Celebrating Tony Dungy’s Steelers Coaching Legacy

Tony Dungy now sits from his rightful perch in in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, an honor he earned through his efforts in transforming the perennial loser Tampa Bay Buccaneers into contenders and for securing the first Super Bowl win by an African American head coach with the Indianapolis Colts.

  • But Tony Dungy’s roots run Black and Gold, a fact Dungy brought home by tapping Donniey Shell to present him.

Dungy’s time in playing in Pittsburgh as well as Tony Dungy Steelers coaching resume were all about overcoming the odds, an experience that served him well in Tampa and Indy. The Pittsburgh portion of Dungy’s resume is plenty impressive, and Steelers Nation must embrace it and celebrate it.

tony dungy, tony dungy's steelers coaching career, chuck noll, keith gary, mike mayock, anthony washington

Keith Gary , Mike Mayock, Anthony Washington, Tony Dungy and Chuck Noll; Photo Credit: Donald J. Stetzer, Post-Gazette

Tony Dungy’s Time as a Steelers Defensive Back

By the spring of 1977 the Pittsburgh Steelers had won two Super Bowls and just lost the 1976 AFC Championship game with the team that, almost to a man, the Super Steelers insist was the most talented of the decade.

  • Such a talented team wouldn’t leave much room for an undrafted rookie free agent, would it?

Fortunately Chuck Noll’s philosophy flowed in a different direction. As Dungy later told Jim O’Brien of the Pittsburgh Press:

…You think you’re just a little ol’ free agent and you’d think you don’t belong, but the coaches give you as much time as they give everybody else. They really try to help you make the team. So do the veterans.

Tony Dungy not only earned spot on the team, but played extensively as the Steeler’s 5th defensive back and third safety behind Mike Wagner and Donnie Shell. During 1977 and 1978, Dungy appeared in 30 games, making two starts and hauling down 9 interceptions. Highlight’s of Dungy’s Pittsburgh Steelers playing career include:

  • Leading the team with 6 interceptions in 1979
  • Recording AND throwing an interception as an emergency Quarterback in 1977
  • Forcing a Randy White fumble in Super Bowl XIII, setting up the Steelers final score

The Steelers traded Dungy to the 49ers following 1979, where Dungy played for a year before getting traded, and ultimately cut by the New York Giants.

While Dungy didn’t have a Hall of Fame playing career for the Steelers, he did earn a Super Bowl ring, and he now joins Joe Greene, Jack Ham, Mel Blount, Franco Harris, Jack Lambert, Terry Bradshaw, Mike Webster, Lynn Swann and John Stallworth as the 10th player from the Steelers Super Bowl XIII Championship team to reach the Hall of Fame.

Not bad for an undrafted rookie free agent trying to break into the league with a team laden by Super Bowl veterans….

Noll Brings Dungy to Pittsburgh as Defensive Backs Assistant

As the exploits of Dungy’s brief playing days reveal, he might not have had the athletic talents, but he certainly possessed football smarts. New York Giants head coach Ray Perkins came to that conclusion based on Dungy’s brief time there, and gave Dungy his first interview in 1981.

tony dungy, donnie shell, hall of fame

Donnie Shell takes instruction from former teammate Tony Dungy

When Dungy called Steelers defensive coordinator Woody Widenhofer for advice, Widenhofer arranged a meeting with Noll, and Dungy joined the team as a defensive backs coach.

  • By his own admission, however, Dungy spent 75% of his time during his first year working with the Steelers linebackers.

Nonetheless, Chuck Noll saw enough to send incumbent secondary coach Dick Walker packing while promoting Dungy to defensive backs coach. Tracing the impact of positions coaches was just as difficult in the early 80’s as it is today, but Dungy’s made close to an immediate impact, coaching his players to read the quarterback instead of focusing on receivers.

The fact that Dungy was able to make such a quick impact as a position coach is a little eailser tunderstand when you realize that the 27 year old Dungy had enough confidence to suggest technique changes to Mel Blount, who was well into his mid-30’s and already clear first ballot Hall of Famer.

When Woody Widenhofer left Pittsburgh to take the USFL’s Oklahoma Outlaw’s head coaching position, Chuck Noll only had one place to look….

Tony Dungy, Youngest, 1st Black Coordinator

At age 29, Chuck Noll at once made Tony Dungy the youngest coordinator in the NFL and also the first African American coordinator. While Noll admitted he’d talked to several candidates “…but not with a really open mind.”

Earning such a prestigious promotion at age 29 might seem like an uncanny a stroke of good luck, but Tony Dungy got nothing handed to him. If anything, fate worked against him:

  • News of Blount and Bradshaw’s retirements dominated the news conference announcing Dungy’s hire.

Worse yet, Jack Lambert’s career ended 3 starts into this Tony Dungy’s tenure as Steelers defensive coordinator. Undaunted, Dungy took the reins of a Steelers defense that was literally shedding Hall of Famers and defied the odds. By end of the Steelers 1984 season, the Steelers defense had the NFL’s number 5 defense (in total yards) two notches below 1983’s edition and Steelers defenders ranked 2nd in interceptions, a rank above the previous year.

In the 1984 Steelers playoff upset win over the Denver Broncos at Mile High Stadium, the Steelers defense dominated John Elway, sacking him 4 times and brutalizing him so badly he could barely stay in the game. Years later, a cousin of mine recounted how Elway was forced to take snaps with one hand – press accounts do not confirm that, but Elway injured his groin, bruised a kneed and twisted an ankle.

Asked about the 1984 Steelers defense following the game, Elway conceeded, “They dictated. They more or less did what they wanted.”

Tony Dungy put an exclamation point on Elway’s concession with the game tied at 3:45 left to play, with the Broncos attempting to rally on 2nd and 5 from their 20 yard line. The Steelers defense showed zone coverage, Elway looked at safety Eric Williams and assumed he had a one-on-one with Ray Alexander.

  • Except that Williams was playing man coverage, intercepted Elway’s pass and returned it to the Steelers 2.

It was Elway’s second interception of the day, and his last as it set up Frank Pollard’s go-ahead touchdown.

Pittsburgh would of course fall to the Miami Dolphins the next week in the AFC Championship, but the 1984 Steelers had shocked the world in won the AFC Championship, ruining the ’84 49er’s perfect season and upsetting Elway’s Broncos at Mile High. And Tony Dungy’s defense had led the way.

1985-1987 Tony Dungy’s Star on the Rise

Unfortunately, the 1984 Steelers success was largely a mirage. Chuck Noll had managed to coax above average performance with average talent. But as the last of the Super Steelers faded, the Steelers slipped into mediocrity during 1985 and 1986.

  • Yet Tony Dungy’s kept the Steelers defense competitive.

