fitzpatrick today?

Yet, that wasn’t a one off for the Digest. As you can see above, another they led with a picture of Greg Lloyd with a Darth Vader helmet. In the fall of 1990, they featured Woodson, Carnell Lake, D.J. Johnson and Thomas Everett standing in the end zone at Three Rivers Stadium with orange barrels, stop signs and road blocks – that week’s feature was on Dave Brazil’s defense who were enjoying a phenomenal run in limiting touchdown passes (the run lasted for 15 games, until Cody Carlson torched them in the season finale at the Astrodome).

  • The Digest also served as a means for differentiating serious Steelers fans from casual ones.

Living in the DC area, Baltimore (pre-Ravens), Boston and later Cincinnati, people would often see me wearing Steelers stuff, prompting spontaneous high fives. After that, the conversation evolved in one of two ways.

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

Franco Harris, Terry Bradshaw, Lynn Swann

You’d say something like, “Man, I LOVE Merril Hoge, I honestly think that they upgraded at fullback by bringing John L. Williams in” and the fan would either say, A. “Ah, man, I love the Steelers, but I’m not that up on today’s players. I just loved like Terry Bradshaw, Franco Harris, Lynn Swann,” or B. he’d dive into debating the nuances of the Hoge vs Williams dynamic.

  • Group B fans were almost always Steelers Digest readers.

I continued subscribing to Steelers Digest, even after the advent of “the world wide web” provided access to papers like the Post-Gazette and Tribune-Review and later Steelers blogs. The Digest still offered exclusive features by writers like Mike Prisuta, Jim Wexell or Dale Lolley or exclusive interviews with Dan Rooney, Tom Donahoe or Kevin Colbert.

As time passed many if not most of those exclusives found their way on to Steelers.com – once as I was performing my Saturday night ritual of reading Bob Labriola’s column I realized it was the same column that he’d published on Monday after the game.

  • And that’s when I allowed my subscription to lapse.

And that’s OK. Times change. Today a serious fan, from any corner on the globe, literally has a choice of hundreds, if not thousands of articles, videos or other forms of “content” about the Steelers. Quality may suffer in that sea of quantity, but you can still find it, if you look for it.

Would I go back if I could? Consider this: My first view of Bill Cowher came several days after he was hired when I spied a rumpled copy of the USA Today sitting on the floor of my dorm room at Loyola Maryland (Wynnwood Towers 905E if you must know.) In 2007, in the evening after work, I watched an on-line recording of Cowher’s retirement press conference from my apartment in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

  • So no, I wouldn’t go back if I could.

But is it possible that for all we’ve gained, maybe we’ve also lost something too? I don’t know.

But I do know this: I miss the days when Christmas came in my mail box every Friday thanks to the Steelers Digest.

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Myron Cope was Right about Daniel Snyder. The NFL Should Have Listened 23 Years Ago

The NFL owners voted unanimously to approve the sale of the Washington Commanders from Daniel Snyder to Steelers minority owner Josh Harris, thus ending one of the most ignominious ownership tenures in league history.

You know what? If they’d have listened to Myron Cope 23 years ago they could have saved everyone a ton of trouble.

How’s that? Follow along and find out.

Myron Cope

Myron Cope: Long time radio voice and soul of the Pittsburgh Steelers. Photo Credit: Christopher Horner, Tribune Review

Red Flags Flash Early in the Snyder Era

In 1999 Daniel Snyder bought the then Washington Redskins after winning the second round an auction held by the late Jack Kent Cooke’s estate. NFL owners were not pleased. They’d already pressured Daniel Milstein and Snyder to withdraw a previous bid. John Kent Cooke, Jack’s son, had come in second in the and, if memory serves, Dan Rooney openly asked if the NFL owners could consider both proposals.

  • They could not. Snyder got the team.

Snyder got control of the team in May and could do little ahead of the upcoming season. Except fire a bunch of secretaries, administrative employees and other low-level office staffers as a way of showing he was in charge.

  • Snyder made it clear he was going to be more demanding than John Kent Cooke.

Fans and the press liked that. Yet, a friend of mine told me how a business associate of his had been called to the team facilities in Ashburn to do some work on the field. He crossed paths with Snyder, one-on-one in a quiet corridor, extend his hand saying, “Mr. Snyder, I’m a longtime fan. And I just want to say that I love what you’re doing with the team.” Snyder ignored him, said nothing and left him hanging as he walked by.

Contrast that with Art Rooney Sr.’s encounter with Craig Wolfley and Tunch Ilkin shortly after the 1980 NFL Draft. The Chief stopped by in the main waiting room at Three Rivers Stadium, and chatted with the guys as he emptied ashtrays. They thought Rooney was a janitor, not realizing he was the owner who’d just bagged his 4th Lombardi Trophy.

