The Greatness of ‘70s Long Ago and Far Away for Noll, Steelers


It has been 10 years since the Pittsburgh Steelers climaxed the reign of one of the great sports dynasties of all time by winning their fourth Super Bowl in the ‘70s.

After a few more seasons that were good but not great, the Steelers began struggling. The current campaign seems to be a mini-rerun of what they have gone through since they last reached the playoffs in 1984. Their level of performance has ranged from A to F en route to the 4-6 record they will carry into Sunday’s game against the Chargers (also 4-6) in Pittsburgh.

Which team will play the Chargers is anybody’s guess. If it’s the one that lost its first two games by 82 points, the Chargers will be in luck. If it’s the one that knocked off the Minnesota Vikings and avenged a 51-0 rout in its home opener by beating the Browns in Cleveland five weeks later, look out.


The one constant amid this remarkable inconsistency is Coach Chuck Noll, who turned out the Steelers’ four Super Bowl winners and has refused to waver in the face of their recent run of adversity.

Noll, 57, learned under two masters, Paul Brown and Sid Gillman, and then became one. He is a cinch to join them in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Nevertheless, Steeler fans are asking the age-old question, “What have you done for us lately?” Some think the game has passed him by.

Noll, who played for seven seasons (1953-59) under Brown with the Browns and served as an assistant for six seasons (1960-65) under Gillman with the Chargers, is too tough to let such criticism get to him. His philosophy of coaching and handling players is unchanged from the days when the Steelers ruled the NFL.

The key to Noll’s thinking is togetherness, and it is epitomized by an analogy contained in the message he has posted on the bulletin board in the Steelers’ locker room. It reads, in part:

“When geese fly in formation, they travel 70% faster than when they fly alone. By being part of a team, we too can accomplish much more, much faster.

“The next time you see a formation of geese, remember that it is a reward, a challenge and a privilege to be a contributing member of a team.”


Unfortunately for Noll and the Steelers, too many members of their Super Bowl championship teams may have stayed together too long. Like the Green Bay Packers, who dominated pro football under Vince Lombardi in the ‘60s, they grew old all at once.

For this, Noll must take some of the blame. Like Lombardi before him, he didn’t blend in new blood from year to year to replace the parts that were wearing out.

Noll was asked about this in his conference call with the San Diego media during the week.

“You have to go with your best people,” he said. “There was no specific effort to turn over personnel. When you have a team like we did, you don’t have an opportunity to bring young people along. All of a sudden, you have people retiring, and if everybody retires together, you run into trouble.”

To illustrate, consider the following:

After the 1978 season, in which the Steelers won their third Super Bowl, they had 10 players in the Pro Bowl. Of these 10, Joe Greene and L.C. Greenwood retired in 1981, Lynn Swann and Jack Ham in 1982, Terry Bradshaw, Franco Harris and Mel Blount in 1983 and Jack Lambert in 1984. Greene, Ham, Bradshaw and Blount are in the Hall of Fame, with the others likely to follow.

Only Donnie Shell and Mike Webster lasted longer than that. Shell retired in 1987, and Webster is with the Kansas City Chiefs after being released by the Steelers last spring.

After the 1979 season, in which the Steelers scored their fourth and last Super Bowl victory, they again had 10 men in the Pro Bowl--John Stallworth in place of Swann plus the same nine others. Stallworth played through 1987.


The Steelers’ Pro Bowl representation fell off after that--to five in 1980 and four in 1981. The team gradually ran out of gas.

Another big reason for the Steelers’ skid--perhaps a bigger one--was a succession of poor drafts.

From 1979 through 1988, six of 10 first-round choices were busts. A seventh, nose tackle Gabriel Rivera of Texas Tech, was paralyzed in an auto accident during his rookie season of 1983. It is too early to evaluate their two No. 1 picks of 1989, running back Tim Worley of Georgia and offensive tackle Tom Ricketts of Pittsburgh, but both have been disappointing so far.

The Steelers stubbed their toes on running back Greg Hawthorne of Baylor in 1979, quarterback Mark Malone of Arizona State in 1980, defensive end Keith Gary of Oklahoma in 1981, defensive end Darryl Sims of Wisconsin in 1985, guard John Rienstra of Temple in 1986 and defensive end Aaron Jones of Eastern Kentucky in 1988.