The 1985 Steelers finished 7-9, Chuck Noll’s first losing effort since 1971, but the Steelers defense finished 6th overall in yards allowed. The rest of the NFL took note of Tony Dungy’s Steelers coaching career.

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In 1984 Chuck Noll made Tony Dungy the NFL’s Youngest Defensive coordinator

In the winter of 1986, Dungy found himself a head coaching candidate, as the Philadelphia Eagles interviewed him for the job that ultimately went to Buddy Ryan. Dungy didn’t get the job, but by that point he was widely expected to become the NFL’s first African American head coach.

The 1986 Steelers slipped even further, dropping to 6-10,and the Steelers defense slipped to 18th in yards allowed.

The 1987 NFL draft saw Chuck Noll reload on defense, picking future stars like Rod Woodson, Greg Lloyd, Thomas Everett, and Hardy Nickerson (in addition to one-year wonder Delton Hall.) Armed with the infusion of talent, Tony Dungy oversaw a defensive rebound, as the Steelers defense improved to 13th overall, was 3rd in interceptions, and returned 7 interceptions for touchdowns, leading the league.

  • Indeed, the Steelers defense carried Pittsburgh to a 8-7 record (6-6 in non-strike games), and kept them competitive in games they had no right to contest.

Some fans insisted that the Steelers were “A quarterback away from the Super Bowl.” In 20/20 hindsight, such observations were clearly wishful thinking, but the Steelers defense appeared to be on the rise. After the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s Bruce Kredan quipped that the Steelers had applied the finishing touches to Curtain II by drafting Aaron Jones, he wasn’t being entirely sarcastic.

Steelers Dreadful 1988 Campaign and Dungy’s Demise in Pittsburgh

The 1987 Steelers finished one game out of the final Wild Card slot for the playoffs. Yet, the fact that they almost won that game on thanks to 4th quarter, 45 yard pick six by Cornell Gowdy, teased that the Steelers defense was once again knocking on dominance’s door.

  • Again, the hopes of Steelers Nation fell into disappointment.

The 1988 Steelers opened with a win over Tom Landry’s Cowboys, and closed with a win over Don Shula’s Dolphins, but struggled mightily in between only winning three other contests. While the Steelers special teams and offense had their liabilities, the fact is that the 1988 Steelers saw 4th quarter lead after 4th quarter lead evaporate.

  • Statistics confirmed the defense’s decline, which slipped to 28th in yardage, worst in the NFL

The decline of the Steelers defense in 1988 defies easy explanation. 1988 saw Rod Woodson, Greg Lloyd, and Hardy Nickerson blossom into full time starters. Alongside these upstarts were players like Bryan Hinkle, David Little, Gerald Williams, Keith Willis and Dwayne Woodruff who were still playing in their primes.

  • Most likely, the 1988 Steelers defense regressed because they could not get on the same page.

Steelers linebackers coach Jed Hughes had designs on converting Aaron Jones into an outside linebacker. Tony Dungy disagreed, and wanted Jones to remain at defensive end. Jed Hughes went over Dungy’s head, and Jones spent part of the season at outside linebacker.

  • The damage this move did to Dungy’s standing with the Steelers, and the rest of the NFL should not be underestimated.

Ed Bouchette detailed it in a Dawn of a New Steel Age. In his book, Double Yoi, Myron Cope also delved into the incident, sharing that reporters silently rooted for Dungy in his struggle with Hughes, but ultimately arguing:

…I could not help but think that word travels on the football grapevine – Tony had let the linebackers coach steal Noll’s ear. Was he head coaching material or a wimp? In time, he answered the question, but the grapevine may have delayed his rise to the top for years.

The is plot actually thicker here, involving other revered Steelers legends here, which Ivan Cole documents on Going Deep with the Steelers, based on conversations with Bill Nunn.

  • Regardless, Dan Rooney didn’t like what he saw, and demanded that Chuck Noll fire several assistants.

Noll resisted, contemplated resigning until relenting. Jed Hughes name was on the hit list, Tony Dungy’s was not. But, the Steelers did ask Dungy to take a demotion. Dungy declined and resigned, ending his time in Pittsburgh.

Tony Dungy’s Arch in Pittsburgh Comes Full Circle (Sort of)

Tony Dungy had been the hot coaching prodigy in the mid and late 1980’s, often expected to be the NFL’s first black coach and/or the man to succeed Chuck Noll. Alas, Tony Dungy didn’t fufill either role, at least directly.

mike tomlin, tony dungy, steelers vs. colts 2008, steelers, colts, heinz field

Mike Tomlin and Tony Dungy prior to the 2008 Steelers-Colts matchup; Photo Credit; ESPN, used on High Court Press

In a wired twist of fate, Chuck Noll replaced Tony Dungy with Rod Rust, the recently deposed head coach of the Kansas City Chiefs. Tony Dungy for his part would head to Kansas City to serve as Marty Schottenhimer’s defensive backs coach, whose secondary contributed the success of Kansas City’s defense, brining Kansas City defensive coordinator Bill Cowher to the attention of the Rooneys.

Dungy parlayed his success in Kansas City into a defensive coordinator job in Minnestoa, which he used to get his first head coaching job with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. In Tampa, Tony Dungy hired and mentored promising young coach by the name of Mike Tomlin, giving him his first job in the NFL.

Tony Dungy’s roots not only Black and Gold, but his influence has lived on in Pittsburgh, long after his departure.

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Steelers Hall of Famer Kevin Greene Brought “Blitzgurgh” to Pittsburgh

If you’re a Steelers fan and familiar with Pittsburgh’s  usual participation in the annual free agent frenzy that began in 1992, you’ve probably long-since resigned yourself to not expecting much in the way of splash-signings.

  • But, believe it or not, one of the Steelers first free agent signings was of the high-profile variety.

It came about following a high-profile defection, when Jerrol Williams, a fourth round pick out of Purdue in the 1989 NFL Draft who had just supplanted veteran Bryan Hinkle as the starter at left outside linebacker in 1992, signed a restricted free agent deal with the Chargers.

How would the Steelers, who were coming off one of their best seasons in years under first-year head coach Bill Cowher, respond and reload for the 1993 campaign?

Steelers Hall of Famer Kevin Green, Blitzburgh, Steelers, Steelers 1990s, Greg Lloyd

Steelers Hall of Famer Kevin Greene brought Blitzburgh to Pittsburgh; Photo Credit: USA Today Sports

  • By courting and then signing 31-year old veteran Kevin Greene, who racked up 72.5 career sacks in eight seasons with the Rams.

To say Kevin Greene, who will be enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame this weekend and has made it known his favorite years were spent in Pittsburgh, and that he wants to have his official ring ceremony take place at Heinz Field in 2016, was an upgrade over the younger Williams is an understatement.