Yeah, that was the first sign that Daniel Snyder would be the anti-Dan Rooney. But not the last.

The Snyder Era’s First Rendezvous with the Steelers

True to his word, Snyder “applied some pressure” and Washington made the playoffs and even won a wild card game, its first since Super Bowl XXVI in 1991. As Washington started the 2000 off season on a high note, Danny was licking his chops.

With Snyder at the helm, Washington hit the free agent market with reckless abandon, spending 100 million dollars on free agents.

  • Others had tried and failed to “Buy a Lombardi,” but both fans and press in Washington drank to Kool-Aid.

Listeners called into Sports Talk 980 WTEM predicting an undefeated season. In late May at a barbecue in the DC suburbs, fans needled yours truly, pointing to the Steelers dismal 1999 effort and predicting disaster for the Steelers December match up against Washington, the final game at Three Rivers Stadium. Then to rub a little salt into the wound, one sheepishly asked, “I wonder if we signed Deion today?” (When they actually signed Dieon a few days later, the Washington Post ran a front page article and devoted a quarter of the Sports section to the deal.)

Days before the season opener against the Carolina Panthers, the owner of the Wheaton Athletic Club quipped, “…I’m tried of people speculating what it means if he [long forgotten Panthers player] plays or not. A win is going to be a win.”

“Yeah, just like a Super Bowl is gonna be a Super Bowl!” a patron responded.

Washington won that first game, but quickly showed themselves as a middling team while Snyder showed himself to be a meddling owner, complete with ESPN zooming in on a sideline phone labeled “Mr. Snyder” – Danny didn’t hesitate to call Norv Turner during the game when he wasn’t happy.

And Danny was often unhappy, firing Turner after a 7-9 loss to the Giants, two weeks before Washington was set to travel to Pittsburgh where Myron Cope would offer the result of the league advice that they’d have been wise to take.

Franco Harris, Jerome Bettis after the final game at Three Rivers Stadium

Jerome Bettis & Franco Harris @ Final Game at Three Rivers Stadium. Photo Credit: Matt Freed, Post-Gazette

Myron Cope loved nicknames, and decided going into the week that Washington would be the “Wash Redfaces.” With the Steelers leading 17-3 at the half in their Three Rivers Stadium finale (oh, was it such a pleasure to see Jerome Bettis steamroll Deion Sanders) Snyder sent someone from his PR team instructing Myron Cope to stop using the term Redfaces.

As Cope explained in Double Yoi, as soon as the commercial break was over, he informed listeners “You’re not going to believe what I’m going to tell you.” He then shared the news of Snyder’s demand, assuring listeners, “If that boy billionaire thinks he can shut me up, he should stick his head in a can of paint.”

As Tom Boswell of the Washington Post opined afterwards, “Like it or not, Myron Cope was speaking for America. And the Redskins should listen.”

Alas, they did not.

Nearly 23 years later, you can rest assured that the NFL wishes it had taken the advice of the late, great Myron Cope a lot sooner.

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Stan Savran’s Legacy May Be Unmatched In Pittsburgh Sports Broadcasting

“And then they started running the ball down their throats.”

That was my first recollection of Stan Savran as a Pittsburgh sports broadcaster. I can’t remember if it was on TV or radio, but he was doing some postgame show after the Steelers defeated the Patriots, 24-20, in a preseason game in Knoxville, Tennessee, on August 14, 1982.

Stan Savran, Stan Savran obituary, Art Rooney II

Pittsburgh Broadcasting legend Stan Savran and Art Rooney II, Photo Credit: Steelers.com

Perhaps, it was fitting that I don’t know if my first memories of Savran were on television or radio. I started following Pittsburgh sports in the early ’80s, and that man was always somewhere talking about them.

  • In other words, Savran was omnipresent as a Pittsburgh sports broadcaster and journalist for most of my life.

Savran, who passed away at 76 on Monday after a battle with lung cancer, began his career in Pittsburgh in 1976 after a stint in Florida where he did play-by-play for the World Football League.

Savran started out at radio stations WWSW and then KQV in the ’70s, but by the time I found him in the ’80s, he was part of WTAE’s Action 4 Sports Team, a lineup that included Bill Hillgrove, who still does radio play-by-play for both the Steelers and University of Pittsburgh Panthers football and men’s basketball teams; John Steigerwald; Guy Junker; and, of course, Myron Cope, a Steelers and Pittsburgh broadcasting icon who, among other things, created The Terrible Towel.

  • Can you imagine that kind of broadcasting roster on the local level today?

