During the last decade, while the city of Pittsburgh was making a giant leap forward into a new era of sparkling air and clean skyscrapers, one blot remained on its scrubbed escutcheon. The Pittsburgh Steelers, a tough, mean and old-fashioned professional football team, remained stubbornly committed to prewar days and ways. In the 33 years since Owner Art Rooney ponied up $2,500 (of the $380,000-odd he won in a momentous invasion of eastern racetracks over a long weekend) to acquire the Steeler franchise, the team has managed to finish .500 or better only 13 times. It has had the unique—if unwanted—distinction of being the only team in the NFL over six years of age never to win so much as a divisional championship.
When the rest of the clubs were launching computerized scouting systems in their search for playing talent, the Steelers were still trading draft choices for elderly players with a season or two left in their creaking bones. The Steelers, naturally, were the last team in professional football to forsake the antique single wing for the T formation and that only when their belabored tailback, Bill Dudley, asked to be traded to save what was left of his hide.
The image of the Steelers remained that of the pro football teams of long ago. The players were rugged and they could outdrink almost anyone you could name, but, unfortunately, they could not win. And, little by little, the old breed of Steeler fans—the miners and steelworkers—faded into the haze. Thus, in the biggest boom in the history of pro football, the antiquated Steelers, playing at obsolete Forbes Field with players that time had left behind, drew prewar-size crowds of 20,000 or so.
Now all this has changed. In their most recent home game, against the Washington Redskins, the refurbished Steelers drew 37,505 people despite a light rain. Washington, a team also rebuilding, but with a larger nucleus of good players, squeaked to a 33-27 victory. An old Pittsburgh fan would not have recognized the suddenly modernized version of his old team. Under the whip of a new coach, Bill Austin, and the direction of a new Rooney—Art's oldest son, Dan—the Steelers have stopped the world and asked to get on.
October 9, 1966
"It was my fault at first," says Art Rooney, an engaging gray-haired man of whom it may truly be said that he has no enemies. "I didn't pay much attention to the football team in the early years. I was interested in other things and I bought the franchise as a favor to Bert Bell [the late NFL commissioner]. I paid $2,500 for it, but if I had wanted to be tough about it I could have had it for nothing." Rooney's franchise is now worth something like $10 million.
"When I began to worry about football, I couldn't do anything about it," Art continued. He was killing an hour in the coffee shop of the hotel where the Steelers have their offices. "I used to act like it didn't bother me that we were losing so much, but it really did. I had a rule in our house that if the Steelers lost no one could mention football until Tuesday. I used to get terribly discouraged, but I never let on outside my home. My boys had to lock themselves up in one of their rooms if they wanted to talk about football.
"Of course," he went on, "I couldn't make any rules like that outside my home. People used to say how lousy we looked, and I would agree and say, 'Yeah, we sure were bad,' just to stop the conversation, but it made me feel terrible. It made you look so dumb, you know, as if you could not be a success at anything."
A waitress, shading from middle-aged to elderly, stopped at the table.
"Everything all right, Mr. Rooney?" she asked, and he nodded, waving her off with a cigar he was lighting.
"You know," he said, puffing vigorously and squinting at a companion through clouds of blue smoke, "this is the first time since I bought the club that I didn't hire a friend to coach it. That was Danny's idea."
Danny is listed as vice-president of the club, but in recent years he has assumed the duties of general manager more and more until now he actually runs the team. It was Dan, really, who precipitated the Steelers' sudden leap into the present. It began a little more than a year ago when Buddy Parker, a longtime friend of Art's, was still coaching the team. Parker was a shy, moody man, who reacted violently to losses. He had left the Detroit Lions in 1957, after taking the club to three championships, on a sudden whim at the annual preseason team banquet. When it came Parker's turn to speak he shocked the audience by saying, "I can no longer control this team. I quit."
Before the 1965 season opened, Parker had told Art Rooney that he wanted to trade Ben McGee or Chuck Hinton, top defensive linemen, for King Hill, the No. 2 Philadelphia quarterback. "Why weaken the defensive line for a second-string quarterback?" Rooney asked, reasonably enough. "But I don't interfere with coaches. Go ahead and do whatever you think is best for the team."
Parker had second thoughts about what probably would have been a bad trade. But a couple of weeks later the Steelers lost a preseason game to San Francisco, and Parker, obviously upset, approached Dan Rooney in the late hours of the night. He suggested another trade—a lineman and a draft choice for a linebacker.
"Let's wait until morning before we decide," Dan said.