Kevin Greene Brings Blitzburgh to Pittsburgh

In ’93, Greene led the Steelers with 12.5 sacks and doubled the total of defensive end Donald Evans, who finished second with 6.5.

Perhaps more importantly, Greene made right legendary outside linebacker Greg Lloyd even more dangerous by creating a “pick your poison” scenario for opposing offenses. While Greg Lloyd recorded “only” six sacks in ’93, he had 111 tackles and five forced fumbles. Following such a great all-around season of devastation, Lloyd, who had already played in two Pro Bowls by that point, was named a First-team All-Pro for the first time in his career.

Two more All-Pro seasons followed for Greg Lloyd in subsequent years, and he was named the team MVP and UPI AFC Defensive Player of the Year in 1994.

All the while, Greene was doing what he did best: Sack the quarterback. While Greg Lloyd had arguably his best season in ’94, totaling 10 sacks and five forced fumbles, Greene posted an incredible 14 sacks, a record that would stand until James Harrison broke it in 2008 (despite defenders holding Silverback on nearly EVERY play.)

That kind of production from your outside linebackers in a 3-4, zone-blitz scheme is a dream-come-true. And, in Pittsburgh, with creative Steelers fans in abundance, this is going to lead to a nickname–or two.

  • Quiver and Quake was a sign often seen hanging at old Three Rivers Stadium–Lloyd was the Quiver to Greene’s Quake.

Another nickname that became popular during the ’94 campaign was “Blitzburgh,” coined by Myron Cope after the defense recorded 55 sacks.

Blitzburgh may not be as enduring as “The Steel Curtain,” the nickname given to the legendary ’70s Steelers defenses, but when you hear it, it certainly reminds you of players like Greene and Lloyd, and the havoc they wreaked on opposing offenses in the mid-’90s.

Greene left as a free agent after the 1995 season, following the loss to the Cowboys in Super Bowl XXX, and to tell you the truth, I didn’t think he considered his short three year stay in Pittsburgh to be that special.

But when you think about it, Greene got to play for an enthusiastic players’ coach in Cowher; the universally loved Dick LeBeau was the secondary coach and then the defensive coordinator during Greene’s stay in Pittsburgh; he played in-front of maybe the most passionate fans in all of sports and in one of the loudest places in Three Rivers Stadium; and he also made his only trip to the Super Bowl.

Kevin Greene Best Steelers Free Agent Signing Ever?

As fans, we sometimes reduce everything down to championships. The linebacker combo of Greene and Lloyd wasn’t as impressive as the duo of James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley, who teamed up for a combined 72 sacks from 2008-2010 and helped lead the Steelers to two Super Bowls and one Lombardi.

  • But those years in the mid-’90s, when Lloyd and Greene combined for 58 sacks and five Pro Bowls (Greene was also named a First-team All-Pro in ’94) weren’t so bad, either.

As far as free agents in Steelers history, other than James Farrior and Jeff Hartings, it’s hard to name a better one than Greene, who totaled 35.5 sacks during his three years in Pittsburgh.

The Rooneys sure got their money’s worth during Kevin Greene’s three years in Pittsburgh. Not only was he very productive, but the team was exciting, the fans were passionate, and it was fun to root for the Pittsburgh Steelers again.

Kevin Greene had a big role in making it fun to be a Pittsburgh Steeler again. It was also a time Kevin Greene has certainly never forgotten. Neither will Steelers Nation.

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Jerome Bettis Hall of Fame Induction Enshrines Face of Steelers Franchise

21  Pittsburgh Steelers have entered the Pro Football Hall of Fame, but Jerome Bettis Hall of Fame induction comes in Canton carrying a special distinction. Number 36 aka “The Bus,” Jerome Bettis enters the Hall of Fame as one player who truly was “the face of the franchise” during his entire career.

  • Consider the company Bettis shares in Canton and let that sink in for a moment.

Jerome Bettis became the face of the franchise the moment he arrived in Pittsburgh and held that distinction until the Bus stopped in Detroit at Super Bowl XL, making him unique among Steelers Hall of Famers.

  • You can make the case that Joe Greene held and still holds “Face of the Franchise” status.

As Steel Curtain Rising has argued that Joe Greene defines the very essence of a Pittsburgh Steeler, you’ll find no rebuttals here. But while playing Greene shared “Face of the Franchise” status with Franco Harris early on, and with the likes of Jack Lambert, Lynn Swann and Terry Bradshaw later.

In contrast, Jerome Bettis held uncontested status as the “Face of the Franchise” status while wearing the Black and Gold.

Jerome Bettis, Hall of Fame, Decal, Steelers, Hall of Fame Game

The Jerome Bettis Hall of Fame Decal

1996-1997 Pittsburgh Hops on the Bus!

Jerome Bettis arrived in Pittsburgh via a draft day trade in in 1996, when the Steelers were reeling from their loss in Super Bowl XXX. History has not been kind to Super Bowl losers, note Mike Tomlin’s Steelers have yet to win a playoff game since losing Super Bowl XLV, and Pittsburgh had just lost starters Neil O’Donnell, Leon Searcy, Tom Newberry, and Bam Morris.

The Steelers won their division in 1996 and it took two Kordell Stewart goal line interceptions a last minute John Elway comeback in 1997 to keep them out of the Super Bowl.

At the time, commentators marveled at Bill Cowher and Tom Donahoe’s continued winning despite suffering annual exodus of free agents. Cowher and Donahoe do deserve credit. But anyone seeking to understand the Steelers post-Super Bowl XXX resilience would do well to look at who arrived in Pittsburgh, rather than with left and no arrival was more important that of Jerome Bettis.

  • Fans forget, but Jerome Bettis didn’t start the first three games of the 1996 season.

But it’s a testament to how quickly Bettis bonded with the city, and the Steelers Nationwide legion of fans, that by the time Erric Pegram’s week 3 injury cleared the way for Bettis to claim the starting role, he’d already logged 2 100 yard games. More tellingly his nick name, “The Bus,” was already lingua franca in Steelers Nation.

The ’96 and ’97 Steelers success was certainly a team effort, but it’s almost impossible to find a key win during either season that did not feature a dominating performance by Jerome Bettis.

1998-1999 Steelers Struggle, But Bettis Shines

The Steelers disappointed in 1998 and 1999 just as deeply as they surprised in 1996 and 1997. A series of critical draft day errors prevented the Steelers from replacing key free agent departures, and the results showed on the field. Nearly every spot on the Steelers depth chart presented glaring liabilities, every spot that is except running back.

Jerome Bettis, while a worthy Hall of Famer, was still a mortal. His performance dropped off in both of those seasons, prompting some of the more ignorant fans and members of the press to call for Bettis replacement with his back up, Richard Huntley.

