The Christmas season has always been a time of reflection for me, and this year is no different. On this holiday I choose to recall one of the most significant times of my career.
There have been so many who have been difference-makers in allowing a young man with a love of the sports world to actually live out his dreams.
Two of them were giants of the National Football League, originals when the league took shape.
Art Rooney was the founding father of the Pittsburgh Steelers from 1933 until his death in 1988.
His son, Dan, succeeded his father as the owner, president and chairman of the team until he passed away in 2017.
Little did I know how the course of my broadcasting career would change when I first met the two in 1967 when I joined KDKA-TV in Pittsburgh.
Dan Rooney, right.
I was 24 at the time, ready to embark on my first major job. I had started in Philadelphia at KYW Radio, broadcasting news from midnight to 6:00am on one of the first all-news radio stations in the country.
During my time there, I was selected to work the weekend sports segments on the early and late news programs.
The man who opened the doors for me and is the one responsible for giving me my first opportunity was Win Baker. Baker was a program manager, then General Manager of several stations in the Group W chain, and when he moved on to Pittsburgh he hired me as sports director in Pittsburgh.
When I broadcast the five-minute sports segments on the evening news, I mostly covered the local teams as well as the national sports stories.
I was fortunate to establish a relationship with the Rooneys, whose team had not had much success.
When I arrived, the team had come off a 5-8-1 record in 1966, the first season for head coach Bill Austin.
But despite mostly losing years, the Steelers had a loyal fan base.
What I didn’t know, was that Art and Dan had called CBS Sports president Bill MacPhail and recommended me to the network.
Shortly after, CBS added me to their roster of pre and post game announcers. In those days, before the NFL Today with Brent, Jimmy the Greek, Phyllis and Irv Cross, those programs were conducted in the bowels of the stadiums where the games were played. So, after working five days on the KDKA-TV news shows, I would either appear at Pitt Stadium where the Steelers played their home games, or at other stadiums around the league.
I was off and running with the network, thanks to the Rooneys.
It may be easy to say my trail would have run through the networks in any event, but I don’t believe that.
There is never a guarantee where you may be headed.
The Steelers went downhill under Austin, winning four games in 1967, my first year, and only two games the next and last season for the ex-Vince Lombardi assistant.
My lasting memory of my time in Pittsburgh and my association with the Steelers was right after the 1969 Super Bowl in Miami. That was the game, Joe Namath, a native of Beaver Falls outside Pittsburgh, led the forever shocking victory of the New York Jets over the Baltimore Colts. The upstart AFL had beaten the established NFL, in a game that changed the mosaic of pro football forever.
It was right after that game, that the Steelers replaced Austin with Chuck Noll, who had been a defensive assistant for
Don Shula’s losing Colts in that stunning game.
The annual NFL Draft, now held in April, was slated for the day after Noll’s announcement as head coach.
The Steelers had not had much success in the draft, and observers sensing more of the same predicted that Terry Hanratty would be the selection as the fourth pick in the draft. And why not? Hanratty was coming off a big year at Notre Dame, a Pittsburgh stronghold, and was a native of Butler, a mere four miles from the city.
But Noll, who viewed film of college prospects overnight had different idea.
When it came time for the Steelers to make their choice, people were more than mildly surprised.
Instead of Terry Hanratty, the selection was a defensive tackle from North Texas State.
His name? Joe Greene.
The afternoon newspaper ran a headline, “Steelers Draft Joe Who?”.
It wasn’t long before the fans, media and the football world learned about Joe Greene. “Mean Joe” Greene proved to be the cornerstone of what would become one of the great dynasties in the sport.
Chuck Noll would eventually win the first of six Super Bowl championships for the franchise.
By the way, with the rest of the league figuring Hanratty had an injury issue for the Steelers to bypass him, the quarterback was avilable in the second round and the Steelers got their man at that spot.
Chuck Noll won his first game as head coach, then lost every game thereafter.
Tied with the Chicago Bears at 1-13 with the worst record in the league, the Steelers won a coin-flip and had the first pick the next year. They drafted Terry Bradshaw. Need I say, the rest is history.
The Steelers have had only three head coaches since 1969. That’s three in 50 years. Noll. Bill Cowher, and Mike Tomlin.
That’s called stability and consistency. This season, the Steelers may or may not earn a spot in the playoffs.
They’re playing with their number three quarterback. They are in contention, which is why I believe Mike Tomlin is the Coach of the Year.
Other teams should take a page from the Steelers playbook, and refrain from a revolving door of head coaches.
That’s if the situation calls for patience. The Steelers stuck with Chuck Noll after that first season, many teams would have not gone that route.
So, on this Christmas, a time for reflection, I remember my time working in Pittsbsurgh. The first major job. The support and kindness of the Rooneys. The beginning of my network career. And a bird’s eye view of a pro sports franchise that went from mediocrity to dominance.
LEADERSHIP • A WINNING ATTITUDE • INSPIRATION • TEAMWORK
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