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Saturday, June 2, 2012

STEELERS - Laying the Foundation (1960s)

The man whom Dan Rooney used to
get rid of head coach Buddy Parker
The hiring of Chuck Noll essentially began in 1965. The AFL was establishing itself as a real rival to the NFL, The Chief (Art Rooney) was in his sixties and slowing down and head coach Buddy Parker still believed an over-the-hill veteran was worth two draft picks or untested rookies. It was the Same Old Steelers in a changing environment. Dan Rooney, ever more active in team operations, told Parker that things needed to change. As you might imagine, that went over poorly with the old-school Parker, who had won a pair of NFL championships with the Lions.

After an exhibition game in 1965, Parker called Rooney with another of his impetuous trade demands, wanting to dump future pro bowler Ben McGee. Rooney said that he’d talk to Parker the next morning. Parker, used to going around Dan to the Chief, replied “You don’t understand. I’ve made up my mind – I’m gonna do it. And if you don’t like it, I’ll resign.” It was a power struggle that could only have one outcome. Parker continued on with, “I’m the coach, you can’t tell me what to do,” and “I can’t work like this. Maybe it’s better if I leave.” The next morning, two weeks before the start of the season, Parker resigned. You can picture Rooney patting him on the back as he accepts the resignation, a befuddled Parker being pushed out the door, wondering what just happened. Dan Rooney would begin instituting a new way of doing things in Pittsburgh, though the system would not change overnight.

Bill Austin (kneeling) with his Steelers coaching staff
Assistant coach Mike Nixon was a stop gap hire for the 1965 season, going 2-12. Nixon, who had previously coached the Washington Redskins, was one of the most unsuccessful coaches in NFL history. His career record was 6-30-2.

Bill Austin replaced him in 1966, coming with a strong recommendation from Vince Lombardi. After another 2-12 season in 1968 (his three year run yielded an 11-28-3 record), Dan Rooney was ready to make a move. The Steelers had experienced just eight winning seasons in thirty-six years of football and he wanted to do things differently.

Noll almost ruined his mentor's perfect season
with narrow 17-21 loss in the 1972 AFC
Championship Game
Among the interviewees was Joe Paterno, having just finished his third season as Penn State’s head coach. The Steelers had enjoyed success under a former college coach one time before: Pitt's Jock Sutherland. 

Noll, an assistant to Don Shula with the Baltimore Colts, had been on the losing side of Super Bowl III. The very next day, he knocked Dan Rooney’s socks off with a two hour interview. Two weeks later, he had the job. Noll had learned from Paul Brown, Sid Gillman and Shula: three legendary coaches. He had a very clear idea of how to build a championship team.

Noll took his first step on the road to success in the 1969 NFL draft. Hall of Famer OJ Simpson was taken first, followed by Notre Dame All American tackle George Kunz (an eight time pro bowler) and then Heisman runner-up Leroy Keyes of Purdue. Keyes, a running back and safety and possibly the greatest player in Purdue history, had a short, unsuccessful pro career.

Trivia Time out: A distant third in the Heisman voting was Terry Hanratty of Notre Dame. The Steelers would take him in the second round of the draft. Hanratty didn’t have much of a career, but he did replace Terry Bradshaw as the team’s starting quarterback at the end of the 1970 and 1973 seasons.

So, on January 12, 1969, Chuck Noll was coaching in the Super Bowl with the Baltimore Colts. On January 13, he interviewed with the Steelers. On January 27, he was introduced as the new head coach. And on January 29 with the fourth pick in the draft, Noll took Joe Greene, an All American defensive tackle at North Texas State University. After decades of futility, Steelers history was being rewritten week by week. Well, off the field, at least.

THAT's who Joe Greene is!
This draft pick was not received with universal acclaim. “Who Is Joe Greene?” was the lead story in the next day’s Pittsburgh Press. Greene later said that Pittsburgh was the last team in the league he wanted to play for, since they were always losers. LC Greenwood was picked in the tenth round, providing the team with the guts of what was to become The Steel Curtain.

At one of his first team meetings, Noll told the players most of them just weren’t good enough and would soon be gone. Ouch. From day one, Chuck Noll was going to re-teach the fundamentals and get his kind of driven, disciplined players. There would be no sugarcoating that Pittsburgh Steelers football was going to change: who played and how they played.

Bradshaw was a 'sure thing' who barely lasted
long enough to lead the Steelers to four
Super Bowls
Noll’s 1969 Steelers won their first game and dropped the remaining thirteen, which gave them the first pick in the draft: Almost. The Chicago Bears also went 1-13 and the Steelers won a coin flip for the top pick. Terry Bradshaw, a strong armed quarterback at Louisiana Tech, was the consensus number one and teams tried to trade for the pick. The Steelers held firm and the Bears were so disappointed that they traded out of the number two spot. So, with his first two number one picks, Noll grabbed a pair of Hall of Famers he could build his offense and defense around. Three Rivers Stadium opened in 1970, the Steelers won five games and the Noll Era was moving forward.

More Trivia: Only five players on the 1968 team would still be Steelers for the first Super Bowl: Andy Russell (LB), Ray Mansfield (C), Sam Davis (G), Bobby Walden (P), and Rocky Bleier. Chuck Noll got rid of almost every single player in five seasons.

And A Little More Trivia: The Cleveland Browns had the third pick in 1970. Like the Steelers, they took a highly rated quarterback: Mike Phipps. Phipps had a mediocre career and lost the starting job to Brian Sipe in 1976. Bradshaw won four Super Bowls and went into the Hall of Fame. The Browns had long been the better team, tallying eight championships in the pre-Super Bowl Era. They had played in what we would now call the NFC Championship Game in 1968 and 1969.

A few weeks after the draft - 'Gosh, coach, you mean play
in front of all those people?'
But you can point to the 1970 draft as the moment the franchises reversed course. By 1973 the Steelers were clearly superior and that has continued to this day.


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