The truth is that during those dark days, Jerome Bettis was by far the most consistent player on the roster, and one who stubbornly refused to quit during not one but two late-season implosions. Forced to run behind make-shift offensive lines, Bettis still managed over 1,000 yards in both seasons.

2000-2001 The Bus Fuels Bill Cowher’s “Second Wind”

After the 1999 season the Cowher-Donahoe feud came to a head, and Dan Rooney sided with Bill Cowher and brought in Kevin Colbert to replace him.

Colbert retooled the Steelers offensive line in 2000, and Bettis bounced back. Jerome Bettis helped rally the Steelers from a 0-3 start with a gallant effort in a major upset over Jacksonville, followed by three straight 100 yard games. Later, Bettis helped fuel a critical Steelers victory over Oakland and Bettis took over the final game at Three Rivers Stadium, leading the Steelers to victory over the Redskins. (And boy did Myron Cope enjoy rubbing that one in on Daniel Snyder!)

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Jerome Bettis & Franco Harris. Photo Credit: Matt Freed, Post-Gazette

Bettis was a free agent after the 2000 season, but the Bus, gave the Steelers every chance to resign him, and Bettis rewarded them by exploding in 2001. Bettis, and the rest of the 2001 Steelers took the NFL by storm. By early December Bettis broke the 1,000 yard rushing barrier and was en route to a 1,500 yard plus effort.

  • Unfortunately, and ironically, an injury derailed Bettis in early December and that ushered in an era when his hold on the “Face of the Franchise” status was most tenuous.

The Steelers made it to the playoffs, and won their first game vs. the defending Super Bowl champions Ravens with Bettis unable to play due to a pain killing shot that numbed his entire leg. He was ineffective in the Steelers first AFC Championship loss to New England.

2002-2003 The Bus Downshifts, but Still Rumbles

Bettis began the 2002 season as the starter, but the Steelers struggled early on, as Kordell Stewart gave way to Tommy Maddox, and the era of “Tommy Gun” was born. Still, Bettis 100 yard effort in week 6 sparked a 5 game winning streak that transformed the Steelers from a 2-3 team to a 5-3-1 team contending for the division title.

The success of Tommy Gun down the stretch in 2002 convinced Bill Cowher to flirt with a “pass-first” offense and accordingly he started Amos Zereoue, relegating Bettis to the bench. Six weeks into the season the Steelers record stood at 2-4, it was clear that Tommy Maddox couldn’t read Cover-2, and the Amos Zereoue experiment failed. Bill Cowher responded by doing one of the things he did best – he hopped on The Bus.

  • It would be poetic to write that Bettis’ return to the starting lineup sparked a turn around.

Alas, it did not. But Bettis brought attitude to the offense and, for whatever else you can say about the 6-10, 2003 Steelers, those men contested every last blade of grass until the season’s final gun. Bettis only rushed for two 100 yard games that season. Both came in December, vs. the Raiders and the Chargers. The fact that those were the Steelers final two wins that season is not at all coincidental.

2004-2005 Jerome Bettis Is Closer as The Bus Stops @ Super Bowl XL

Bill Cowher issued a mandate to Ken Whisenhunt in 2004: Re-establish the run.

That was music to the diehards in Steelers Nation, but perhaps not so much for Bettis. In the off season the Steelers had signed Duce Staley, while Bettis had to agree to a pay cut. Bettis appeared to be settling into his new role as Steelers elder statesman, and as Bill Cowher used him used him to score touchdowns at the goal line.

Jerome Bettis, Bus Stops, Super Bowl XL, Lombardi

Jerome Bettis, the Face of the Steelers Franchise

By week 7 Duce had wracked up 707 yards looked like he was building to a dominating performance, but fell injured in the Steelers victory over the Patriots. While a young man by the name of Willie Parker was on the Steelers roster, he’d yet to prove himself. And here the Steelers stood at 6-1 awaiting an undefeated Eagles team with a rookie quarterback named Ben Roethlisberger and an offense designed to run…. What to do?

  • Fortunately for the Bus was all too eager to show Pittsburgh just how much traction he had left on his tires.

Bettis started vs. Philadelphia and ran roughshod over the Eagles for 149 yards, the second performance best in his career. He then proceeded to rip off four straight 100 yard rushing performances, yielded the starting job back to Staley when he return, and then closed the season with two more performances that broke the century mark. (For the record Bettis finished the season 59 yards shy of 1,000, by which time Richard Huntley had been out of football for 2 years….)

During the playoffs Bettis and Staley teamed to bludgeon the New York Jets in an exhibition of Smash Mouth football excellence not seen in Pittsburgh since the days of Franco Harris and Rocky Bleier. Although Bettis ran well the next week in the AFC Championship vs. the Patriots, Ben Roethlisberger began to play like a rookie and the Steelers came up short.

And he was crying because he feared the loss doomed Bettis chances of winning a Super Bowl. Bettis did consider retiring, but when the Steelers convened at St. Vincent’s, Bettis was there, handing out T-Shirts exclaiming, “Super Bowl XL, Detroit, The Bus Stops Here.”

The Steelers 2005 season was a topsy turvy affair. For a while it looked like the Steelers won’t even make the playoffs, let alone contend for the Super Bowl. The media anointed the Colt’s as the team of destiny.

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

Jerome Bettis shows Brian Urlacher who is boss

But after a three game losing streak that left the Steelers at 7-5, Bill Cowher once again turned to the Bus as the Steelers hosted the 9-3 Chicago Bears and Bettis took over, stoning Brian Urlacher on the way to a 101 two touchdown performance.

With Bettis serving as inspiration for the entire team, the 2005 Steelers closed out the season with 8 straight wins, including three road games in the playoffs. The night before the AFC Championship vs. Denver, Bettis implored his teammates “Take me home.”

His teammates did take him home, doing him the honor of walking out during team introductions all by himself. The Pittsburgh Steelers of course triumphed in Super Bowl XL in a game where they made their own opportunities.

  • When it was all over, standing on the dais, Lombardi in his hand, Jerome Bettis announced that “the Bus stops here.”

It was a story book ending to career. But Bettis was wrong. The Bus still had one more stop, and that is Canton, Ohio’s Pro Football Hall of Fame, where Jerome Bettis enters as the face of the Steelers franchise.

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Watch Tower: Insight into Steelers Scouting Needed, 2015 Draft & More

The Steelers 2015 Draft is in the books so the Watch Tower turns its lights to the press coverage of the Steelers draft and all the associated efforts the go with it.

Colbert, Tomlin & the Art of the Informationless Press Conference

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette writer Ed Bouchette once lamented that Mike Tomlin had “mastered the art of the informationless press conference.” Bill Cowher was no better, with John Steigerwald admitting that he stopped asking questions at press conferences five or six years before Cowher departed.

  • To a lay person’s view these complaints are a little surprising.

