I hate to play the role of Spoiler here, but Sports Illustrated says the Steelers are going to win the Super Bowl this year. The franchise has done that before. In fact, there’s a new book about the Steelers’ glory days in the 1970’s. “The Ones Who Hit The Hardest” also studies the city of Pittsburgh, which was going through a difficult economic transition at the time (sound familiar?) And, as an added bonus, the Dallas Cowboys are painted as the villains.
This also marks Sports Crackle Pop’s first two on one interview. The authors, Chad Millman and Shawn Coyne, took some time to answer a few questions. We touched on the characters that made up the Steel Curtain, the invention of Moneyball before Moneyball, and the Beatles.
SCP: The book paints the battles between the Steelers and Cowboys as, in some ways, grit versus glamour. But it was the Steelers who actually had some of the biggest individual characters in football during the era. Can you give us some quick details or stories on guys like Bradshaw, Mean Joe Greene, Rocky Blieir and Franco Harris? Who emerged as your favorite while writing this book?
CM/SC: It was a tie between Mean Joe, Franco and the offensive line coach Dan Radakovich. All three of them were incredibly honest during interviews, talking about everything from chasing after opponents with a pair of scissors (Greene) to not wanting to play for the Steelers (Harris) to what they knew about players taking steroids (Rad). They were also all full of good humor about those days, which came across as starkly different to athletes of today who take everything so seriously. Mostly though, I had no idea how important each of those guys were. When I became a football fan Greene and Harris were at the tail end of their careers. Learning about how dominant they were and that, more than anyone, they were credited by teammates with being the catalysts for those early championships, was fascinating. And listening to Radakovich talk about being the first to tape jerseys or having his wife sew the sleeves of his offensive linemen so defenders couldn’t hold made me want to get on the field and practice with him. One of my favorite non Harris, Green, Rad stories is from Bleier. When the Steelers were striking in 1974 he was getting a lot of flak from fans for being ungrateful, since the team had carried him after he was injured in Vietnam. One night he got a call from Art Rooney and was worried he was going to be cut for leading the strike. Instead Rooney said to him, “Don’t worry about what fans are saying, Rock. We love you and will get this worked out.”
SCP: The Steelers were historically terrible before Chuck Noll signed on. What was it about him that changed the culture in Pittsburgh?
CM/SC: He was patient and he was steadfast. He decided he was going to build his team through the draft and the Rooneys gave him a long leash so he was able to work without being worried he had to win right away or be fired. He was also a keen talent evaluator. Every draft he wound up getting hall of fame players. But mostly he never lost the players because he was consistent. The stuff that mattered most to him was what happened on the field. This was a team that had had a dress code and wasn’t allowed to sit in bars before he arrived. Noll didn’t care about that stuff. He assumed they were men and treated them like that. If whatever they did off the field hampered their on field performance, then they got cut. Otherwise, he didn’t care.
SCP: Scouting was obviously a big part of their success. It seems impossible, but Pittsburgh drafted four guys in 1974 that ended up in the Hall of Fame. How much was good scouting and how much was simple luck?
CM/SC: Scouting was the biggest part of it. Luck and common sense played another. In that draft, they got John Stallworth because Bill Nunn, one of their scouts, pretended the college films for Stallworth had gotten lost when another team requested the Steelers passed them on. Nunn knew how great he was and didn’t want anyone else to figure it out. They drafted Webster because Noll saw him beating up a sure first round pick in a scrimmage at the Senior Bowl. His response was, “If the nose tackle is a first rounder, what’s the center who is destroying him?” Then again, when they drafted Franco, Noll had to be talked into it. Sometimes you’re lucky because you’re smart enough to know when to listen.
SCP: Tom Landry depended a lot on computers and statistics in building his Cowboys teams of the 70’s. It sounds a bit like he was “Moneyball” long before the concept ever entered the popular lexicon.
CM/SC: It was actually Tex Schramm who knew the potential value and game changing nature digital evaluations would become. And it was Schramm who went after Landry…a like minded analyst of the game for Cowboy head coach. Just prior to taking the General Manager job with the Cowboys, Schramm was an executive for CBS Sports. During the 1960 Winter Olympics in Squaw Valley, CA while most Americans were rooting on the Gold Medal Winning US Hockey team, Schramm stood mesmerized in the Olympic Village Square watching an IBM Computer post “live” event results. Schramm suspected that if a computer could keep track of the volume of detail in an Olympics, it could certainly tabulate intricate evaluations of college talent to the decimal point. Schramm and Landry then came up with a very precise list of requirements for a good football player. After four years and running through several millions dollars of Clint Murchison’s money to program there machine, the first test they ran was for the 1964 draft. The number one player it came back with was Joe Namath. The Cowboys relied on the computer’s assessment for the rest of the draft and ended up with three hall of famers…Mel Renfro, Bob Hayes, and Roger Staubach
SCP: The Cowboys actually complained to the league following their loss to the Steelers in the 75 Superbowl. Can you explain that?
CM/SC: Two words…Mel Blount. Blount was the best bump and run cornerback in the history of the game. He was so adept at banging receivers down the field and knocking them off their routes, that Tex Schramm (head of the NFL rules committee) lobbied the league to adopt rule changes that prevented defensive backs from contacting receivers more than five yards off the line of scrimmage. Schramm finally got his wish for the 1978 season and the NFL adopted what came to be known as the “mel blount rule.” Problem was that the Steelers also had some pretty good receivers. The new rules unleashed Lynn Swann and John Stallworth on the league and made the Steelers as dynamic an offense as a defense.
SCP: It seems that fans in every major American city, with the possible exceptions of Miami and LA, describe themselves as “blue collar.” What makes Pittsburgh stand out over cities like Cleveland, Chicago or even New York?
CM/SC: Art Rooney. The founder of the Steelers and the heart and soul of the franchise, identified first and foremost with the working man. He used to say “My mother’s people were all coal miners and my father’s people were all steelworkers,” with great pride. And he passed on that respect to his sons who passed it on to their sons. He named his team for the very men who attended the games. The mills are gone now, but the hard work of the men who toiled there is remembered with every Pittsburgh tackle and touchdown.
SCP: It’s pretty obvious that Bradshaw is not a fan of Ben Roethlisberger and vice versa. How do the other former Steelers feel about the current team?
CM/SC: Can’t really say, didn’t ask anyone about it. Most of the reporting happened long before Ben’s issues.
SCP: You co-authored this book. How did that work? Did one of you sit on the couch while the other one typed? Did you split up chapters in sort of a Lennon-McCartney way?
CM/SC: We split up chapters. Chad worked on the Steelers parts and Shawn focused on the mills/Cowboys. When we were both done writing our respective sections we merged at the end and rewrote each other so it sounded magical, just like the Beatles.