When the Steelers made Malone, from El Cajon Valley High School, their No. 1 pick in 1970, they were fresh from their fourth Super Bowl victory and needed so little help that they could draft Bradshaw’s eventual successor. As it turned out, Malone flopped not only with the Steelers but with the Chargers, who released him last summer after one season.

The only three first-rounders who panned out during the decade were running back Walter Abercrombie of Baylor in 1982, wide receiver Louis Lipps of Southern Mississippi in 1984 and cornerback Rod Woodson of Purdue in 1987. Only Lipps has made the Pro Bowl, and Abercrombie’s career was shortened by injuries.


Compare this list to that of the first-round picks from 1969 through 1978--Noll’s first decade as coach. He broke in with a 1-13 season in 1969, not all bad because it enabled the Steelers to draft Bradshaw.

The building of the dynasty began with the choice of Greene, a defensive tackle from North Texas State, in 1969. He now is the team’s defensive line coach.

A year later came Bradshaw, the quarterback from Louisiana Tech who was to become the most important contributor to the Steelers’ Super Bowl domination.

Two other first-round bonanzas were fullback Harris of Penn State in 1972 and wide receiver Swann of USC in 1974. Along the way, wide receiver Frank Lewis of Grambling was drafted No. 1 in 1971, cornerback J.T. Thomas of Florida State in 1973, safety Dave Brown of Michigan in 1975, tight end Bennie Cunningham of Clemson in 1976, linebacker Robin Cole of New Mexico in 1977 and cornerback Robin Johnson of Eastern Michigan in 1978.

All except Brown were productive for the Steelers, and he is still active with the Packers. The Steelers were so loaded with talent in 1976, when the Seattle Seahawks and Tampa Bay Buccaneers joined the league, that they put Brown in the expansion draft. That turned out to be one of their many mistakes.

Ham and Lambert, linebackers from Penn State and Kent State, respectively, were second-round choices in 1971 and 1974. Blount, a cornerback from Southern, was a third-round pick in 1970; Stallworth, a wide receiver from Alabama A&M;, was a fourth-round pick in 1974, and Webster, was a center from Wisconsin, a fifth-rounder in 1974. Add such sleepers as defensive end Greenwood of Arkansas AM&N; in the 10th round in 1969 and Pro Bowl safety Mike Wagner of Western Illinois in the 11th round in 1971, and you can understand why the Steelers became almost unbeatable.


The Steelers won their four Super Bowls in just six years, and 27 players earned rings in all four. Webster was the last one to leave.

The only remaining player with Super Bowl experience is cornerback Dwayne Woodruff, who was a rookie when the Steelers last won.

What happened to the Steelers’ drafting procedure? Whatever the answer, they have been in a rebuilding mode at least since 1986, and there is little hope for an early return to prominence.

Another problem has been Noll’s stubbornness. When the U.S. Football League was close to folding, he refused to acquire draft rights to any of its players. Other clubs were less conservative. The Vikings now have the two prizes of the lot, running back Herschel Walker and wide receiver Anthony Carter.

This is Noll’s 21st season as the Steelers’ coach, and many Pittsburgh fans would like it to be his last. They are fed up with a team that has suffered three of the four shutouts in the NFL this year--Dallas lost the other--and that often seems to them to be without a game plan.

Karl Mecklenburg, Denver’s all-pro linebacker, said after the Pittsburgh game two weeks ago that the Broncos usually knew what play the Steelers were going to run. He remarked that the Steeler offense hadn’t changed in 10 years.


Noll denied this, but the most telling fact about Pittsburgh’s offense is that it ranks last in the league, just behind San Diego’s.

Linebacker Ken Woodard, the only former Steeler with the Chargers, called Noll the toughest coach he ever played for. Woodard spent five seasons with the Broncos before going to the Steelers last year.

“He had the hardest practices,” Woodard said. “He even had us doing contact every Friday--not tackling, but hitting. We always had a lot of guys in the training room. Here, we work out on Fridays without pads.”

Still, Woodard is grateful for the one season he spent in Pittsburgh.

“I could feel the pride and tradition,” he said. “I could see how they won four Super Bowls, and I profited from the experience of playing for Chuck Noll. It’s something I’ll cherish the rest of my days.”