Unlike other NFL teams, the Pittsburgh Steelers severely limit media access to their head coach and general manger. Kevin Colbert doesn’t do interviews during the regular season. Mike Tomlin’s offseason media availability is so limited that Pittsburgh reporters actually have to travel to the NFL owners meetings to get on the record time with Tomlin.

  • So you’d think that reporters would welcome whatever on the record interaction with Colbert and Tomlin that they can get.

And they probably do, but pay close enough attention, and you’ll the media’s collective appetite for more is apparent. And prior to the 2015 NFL Draft, independent Pittsburgh sports reporting czar Dejan Kovacevic, offered some insight into why.

In his pre-draft article, Kovacevic argued that cornerback was the Steelers top draft need bar none, and attempted to get Kevin Colbert and/or Mike Tomlin on the record confirming his view point. He then warned his readers “Which, of course, led me to waste everyone’s time by asking this question at the session today:”

Kovacevic didn’t get the answer he wanted, and Colbert’s simile seems to indicate that the General Manager is fully aware of that fact. Kovacevic’s a savvy enough that Colbert’s answer didn’t come as a surprise.

But listening to Colbert and Tomlin’s generic, boiler plate on steroids response has got to be frustrating, especially for a reporter who has probably heard both men give far more informative and perhaps colorful answers in off-the-record settings.

Indeed, it would be refreshing for all, if Colbert had said something like this:

I understand where you’re coming from, but ultimately history has taught us not to lock in on any one player or one position. Think back to the 2012 draft, when many thought cornerback a priority need for us, and  it probably was. But look what happened. David DeCastro, a guy who most experts had going in the top ten, fell right into our laps. Now guard wasn’t as urgent of a need as corner and some other positions at the time, but we thought that DeCastro had the type of talent that you simply cannot pass on. So we drafted David DeCastro and he’s growing into the stud we thought he would right before our eyes. So to answer your question, yes, corner’s on our want list going into this draft, but we’re simply not going to commit to addressing it in any particular round.

OK, perhaps Colbert wouldn’t have been quite so explicit, but this was an accurate description of what happened in 2012, and such an answer would have set the stage for what happened in the 2015 draft.

Needed More Press Coverage on Steelers Scouting Operations

Kovacevic’s (and other reporters) frustration with the dearth of hard information coming out of the Steelers pre-draft press conferences represents a symptom of a deeper problem:

  • The workings of the Steelers scouting and evaluation process are almost a complete mystery.

OK, neither the Steelers nor is any other NFL teams going to publish their equivalent of trade secrets to the public at large. Nor should they. But much the same can be said for game planning and offensive and defensive strategies, and yet the press does provide the public with valuable insights on those fronts. Without doing any exhaustive research, here are a few morsels freely available for public consumption:

  • At first, Mike Tomlin granted his coordinators far greater autonomy than Bill Cowher did
  • Pre Bruce Arians comments, Tomlin took some of that autonomy away on the offensive side
  • Word is Tomlin will play a greater role in defensive game planning, implying LeBeau’s autonomy remained intact

Peek back into further history and you’ll discover other examples:

  • It was Chan Gailey and not Ron Erhardt who fathered the 5 wide out spread during the run to Super Bowl XXX
  • Jed Hughes went over Tony Dungy’s head to push Aaron Jones ill-fated move from defensive end to outside linebacker

Contrast that with what we know about the Steelers scouting processes, player evaluation, and decision making processes. Very little is known indeed. The Watch Tower commended Ed Bouchette for getting Bill Cowher on the record, describing Dan Rooney’s process for achieving pre-draft consensus between his head coach and Directors of Football Operations.

  • That was an incredible piece of insight on its own merits that whose value was enhanced by its rarity.
Steelers 70's, Draft, war room, dick haley

Steelers Draft War Room Circa 1974: Bill Nunn Jr, Dick Haley, Tim Rooney and Art Rooney Jr.

The historic Steelers draft hauls of the 1970’s spawned plenty of stories from inside the Steelers draft rooms that gave us Joe Greene, Terry Bradshaw, John Stallworth, Franco Harris and other legends. But since then the landscape has been pretty barren. Yes, we know that Myron Cope convinced coaches to pick Carlton Haselrig in the 12th round of the Steelers 1989 Draft. If memory serves, word filtered out that Dan Rooney Jr. found both Anthony Wright and Willie Parker.

More recently, we know that Maurkice Pouncey knocked the socks off of Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert at the 2010 NFL Scouting Combine. But there’s far more that Steelers Nation doesn’t know about the Steelers scouting operation that it does know.

Some of this is logical. While the Steelers may restrict official press access to their position coaches, beat writers see them on a daily basis, and undoubtedly engage in all sorts of off-the-record chats at water coolers, in elevators, and heck probably while in the john. In contrast, scouts are out in the field… scouting.

Nonetheless, the Watch Tower calls on the credentialed scribes in Steelers Nation to provide the fan base with deeper insight into this critical facet of the Pittsburgh Steelers operation.

Steelers 2015 Draft Day Bragging Rights for Kovacevic, Kaboly, Lolley & Wexell

Mock drafts and draft predictions seem to have grown to the point where they’re an industry all of their own (just Google 2016 Mock draft and you’ll see) and the scribes of Steelers Nation are no exception.

Unlike 2015, when Jim Wexell nailed the Steelers pick of Ryan Shazier, no one had Pittsburgh picking Bud Dupree. That’s because everyone projected Dupree as a top 10 pick. Nonetheless, Dejan Kovacevic correctly read the Kevin Colbert tea leaves, and sensed that the Steelers were leaning towards pass rush.

So kudos to Kovacevic for being the one to say “pass rusher” when everyone else was still saying corner (for the record Kovacevic took stark exception to the Bud Dupree pick, and gives the Colbert/Tomlin first round picks a collective D+ grade.)

Kudos are also in order for The Pittsburgh Tribune Review’s Mark Kaboly who had the Steelers picking Senquez Golson (albeit a round later) and Jesse James in the 5th round. Dale Lolloy also had the Steelers picking Senquez Golson, although he projected Golson as a 4th rounder, so Lolloy also gets some bragging rights.

Bragging rights are also in order for Steel City Insider’s Jim Wexell who not only projected the Steelers picking Anthony Chickillo in the 6th round, he also correctly slotted Chickillo as a compensatory pick.

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Merry Christmas to Everyone in Steelers Nation

Well, here we are, Christmas 2013. For the first 21 years of my life, Christmas meant one thing with almost complete certainty – a trip to Pittsburgh. No, we never spent Christmas day itself in the ‘Burgh, (except perhaps for once, when I was very little), but we always drove up there the day after Christmas.

