Like 1776, the year 1974 saw the founding of a nation: Steelers Nation. That season—41 years after owner Art Rooney Sr. founded what for decades was one of the most hapless franchises in league history—marked the dawn of the most productive run in the NFL's Super Bowl era: four championships in a six-season span. Now, another four decades have passed and the Steelers' first Super Bowl team is celebrated as the group that broke through, the one that transformed a perennial loser into one of the model modern franchises. Behind architect-coach Chuck Noll, Pittsburgh became known as the City of Champions in the '70s. Noll, who died in June, remains the NFL's only four-time Super Bowl-winning coach, and he and nine of his players from the '74 team are enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Having taken over as the Steelers' coach in 1969, Noll led Pittsburgh to the playoffs in '72 and '73, but as the '74 season dawned, no one knew that the NFL's eventual team of the decade was about to conquer the league. Pittsburgh's season was anything but a four-month coronation, and even the depth of the roster—which had been fortified that year by the greatest draft class in history—didn't make for completely smooth sailing. A veterans-only players' strike marred the start of NFL training camps, and teams played the first two weeks of the six-game exhibition schedule mostly with rookie rosters. Among the veterans who crossed the picket line was third-year, third-string quarterback Joe Gilliam, who reported to camp and impressed Noll with his arm and athleticism. The strike ended on Aug. 10, and when Terry Bradshaw suffered a late-preseason injury, Gilliam became the first African-American QB to start and win an NFL opener.
MIKE WAGNER: You go back and think about all that was happening, [that season] was really a mess.
ROCKY BLEIER: Some people didn't agree with going on strike, and it caused some tension. Gilliam crossed, and ultimately Bradshaw and [Terry] Hanratty and all of us went into camp.
WAGNER: Has there ever been another Super Bowl champion that started three different quarterbacks like we did? Gilliam to Bradshaw to Hanratty [who got a surprise start in Week 10, then was benched after completing 2 of 15 passes] and then back to Bradshaw—all in the first 11 games.
BLEIER: It wasn't a blueprint for a Super Bowl championship season. You think back and you gloss over it—Oh, it was a great season; we made the playoffs. But we [had] some dissension in the locker room. Later in the year Joe [Greene] quit—or threatened to quit.
JOE GREENE: I wanted us to be further along than I thought we were. I became very frustrated at the end of the season, after that Houston game.
Following a 13--10 home loss to the Oilers on Dec. 1, receivers coach Lionel Taylor heard that Greene had announced he was quitting, even going so far as to pack up the contents of his locker. Taylor caught up with the defensive leader outside Three Rivers Stadium, and the two sat in Greene's car, where the emotional veteran vented about his impatience with the team's failure to join the ranks of the AFC's elite. Thanks to Taylor's timely intervention, Greene eventually returned to the locker room.
GREENE: Once I got past that, all signals were go.
BLEIER: Joe felt it started to finally click for us when we [beat the Patriots 21--17 the next week], and then beat Cincinnati at home [27--3 in the regular-season finale].
WAGNER: Chuck generally treated all the players the same—except for Joe. With Joe's personality and Joe's role and Joe's contribution to the team, he just handled him a little differently. Probably rightfully so.
GLEN EDWARDS: When you talk about those Steelers defenses, everybody talks about Joe Greene, Joe Greene, Joe Greene. But that ain't all it was. You know who the man was in the [defensive] huddle? I was. [Edwards was voted team MVP in '74 even though Greene won NFL defensive player of the year.] I was constantly getting on guys, pumping them up. They made Joe out to be the team leader, but as players we said, "Hell, who made Joe our spokesman?"
JOHN (FRENCHY) FUQUA: I'm going to tell Joe you said that.
BLEIER: Those last two wins were very important. There's a time—whether it's as a team or as an individual—where you decide whether you're buying into what Chuck is preaching. You either say, O.K., I believe in where he's taking us, or you start to lose faith in his leadership. We bought in.
The 1974 Steelers are remembered for having the most successful draft class in history, with four future Hall of Famers in their first five selections: Lynn Swann (USC) in the first round, middle linebacker Jack Lambert (Kent State) in the second, John Stallworth (Alabama A&M) in the fourth and center Mike Webster (Wisconsin) in the fifth. Often forgotten is safety Donnie Shell (South Carolina State), who arrived that summer as an undrafted free agent and later earned five straight Pro Bowl trips. Greatness, however, was not immediately apparent on any front.
LYNN SWANN: We came to a team that had been in the playoffs two years in a row, and one of those years they were one game away from the Super Bowl. So I don't think they looked at us and said, Here are the missing pieces.