You talk about star power. But it was different in the 1980s. ESPN wasn’t really the worldwide leader yet, and fanatics like me looked to the local news stations for the daily scoop on the Steelers, Pirates, Penguins and Panthers. Savran served as a sports anchor and reporter for WTAE in the 1980s, and he also followed Cope with his own talk show five nights a week over on the radio side.

At various points in his career, Savran did everything from pre and postgame shows for the Steelers, Pirates and Penguins, to television, to radio. Savran even did radio play-by-play for Penn State football in the ’80s and was in the booth for the Nittany Lions‘ 1986 National Championship win over Miami. Savran also hosted the weekly Penn State football highlight show on the television side.

  • Savran even wrote a weekly sports column for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in the early-2000s.

Of Savran’s many roles, however, none were more iconic than as the host of Sportsbeat from 1991-2009.

Chuck Noll, Bill Cowher

Chuck Noll & Bill Cower after the last game at Three Rivers Stadium. Photo via 6th Ring.com

Sportsbeat was a local cable show that Savran co-hosted with Junker through 2003 before finishing out as a solo host until 2009. The show–basically, a radio show on television–saw many icons sit down and talk to Stan and Guy over nearly two decades, including Reggie Jackson, Bill Cowher, and, yes, Chuck Noll.

My favorite Sportsbeat episode was also my most therapeutic, and it aired on October 15, 1992, just one night after the Pirates lost Game 7 of the National League Championship Series to the Atlanta Braves. Pittsburgh is a proud sports town that was dubbed The City of Champions in the 1970s thanks to four Steelers Super Bowl victories, two Pirates World Series titles, and a national championship for the Pitt football team. That reputation was strengthened in the early-’90s thanks to back-to-back Stanley Cup victories for the Pittsburgh Penguins.

But as great as all of those memories were for Pittsburgh’s citizens, none of them may have matched the low that everyone felt the day after the Pirates blew a 2-0 lead in the bottom of the ninth inning of Game 7 in Atlanta with a trip to the World Series on the line.

  • I was 20 and in tears that night. Downtown Pittsburgh was like a morgue the next morning.

I turned to Stan and Guy to talk me off the bridge (metaphorically, of course). The late, great Beano Cook was a guest on that night’s show and also did his part to make me feel better.

It’s been over 30 years since Sid Bream was safe at home plate, and I still can’t go back and watch Game 7. But I remember how a guy from Cleveland and his two colleagues got me through the worst sports loss I think I’ll ever experience.

  • That’s a special kind of talent.

That’s right, Savran was born in Cleveland, Ohio, and grew up a Browns and Indians fan. But while he remained a diehard fan of Cleveland’s Major League Baseball team up until the day he died, he left Cleveland’s football team –the original one that moved to Baltimore and was renamed the Ravens in 1996 — behind many years earlier and became a supporter of the Black and Gold.

In addition to his many years covering the team on television, radio and even in print, Savran was very instrumental in the creation of the Steelers Hall of Honor in 2017.

More importantly, Savran became a supporter of Pittsburgh and called it his home over the final 47 years of his life.

“AWWW, BLEEP YOU!” ‘

That was the first call to the Steelers postgame show following a devastating 34-31 overtime loss to the Titans in the  2002 Steelers divisional-round playoff game on January 11, 2003. The caller was seeking comfort and validation after a controversial running into the kicker penalty gave Tennessee new life and a chance to win the game. But Savran, the host of this postgame show on the Steelers Radio Network, calmly said, “You can’t run into the kicker. It’s as simple as that.”

  • Clearly, the caller didn’t like Stan’s answer.

As stated earlier, Savran was a fixture in the Pittsburgh sports scene for nearly 50 years, but even though he was very opinionated and told it like it was, the venom that the caller spewed that night was the exception and not the rule.

Savran often disagreed with callers and was critical of players and coaches, but he seemed to have a knack for not taking cheap shots — a lost art in the current sports landscapes, one that’s dominated by social media and one where opinions and people are often called garbage (or worse).

While just about every Pittsburgh sports personality is often a target for the venom spewed by “fans” on social media, Savran was too respected to get that kind of treatment.

Maybe that’s because he was known as “The Godfather of Pittsburgh sports,” and you never disrespect The Godfather, not if you know what’s good for you.

The whole “Mount Rushmore of…” talking point is now a tired cliche, but if there was a Mount Rushmore of Pittsburgh sports broadcasters, Stan Savran would surely have his likeness carved into it.

Rest in peace, Stan, so many of us really did love the show.

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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 reading. For the next article, “1997 Pittsburgh Steelers: Defying Gravity with Cowher and Kordell,” click here. For the 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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