When I was young, Steelers gear, and Steelers posters were frequent presents from my grandparents, and aunt and uncle. My grandparents were not big sports fans, but this was the end of the first Super Bowl era, and support for the Steelers was a natural part of civic pride. I can remember going up to my grandpa Bill one year, him sitting in his green chair, wearing a Steelers sweatshirt and him asking “Who are you, Rocky Bleier?” I said yes, having no idea about Rocky’s incredible story.

One year it snowed, and there are pictures of my cousin David towing me around my aunt and uncle’s first house in Monroeville with a Steelers jacket on – a jacket I’d later inherit and proudly wear in future winters down inside “Redskins Territory” despite the plunge the franchise took in the 80’s.

When I got older, and had made a conscious decision that the Steelers were “My team” and began following the club long distance from Maryland (mind you, no internet on those days, although the Washington Post did have good national NFL coverage) those trips to Pittsburgh gave me a window into some key moments of the club’s history.

1987 brought my introduction to Myron Cope, as the Steelers eliminated themselves from the playoff’s vs. the Browns at Three Rivers Stadium in Mark Malone’s final game as a Steeler. More significantly, the game was also John Stallworth and Donnie Shell’s finale with the franchise, leaving only Mike Webster and Dwayne Woodruff as the last holdovers of the Super Steelers.

1988’s entrance to Grandma’s house on Ceadercove was met by a KDKA news anchor leading off with this:

  • “Rumors are flying around faster than a quarterback can throw them. Is Chuck Noll out a Steelers head coach?”

The Steelers had just finished 5-11, and Noll buckled when Dan Rooney asked him to fire some coaches. It was the intervention of Joe Greene that got both men to step back from the ledge.

1991’s arrival coincided with Chuck Noll’s retirement. We didn’t make it into the city in time for the press conference, but I remember my Grandmother telling me that Noll had been visibly ready to cry.

1992’s trip brought us there in time for the regular season finale vs. Cleveland. This was the game where Barry Foster broke the franchise’s rushing record, which in spite of everything that Jerome Bettis accomplished, stands today.

It also marked Bubby Brister’s final game with the Steelers. A week early the fans at Three Rivers Stadium had been booing him, but they were chanting “Bubby, Bubby, Bubby” before he was done. After the game, he made his famous declaration that he was glad to answer his critics, saying “I won’t mention any names, just initials, O.J. Simpson.”

Merry Christmas, Steelers Nation

Whether this Christmas finds you in Pittsburgh, as a product of the Diaspora celebrating in parts elsewhere, or simply as a citizen of Steelers Nation without any familial or geographic tie to the City of Pittsburgh, everyone here at Steel Curtain Rising wishes you a very Merry Christmas.

Thanks for visiting. Click here to check out the rest of Steel Curtain Rising. Or… Follow @SteelCurtainRis

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1989 Steelers Shock NFL, Vikings 27-14

Either we just played the two best teams in football, or it is going to be a long season.”
– Chuck Noll, reflecting on his team’s 92-10 start to the 1989 season.
The third week of the Steelers 1989 season brought the Minnesota Vikings to Three Rivers Stadium.

I can still [almost] quote from memory an article I read the Monday article on the game:

This game went exactly as it was scripted. A disgruntled teammate getting revenge against his former team. Dominating defense matched with effective, if not explosive offense….

The Steelers had lost their first two contests by a score of 92-10. If possible, the numbers behind that lopsided score were worse.

  • Collectively their rushers were averaging less than three yards a carry
  • Opponents had sacked Bubby Brister 12 times
  • Greg Lloyd owned the entire Steelers sack total, which stood at one
  • Injuries forced John Rienstra, a life long guard, to switch to tackle, while rookie Tom Ricketts, a life long tackle, sifted to guard
  • Starting linebacker Bryan Hinkle was out. Unable to reclaim no-name linebacker Darren Jordan from the waiver wire, the Steelers would start a rookie in his place.

And the Vikings, although 1-1, still stood as Super Bowl contenders. They’d also brought Mike Merriweather with them, the Steelers 1987 team MVP, whose bitter contract dispute with Dan Rooney resulted in a hold out that spanned the entire 1988 season.

The game unfolded as scripted. Except, as the Washington Post pointed the next day out, this script had a surprise ending.

Bubby Brister, Merril Hoge, Steelers vs Vikings, 1989 Steelers upset vikings

Bubby Brister and Merril Hoge led the 1989 Steelers over the Minnesota Vikings

Minnesota, Myron and Mularkey in Route to Maryland on the PA Turnpike

Yours truly was actually in Pittsburgh the weekend of the game, and listened to the game’s first half on WTAE driving home on the turnpike. During the early going Mike Mularkey and a Viking, I believe it was Mike Merriweather, got into a scuffle… you KNOW Myron Cope couldn’t, wouldn’t and of course didn’t resist.

“And there’s Mularkey saying, ‘now don’t you give me any of that Mularkey’” boomed through the speakers in the backseat. One more classic Myron memory to cherish.

Scuffles are one thing, but scoring wins games, and quickly thereafter Mulakery drew first blood on a 15 yard pass from Bubby Brister. Minnesota scored on its next drive, but the Steelers answered with an eight yard touchdown run by Tim Worley.

On the next series, it looked like things took a turn for the worse, when a Vikings defender sacked-stripped Brister and returned the fumble 27 yards for a touchdown. For the third time in just six quarters at Three Rivers Stadium, an opposing defending was advancing a fumble into the end zone.

Faced with a perfect opportunity to fold… the Steelers marched straight down the field and just as WTAE’s signal began to fade, Jack Flemming’s voice boomed, “Merrill Hoge scores the go ahead touchdown.”

My folks tried to pick up the second half but the signals of the Altoona and Johnstown stations simply weren’t strong enough. An unfortunate occurrence.

The Steel Curtain is Robust with Rust

Entering the second half protecting a 21-14 lead to start the second half, Steelers unleashed the defense.
Revitalized by new defensive coordinator Rod Rust, the Steel Curtain decimated the Vikings. Hardy Nickerson, Tim Johnson, and yes, Jeroll Williams, that rookie standing in for Bryan Hinkle, collected four of their five sacks. Steelers also picked off Wade Wilson twice, and held Anthony Carter to 5 catches.

When the dust cleared, the Steelers had completely shut out the Vikings in the second half.
Significant?

You bet.

Some Players You Remember, Some Players You Forget

It might seem strange now, but in 1989 many regarded Minnesota’s offense as second only to the 49ers in terms fire power.

Although not an elite quarterback, Wade Wilson was nonetheless a Pro Bowler, as was tight end Steve Jordan. Hassan Jones was likewise considered a top number 2 receiver, and Anthony Carter was seen as on the verge of greatness.

Save for Wade Wilson, few remember their names now, and that’s in part because they couldn’t get the better of players like of Lloyd, Nickerson, Lake, and Woodson. Names the NFL remembers 20 years later.