JOHN STALLWORTH: As rookies [during the veterans' strike] we expected that at some point the veterans were going to come in, and we'd see what happened then. I had Lionel Taylor telling me, "Those moves you're making right now? When [cornerback] Mel [Blount] gets here, you won't be able to do that. Those won't work on Mel." I remember going down to New Orleans for a preseason game during the strike. Mel's from down there, and Mel comes to the sideline during the game. I'm looking at him, and he's the biggest defensive back I ever saw. And I thought to myself, You know, I might not be able to do those moves.
SWANN: People forget how important that time was for us during the strike, getting all the reps. We were able to get over the learning curve.
WAGNER: We [the veterans] came into camp with only a few weeks left, so the rookies had been playing a lot and had been coached up. And guess what? They were pretty cocky. The veterans came in like, O.K., it's time to take care of business.
DAVE REAVIS: It took [Pro Bowl middle linebacker] Henry Davis getting hurt [in the preseason] to get [Lambert] in the lineup. He stepped in and the rest is history. Who knows what happens if Davis doesn't get hurt?
WAGNER: Those guys [the rookies, apart from Lambert] didn't play much. So the team, the core, was there, but what you really saw right away was the depth.
FUQUA: My God. If you went down, you might not get your job back. We had guys who came off our bench who could have started almost anywhere else.
EDWARDS: I've got a different opinion. I think 1971 was the best draft we had. Period. Me (Edwards entered as an undrafted free agent), Wagner (two Pro Bowls), Jack Ham (eight, and a Hall of Fame inductee), Dwight White (two), Larry Brown (one), Ernie Holmes. The '74 draft—those guys put the final pieces in place. But all of us guys from '71 were early starters. Those '74 guys had to wait their time and just played in spots at first.
REAVIS: Not a bad argument there.
EDWARDS: I've got a legitimate argument. The '74 class came to a better team than the one we did.
To a man, the Steelers say Noll was the team's real leader, the unquestioned authority figure for a group that grew into one of the most determined teams over the course of the 1970s. Noll was almost always stoic in demeanor, and he was cold and distant in the eyes of some players. But he didn't rule by fear or intimidation. Once the nucleus of Pittsburgh's dynasty was in place, he was superb at knowing how to keep his players focused, believing you won with self-starters. Between '72 and '79 the Steelers won the AFC Central seven times and went to the playoffs all eight seasons. Noll would coach Pittsburgh for 23 seasons, retiring in 1991.
WAGNER: I did not fear Chuck. But I was probably wary.
REAVIS: That's a good word for it, wary. He kept you wary.
WAGNER: It's like you're wary of your parents. You know you love your parents, but you just don't know what you don't know.
BLEIER: I think the father-figure thing was very strong, but did you fear Chuck? No, you didn't fear Chuck. But you didn't want to let him down. The fear was that he'd get rid of you. He wouldn't have a knee-jerk reaction. He'd give you enough rope to hang yourself. But if you were a special teams guy and you weren't making curfew, or you were late ... he wouldn't hesitate to give you the boot. That was the fear.
SWANN: I think the worst part of the job for Chuck was having to cut players. I don't think it was ever something he felt really comfortable with, so he tried to protect himself. Chuck wasn't a guy who got close to the players, but he was close to all his assistants.
STALLWORTH: As a rookie I don't think I ever understood Chuck Noll.
FUQUA: Did we ever really know him? We never really got a chance. I don't think he ever really opened up and let us understand his thoughts. He was a perfect CEO. He made our position coaches the authority with us.
EDWARDS: I do remember [longtime Steelers defensive coordinator] Bud [Carson] used to worry us to death, aggravate us to death. Because he was scared of Chuck. Bud would always nag you, You've got to do this, you've got to do that. You'd say, Bud, just chill out. Everything is all right.
SWANN: From what I gather from some of the assistants, there was probably nothing Chuck wouldn't have done to help them in terms of being better people, better coaches, better husbands, better fathers. Chuck was there for them. But with us, Chuck was more about, We drafted you, we think you have talent, we're paying you to do a job, you're adults and I'm going to treat you like adults. Get it done. And we did.
EDWARDS: When you were on that field, it was strictly business. After practice sometimes he'd josh and play with you, try to run the ball like he could still play. But he was a no-nonsense guy.
BLEIER: If Chuck had a doghouse, it was in his own world, his own mind, as to who might be in it. There were certain expectations he had of his people, things he wanted from you.
FUQUA: When we lost I just tried to stay out of his way. Out of sight, out of mind. Noll wasn't one to holler at you or anything like that. His biggest weapon was his silence.
REAVIS: And his look. He could look right through you.
EDWARDS: I tell guys all the time, we won because we wanted to win for the coach.
FUQUA: The reality of it is: We were a team full of players that were out of their f------ minds. You look at the personalities throughout the team, we all had a problem in life. Noll and the coaching staff, they dealt with those problems.