"Does that mean you doubt my ability?" Parker asked him.
"No," Danny said. "I just don't believe in making trades in the middle of the night after a loss."
The next morning Parker called Dan. "I don't think I can handle this team any longer," he said.
"I don't think so, either," said Dan, ending an era of Pittsburgh football with one short sentence.
Mike Nixon, one of Parker's assistants, took charge of the team for the rest of the year, a disastrous one in which the Steelers won only two games.
"Let's try something new," Dan suggested to his father as the season ended. "This time let's hire someone we don't know."
Art agreed, and finally they settled on Bill Austin, an assistant coach for the Los Angeles Rams who had worked with Vince Lombardi as a player and assistant coach for 10 years before that. Dan and Art sent for Austin, who flew in from the Coast for an interview.
"We laid it on the line," Art said. "We told him about the team and about the boos we were getting from the fans. I told him that I thought maybe our personnel was better than 2 and 12, but that he would have to figure that out for himself. And I told him that if we hired him he would have a free hand. All of our coaches have had."
Austin listened, asked a few questions and made one request.
"I have another job I am thinking about," he said. "Please let me know as soon as possible if you want me."
The two Rooneys went from the meeting in Austin's hotel room back to the Steeler offices, and Art Rooney called an old friend—Lombardi.
"I knew Vince would level with me," he said. "He always has. I have never heard from any man a better recommendation than the one he gave Bill Austin. And I mean, it didn't sound like he was saying what he did because he liked Austin. It was kind of impersonal, but it couldn't have been better. That's when we decided on Austin."
Austin had checked out of his hotel and a page at the airport failed to find him, so the Rooneys had to wait until he reached Los Angeles to tell him the job was his. He flew right back to Pittsburgh.
Austin is a compact, strong man, with cold blue eyes, thinning blond hair and a no-nonsense air. He had been approached by the St. Louis Cardinals several years before when they were looking for a coach—Wally Lemm got that job—but Lombardi told both Austin and the Cardinals that Bill was not yet ready for a head coaching job. It is typical of Austin that he did not resent Vince's candor.
"Lombardi was right," Austin says. "I wasn't ready, technically or psychologically. I am ready now, though."
Austin was raised in Oregon and played college football at Oregon State. He was drafted by the New York Giants in 1949, where he played under Lombardi, then Jim Lee Howell's offensive line coach. Howell called Austin the best offensive guard in the league, and Lombardi agreed. When Vince took over as head coach of the Green Bay Packers, Austin was coaching the line for Wichita State. Lombardi hired him as offensive line coach and he was first-rate.
He has 390 hours of flight time and a multiengine pilot's license and he flies whenever he can. Once the Packers paid for flying time for him while he visited 26 schools in nine states on a scouting tour. "I got started because of my brother," he says. Austin's brother, a Navy pilot, was killed in Vietnam last December.
When Bill was hired by the Steelers some NFL owners felt that Rooney might be making a mistake. "He'll try to copy Lombardi, "one of them said. "He's been with Vince too long. You can't try to be a little Lombardi with the Pittsburgh personnel. It won't work."
"I heard a lot of that talk myself," Austin said recently. He was relaxing in the notably unplush coaches' room in the Steeler training camp at the Fairgrounds in South Park, outside of Pittsburgh. The dressing rooms are in a building that, fittingly, houses an emergency hospital. The practice field lies within a harness track. The dressing rooms had been part of Art Rooney's frank revelation of the hardships awaiting a new Steeler coach.
"I don't try to copy Lombardi," Austin said. "That would be the worst mistake I could make. I learned a lot from Vince, but I don't agree with everything he does or thinks. For instance, I'm more apt to use young ballplayers than he is. He won't use a rookie in a league game if he can help it. Me, I'll go along with a young player. I think all players should feel that they are part of the club. I learned things from my experience with the Rams, too. I took that job so that I would be exposed to different methods."
One of the things that Austin took to heart from his long experience with Lombardi was discipline, a quality conspicuously lacking in Parker-coached Steeler teams. The Steelers had acquired a reputation as the playboys of the East. It was a reputation not entirely deserved, but Austin established a rigid curfew upon taking over in training camp.
"I figure you need five things to win in this league," he said. "First, you have to have the players. Second, they have to have the desire. Third, you have to have discipline, on and off the field. Fourth, you have to have good coaching. Fifth, you have to have the cooperation of the management. When I came to the Steelers I wasn't sure about the first two. But I knew we would have the last three. A few of the guys tested me on the discipline and got caught and they paid the price. I haven't had any trouble since."