The NFL noted the Steelers upset, but generally waited to see if it meant something or if it was just another case of On Any Given Sunday. Time would prove those league pundits wise, as the roller coster ride that was the Steelers 1989 season was just getting revved up…

You can read Steel Curtain Rising’s entire season-long tribute to the 1989 Steelers by clicking here.

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Chuck Noll vs. Bill Walsh – What makes a Legacy?

An NFL coach’s success is defined by the answers to two questions: Does he win and does he win championships?

Great coaches answer both questions in the affirmative.

If that is the case, then how does a coach’s “legacy,” those contributions that go beyond simply winning, factor into the measure of his greatness?

This question is directly relevant to the Chuck Noll/Bill Walsh debate.

Both men not only won big, but they won multiple championships. But Bill Walsh’s name is always bandied about when the “greatest ever” discussions heat up, while few rarely bother to suggest Noll’s. This apparent contradiction is explained by Bill Walsh’s “legacy” and Chuck Noll’s perceived lack thereof.

What Constitutes a Coaching Legacy?

Some great coaches leave “legacies.” Men such as George Halas, Paul Brown, and Tom Landry were innovators and mentors to succeeding generations of coaches. Bill Walsh falls into this group.

Even the casual NFL fan knows that Bill Walsh is the father of the “West Coast Offense” and that he started the Bill Walsh coaching tree.

The West Coast Offense is “chink and dink” for true, Smash Mouth Football purists, but it has been used extensively and successful for almost three decades. The Bill Walsh coaching tree goes hand in hand with the West Coast Offense, as it has served as the foundation for the success of Walsh’s disciples.

Other genuinely great coaches left little in the way of a “legacy.” Consider:

  • Don Shula had the “No Name Defense” and employed what was simply know as “the system.” (His one alum of note was of course Chuck Noll). Shula won two Super Bowls, appeared in two more, and his the winningest coach in history.
  • A true legend in his own right, Vince Lombardi’s greatness was as much a function of his personality as it was anything else. He won two Super Bowls, and 3 NFL titles.
  • Joe Gibbs was a superb strategist and almost certainly the greatest coach of the modern era. He was so good at coaxing the most out of his players that he equaled Walsh’s Super Bowl total, with far less talent. Yet, despite Gibbs’ offensive genius, he left the game with nothing comparable to the “West Coast Offense.” Likewise, Gibbs pupils who’ve coached elsewhere have enjoyed nothing close to the success of Walsh’s.

Noll sits in good company with this second cadre of coaches. Noll was neither beholden to sexy schemes nor sought flashy innovations. He excelled by putting the right people in the right places, and having them execute. Likewise, he spawned little in the way coaching off spring, with the notable exception of Tony Dungy.

Perception and the Press (as it relates to Walsh and Noll)

The media’s influence on how we perceive coaching legacies is also critically important. As journalist/college professor Elliot King argues, a public figure’s personal relations with the press greatly impacts the tone of his or her media coverage. King’s argument comes from study of politics, but applies equally to sports.

In his book Double Yoi, Myron Cope recounts how Noll alienated much of the national NFL press corps at his first Super Bowl by “grudgingly [giving] short answers to the questions asked of him…. ‘Condescending’ was the adjective they hung on him. In their stories, they ripped him.”

Even after Noll’s hand was adorned with a few Super Bowl rings, the out of town press continued to mistakenly call him “Chuck Knox.” In fact, after Joe Gilliam’s death, even the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette failed to correct a story it published from a Dallas newspaper which had mistakenly refered to the coaching legend as “Chuck Knoll.”

Bill Walsh not only had excellent relations with the press, he became one of them, working on NBC’s top play-by-play team in his first few years of retirement. This long-standing relationship with the press has certainly served to amplify Walsh’s already tremendous achievements to the benefit of his image and the perception of his legacy.

Legacy vs. Legacy

Chuck Noll’s 209 total wins, 9 Hall of Famers, and four Super Bowls constitute his legacy. The lack of a legion of successful assistant coaches or a scheme tied to his name in no way diminish his accomplishments.

But Bill Walsh does have both of those things to add to his wins, Super Bowls and Hall of Famers. And rightly or wrongly, that fact is always going to be cited when his place among the coaching greats is discussed.

Edge: Bill Walsh.

Click here to read Part V of the Chuck Noll vs. Bill Walsh series, click here to return to the main article.

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2008 Death of Dwight White, Steelers Legend, Dropped Steel Curtain to Half Strength

2008 was not a kind year to the Steel Curtain. In January, Ernie Holmes died in a car accident, and then Myron Cope passed away, silencing Steelers Nation’s definitive voice. Sadly, in June of 2008 Dwight White joined them.

  • Nature sometimes has a way with working its ironies.

In his 2002 autobiography, Double Yoi, Myron Cope dedicated an entire chapter, “Half of the Steel Curtain,” to Holmes and White. He argued that while Joe Greene and L.C. Greenwood received their just accolades, Holmes and White were too often overlooked. Whether it be because of Divine will or a random act, all three were called away from Steelers Nation in a span of less than six months.

  • This author offers living proof of Cope’s contention.

Growing up in 70’s suburban Maryland in a household where sports held a low priority, I knew very little of Dwight White and Ernie Holmes.

Dwight White, Roger Staubach, Super Bowl X, Steelers vs Cowboys

Dwight White closes in on Roger Staubach in Super Bowl X. Photo Credit: Joe Caneva, AP via NFL.com

I of course knew about “Mean Joe Greene.” While the Steelers were busy winning their third and fourth Super Bowls, some of the other kids on Wendy Lane and I used to play “Super Steelers” pretending that the Steelers had super powers. If memory serves, Joe Greene could turn himself into a giant at will. (Lynn Swann had super speed. Franco could bust through walls. Terry Bradshaw threw exploding footballs and could hit anything he aimed for. Although I was yet to be acquainted with The X-Men at age six, Chuck Noll played a professor Xavier-like role.)

While L.C. Greenwood held no place in our Parthenon of Steelers Super Heroes, I distinctly remember a friend preparing to go into his Five Mississippi rush in a game of Nerf football saying, “I’m L.C., I’m L.C.” and knowing immediately he was talking about L.C. Greenwood of the Steelers.

Like Ernie Holmes, “D. White” was just a name and a face that I knew from Steelers 50 Seasons poster that hung on my wall for so many years. I didn’t learn just how distinguished a member of the Steel Curtain that Dwight White was until I was in college.

  • Dwight White was one of the top story tellers of the Super Steelers.

His comments on the NFL Flims tribute to Chuck Noll that appeared on the back end of the Steelers 1992 season in review are priceless.