FRANCO HARRIS: Over time you get to appreciate more than you do as you live in the moment, and even though it didn't seem that way then, Chuck really did care about his players. Everything was about the team, and he really did relay that sort of feeling.
FUQUA: I've got a great Chuck story. It's 1970, the last game of the preseason, Friday-night bed check, 11 o'clock. I've got my eventual wife-to-be in the room with me and [a bottle of] Jack Daniel's. Usually the assistant coaches did bed check. Not this night. Knock-knock. "Who is it?" "It's Coach, John. Just want to check on you." So I put her in the bathroom, then open the door and run back to bed because I've got nothing but my briefs on. Coach comes in and he's got a damn album and headphones with him. He knows the stereo equipment I have, and he says, "You mind if I listen to this song while I'm here?" And I'm thinking, Oh, s---. He puts the headphones on, and I swear it's the longest five minutes of my life. We have an exhibition game against the Giants the next day, and he says, "You know we've got your former team tomorrow?" And I say, "Yeah, I'm ready." He's walking to the door, and man I'm sweating because the bathroom's right [there]. He passes by the bathroom and he just stops, and I say, "Oh, s---." He gets in the bathroom, and I hear him pulling the curtain open, and all he says is, "Young lady, you have to leave. The man has a ballgame."
Noll's hopscotching between Gilliam, Bradshaw and Hanratty at quarterback drove some players nutty early in 1974, but Bradshaw finally took over for good in Week 11, and the Steelers finished the regular season 10-3-1. They dominated their divisional playoff game, routing the Bills 32--14 while holding running back O.J. Simpson to just 49 yards in his only career postseason appearance. Pittsburgh's conference championship opponents: the 12--2 Raiders, whose coach, John Madden (in a moment of candor he probably later regretted) had said after Oakland's divisional playoff win over Miami that the two best teams in football had just met.
WAGNER: [Noll] wasn't a rah-rah coach. The biggest motivational pregame speech he might give us was, Hey, today's Fun Day. Let's go out there and have fun. That's what we work hard all week for. So if you were looking for a rah-rah type environment, Chuck Noll wasn't that kind of coach.
GREENE: Coach Madden made that comment, and Chuck took offense to that. He said, "The people in Oakland think the best teams played yesterday, but the Super Bowl is not for another three weeks. The best team in football is still in this room."
ANDY RUSSELL: He's yelling it, and that wasn't Chuck at all. That was so out of character. Joe Greene was sitting next to me in one of those desk chairs, and he stood up and started walking like he was going out to the field, with the desk still wrapped around him. He wanted to kick somebody's ass right then. And I was like, Gee, I wonder if Chuck's getting us ready too early?
GREENE: Case closed. Nobody had a chance after that.
In the AFC championship game the Steelers held Oakland to 29 rushing yards and scored 21 fourth-quarter points to win 24--13.
RUSSELL: When we got to New Orleans [for Super Bowl IX], Chuck said, "O.K., I want you go out the first couple nights, no bed check, and get this city out of your system." Which the Vikings didn't do.
HARRIS: It was brilliant on Chuck's part to say, "Enjoy yourself. But then it's time to go to work." We were able to go to restaurants and try new things, new food.
RUSSELL: By Wednesday we were begging for a bed check. We were ready to get down to business.
HARRIS: Nobody was beating us that day. Even though Minnesota had been [to the Super Bowl] before and they talked about how they were favored, it didn't matter.
In Super Bowl IX the Steelers' D opened the scoring with a safety and proceeded to pick off Vikings QB Fran Tarkenton three times. Harris, the game's MVP, rumbled for 158 yards, while Minnesota gained all of 17 yards on the ground and never scored on offense. The Steelers, the NFL's longtime doormat, were champions.
WAGNER: We were a perfect match against that offense. It was going to be strength against strength.
FUQUA: I very seldom worried because of our defense. When a team got a first down, it was a shock. We had complete confidence in you.
WAGNER: I don't think anybody was worried about not being able to handle them, which is kind of strange in the Super Bowl. The biggest concern I had was, the stupid field was so slippery.
GREENE: The first one will always be the sweetest. Having been 1--13 [in 1969], having to digest a lot of that SOS stuff—Same Old Steelers—that was very, very special. It was nice to surprise people.
STALLWORTH: My first two years, all I knew was going to the Super Bowl. You can look back on it, and you can see how awesome that defense and that team was. But at the moment you don't always know what you have.
HARRIS: It wasn't an easy season at all, but we were able to pull it together. That year really set the stage for the true character of our team, what we were going to stand for, what we were about. We overcame the early-season issues, then we got focused. To me, that year really showed who we were.
John (Frenchy) Fuqua