Austin ran a taut ship, and at first there were grumbles. Art Hunter, who had been the regular Steeler center, walked out of camp one day.
"He said he was tired of it," Austin said.
"We all got pretty tired at first," says Dan James, a good Pittsburgh offensive tackle who was hurt in the second game of the season, against Detroit, which the Steelers won 17-3. "But Austin gave us a better feeling, a feeling of confidence. I think Buddy Parker had lost contact with the players. We couldn't get through to him. But you can sit down and talk to Austin. He understands a player's problems because it wasn't too long ago that he was a player himself."
James, who played in 1965 at a weight of 270 to 276, weighed a little over 250 when he was hurt. Austin doesn't care for fat men.
"We didn't work out any longer in practice," he said. "But we didn't stand around at all. And those grass drills! They kill you."
The grass drills Austin brought with him from Green Bay. They are a fiendish form of calisthenics designed to increase agility, and they leave strong men gasping for breath. They are used to start practice.
With exercise came a more intense concentration on the game. When the Steelers blew too many assignments in their early preseason games, Austin laid on a weekly test.
"They are questioned on their assignments on every play," he said. "I can excuse a player who is beaten physically—sometimes the guy playing head on you has so much more physical equipment you can't do anything about it. But you should never be beaten because you don't know what you are supposed to do." The Steelers were fined for every answer they missed on the tests, and the last couple of tests have resulted in almost perfect scores by all the players.
Austin had studied and restudied movies of the Steeler games of 1965 and when he came to town he knew exactly what he wanted to do. "I began to develop some enthusiasm watching the films," he said. "We had a real good defensive unit. Bill Nelsen, the quarterback, had a good strong arm and he was accurate, but he had not been taught to read defenses. Blanton Collier, the Cleveland coach, gave me some good advice about him. 'He's got the big thing,' Blanton said. 'The one thing you need, the arm. You can teach him the rest.' "
But the offensive line worried Austin, who had grown used to the quick, precise blocking of Green Bay's line. "They looked big and slow, and I needed a center and better guards," Austin said. "The tackles had to take some weight off. Everybody was poor on fundamentals, blocking techniques, passing techniques. So we worked on fundamentals for the biggest part of the preseason. If your techniques are fundamentally correct, you can win sometimes with less talent than the other team has."
By the time the season began, Austin had adjusted the Steeler offense well enough so that it scored 34 points on New York in the opening game, Receiver Gary Ballman making an especially big hit. However, the Steeler defense allowed just as many points, and the club had to settle for a 34-34 tie.
"They aren't used to pressure," Austin said. The next week the Steelers reacted a bit better as they scored 17 points on the tough Detroit defense. Unfortunately for Austin, Nelsen, who had looked very good at quarterback and who had not had to read defenses because Don Heinrich, the offensive back-field coach, sent in his plays, was injured and lost for the season. Ron Smith, a tall, gawky youngster who looks and throws much like a young Frank Ryan, came in against Detroit and performed well, throwing two touchdown passes.
"He has faults," Heinrich said before the Redskin game. "He sets up too slow and so he'll be vulnerable to a rush. But he'll develop."
Unfortunately, Smith did not develop fast enough to beat Washington, although the Steelers led in the third period 21-9. Relentless defensive work by the Redskins during the second half caused fumbles and interceptions that finally cost the Steelers the game.
"They still haven't learned how to react to pressure," Austin said grimly after that one. "And they haven't learned that when you get a club down like that you stomp on them, you don't let them up. But they will learn."
Austin, who can evaluate the effects of pressure on a pro football player very accurately, having played on championship teams in New York and coached with champions in Green Bay, is right about the Steelers. This young team has not had time to learn to operate in a pressure cooker.
They revealed this defect again last week in the second of their back-to-back games with the Redskins, when old pro Quarterback Sonny Jurgensen proved how well he can read defenses. In Washington a good second quarter brought the Steelers to the half with a 10-10 tie, but then they collapsed to lose 24-10. Jurgensen threw three bombs for Redskin touchdowns—passes of 70 and 51 yards to the veteran flanker Bobby Mitchell and 60 yards to Halfback Charley Taylor.
"The thing I like most about Austin is that these things don't bother him," Rooney had said earlier. "He says one game doesn't make a season. When Nelsen was hurt, he said, 'That's why we've got 40 players.' Buddy Parker, I had to cheer him up. Not Bill."
Just wait a while; the Steelers will be winners. It's a shame they were not when Art was running the club all by himself.