Ray Mansfield sets the stage, recounting how John Madden capped the Raiders victory over the Miami Dolphins by proclaiming “the best two teams in football played to day, and it’s a shame that one of them had to lose….” Continuing, Mansfield explains that Noll came in the locker room the next day, with a determined look on his face, saying “They think the just won the God Damm Super Bowl… But let me tell you something, the best God-Dammed football team is sitting right here.”

White picks up the thread, remembering “At the time, that was pretty strong language for Chuck. Later on he developed the ability to rattle it off pretty well, but at the time that was pretty uncharacteristic.” White recounts how Noll’s words set the locker room on fire, reassuring that, “From that point on, we knew we were going to win…. I mean, it was like getting a blessing to go out and beat up on somebody.”

The Steelers of course went on to upset the Oakland Raiders 24-13 in the AFC Championship, but the game that followed was perhaps White’s finest hour. As Myron Cope tells the story, White was stricken with phenomena the week of the Super Bowl IX. He’d lost 18 pounds and was so sick he was unable to lift his leg on the one day he tried to practice.

On the morning of Super Bowl Sunday, White left the hospital, insisting that he be taken to the Sugar Bowl. Team Dr.’s let him warm up, figuring he would pass out. White didn’t, and insisted on starting the game.

The Vikings tested White immediately. They ran directly at White on their first three runs, and White stopped them each time, tackling Dave Osborn for a loss, no gain, and a one yard gain. Topping it all off, White scored the game’s first points, sacking Fran Tarkenton for a safety. White played the entire game, save for a few plays in the first quarter. Minnesota finished the day with 21 yards rushing on 17 attempts.

When asked about it years later by Cope, White told him’’ “‘You know what? It was kind of a blur’” He also offered “‘What I remember, though, was that our players kept asking me in the huddle, “How you feeling?” It was annoying’”

White followed up this effort by sacking Roger Starbauch three times in Super Bowl X, and registered 33.5 sacks between 1972 and 1975. Dwight White retired in 1980, and 27 years later he is still 7th on their all-time sack list.

Like many of the Super Steelers, Dwight White settled in Pittsburgh, excelling at what Chuck Noll calls “life’s work.” He worked as a stock broker, ultimately becoming the Senior Managing Director in Public Finance for Mesirow Financial. White was also active in numerous Pittsburgh charities.

Ray Mansfield was the first Super Steeler to pass away, followed by Steve Furness, Mike Webster, and Ernie Holmes. As haunting as that is, the numbers paint an even grimmer picture: According to ESPN, 38 former Steelers have died since 2000, and 17 of those were 59 or younger.

But nothing is quite is poignant as the realization that, with Dwight White’s passing, the Steel Curtain now permanently stands at half strength.

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2008 Death of Myron Cope, Terrible Towel Inventor, Silenced Voice of Steelers Nation

In February 2008, Steelers Nation lost a definitive voice with the death of Myron Cope, Terrible Towel inventor and legendary voice of the Pittsburgh Steelers. No Steeler summed up Cope’s legacy better than Art Rooney II when he explained that “Myron Cope brought the Steelers closer to the fans.” Myron Cope was, as Sports Illustrated, opined in 1992, “the soul of the Pittsburgh Steelers.”

myron cope, steelers nation, WTAE, 1929-2008

Steelers Nation Still Honors Myron Cope

In an age when sports broadcasting is increasingly defined by either former athletes who are there by virtue of their names or professionals who excel in their drive to be vanilla, Myron Cope brought a new meaning the term “color commentator.”

  • Cope was a character and, to his credit, he made no apologies for that.

Growing up in Maryland, my exposure to Myron Cope did not come until the 1987 season’s final contest. Sitting on an 8-6 record, Pittsburgh needed only to beat the “Cleve Brownies” at home to clinch a playoff berth in that strike shortened season.

Heading into Pittsburgh the day after Christmas, we had just reached WTAE’s range as Browns were in the process of putting the Steelers away. Suddenly safety Cornell Gowdy returned an interception for a touchdown. “We got ourselves a football game, we got ourselves a football game!” boomed the speakers.

The Steelers went on to lose that game 21 years ago, but I remember Myron Cope’s accounts of the second half as vividly as if they’d happened yesterday. When Brian Hinkle went down “ooh, that hurts, that hurts!” Later, Jack Fleming spotted one of the team captains jumping up and down after a disputed call Cope interjected “is it for joy or for anger? Fleming, is he jumping joy or for anger?!”

Up to that point 95% of my experience with football on the radio had come from listening WMAL’s Redskins broadcast team of Sonny, Sam, Frank, and Huff. While those guys bled red and yellow just as profusely as Myron bled Black and Gold, an important difference was apparent:

  • Myron’s wit was legendary, but he called the game as he saw it, and he never took himself too seriously.

In fact, in his book Double Yoi, Myron Cope made a point of saying that, as opposed to his writing, he did not take broadcasting seriously at all. Case in point, writing about creating the Terrible Towel in Steelers Digest, he said he’d been asked to come up with a gimmick, and “I am a gimmicly kind of guy.” (Interestingly enough, this account conflicts with recently published accounts.)

Yet Myron never let his antics interfere with his insights into the game. I remember an outbound PA Turnpike trip as the Steelers played the Vikings in the third game of the 1989 season. Myron Cope, true to form, came out with gems like, “and there’s Mike Mularkey arguing with the Minny Vike defender saying ‘now don’t you give me any of that mularkey….”

But at a crucial point in the game a Steeler receiver had been ruled out of bounds. Before the next play could be called Myron exclaimed, “Both feet were in bounds, both feet were in bounds. Did you see it Fleming? Did you see it? Tell me, am I right or are my eye balls LYING TO ME? He got both feet in bounds. FLEMING did you see what I saw!” The officials reviewed the play, and sure enough, the Steelers receiver had gotten both feet in bounds.

  • Myron Cope’s contribution to the game was unique.

He invented the Terrible Towel. In Steelers 1989 draft, Cope coaxed coaches into drafting Carlton Haselrig, a college wrestler who never even played football. Haselrig made the 1992 Pro Bowl as a guard. In 1992, late in a Sunday Night Match up against the Chiefs, Cope realized that Barry Foster was sitting on the bench only a few yards shy of a 100. He pounded on the glass of the press box to make the assistant coaches next to him aware of this. Foster got his 100.

Whether it was with his Christmas songs, nick names like “Drac Lambert,” or “the Bus,” the enthusiasm Myron Cope shared with fans was contagious. He brought a vivid tone and texture to football games that took on a life of its own, at least in Steelers Nation.

  • Its not so much that no broadcaster will never leave a bigger footprint on that game, its that none will ever leave better one.

Rest in peace Myron Cope, Steelers Nation misses you! Double Yoi!

[Lectores de Español, para leer un articulo sobre Myron Cope hagan clic acá.]

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