The Steelers, before the formula

Posted Feb. 04, 2011 @ 2:17 p.m.
Posted By Tom Danyluk

DALLAS — Do they keep it trapped behind chromium steel doors, entombed, with tough-fisted guards on 24-hour watch?

Or does it rest on a Rooney bookshelf, concealed in plain sight? … Or in a nightstand drawer, under a Clancy intrigue novel?

Few eyes have ever seen it. The magic compound. The Steelers' head-coaching formula.

The blueprint that spawned Mike Tomlin and Bill Cowher … and Charles Henry Noll, the Emperor, before them. Three coaches, six championships — across 41 years of football.

Before its discovery, the Steelers' way was an alchemy thing, an unending quest for the philosopher's stone. The Pittsburgh coaching wheel spun, and the names rotated fast, and none of them were real winners. Before Noll there was Bill Austin and Mike Nixon and Buddy Parker. Before that were 10 others, including Joe Bach (twice) and Walt Kiesling (thrice), Kiesling a tough German with a W.C. Fields face.

"But no sense of humor," says Art Rooney, Jr., team VP and former Steelers' personnel director. "You know, before Chuck Noll came along, it wasn't like we didn't want to win. We really wanted to do the right things and get the franchise going. Except we didn't know what the right things were!"

"Our very first coach was a guy named Jap Douds — this was back in 1933. He coached one year then went back into the huddle — he said he could make more money as a player than as a coach without any of the responsibility.

"Next was Luby DiMelio, who'd been All-America at Pitt. Somehow he and my dad ("the Chief") decided to get into a boxing match in his office. Luby always said that football players were bigger and stronger than boxers, and dad  had been a bantam weight or lightweight fighter. So they broke out the gloves - the real ones, not the sparring ones - and pushed all the furniture back, then word got around to all the players that The Chief had beaten the piss out the coach. Luby lasted one year.

"After that Dad decided it wasn't a good idea to go around beating up his coaches; the players wouldn't know who to say was the boss."

Next came Joe Bach, Johnny McNally, Kiesling (I), Buff Donelli, Kiesling (II) and Jim Leonard, and in 1946 the Steelers phoned a discharged Navy lieutenant and gave him a try. The Jock Sutherland credo — "The boys have fine spirit and are working hard!"

"Jock had been such a great coach at Pitt, and we were making progress with him," says Rooney, "He would practice his guys so hard. There were a lot of guys from World War II on the team, real tough guys. A lot of them wanted to quit! They'd say, 'Holy Hell! I was at Saipan … or with Merrill's Marauders, and this is harder than fighting the Japs — and the Japs were shooting at us!'

"1947 was a real good year with Sutherland. But Jock was always having trouble with these severe headaches. We even got him one of those big straw cowboy hats to wear around practice, to keep the sun off his head.

"The next spring he went down South for a scouting trip to visit some of those famous old coaches, like Peahead Walker and Frank  Howard and General Neyland — he only talked to the top guys. One day they found him walking around a swamp, dazed and completely out of it. A brain tumor. He died that April."

Buddy Parker came along in ’57. A character, a real personality, and a big winner with Detroit. But there were those mood swings … and swigs from the bottle. Once he blew up and put his whole Lion team on waivers. Another time he had the PA announcer in the airport waive three of his players over the loudspeaker — "Player X, Y and Z — please report to Gate 6; you have been cut." And there's the story of how he threw a fit in the bathroom and launched one of his championship watches into the toilet.

"Hey, Parker was a real football genius," says Rooney. "I mean, one time George Allen told me that he modeled the way he did things after Parker, and George was no screwball. I'm pretty sure there was something else wrong with Buddy besides alcohol. He was moody, unpredictable. Maybe some kind of manic depressive. Based on a lot of the symptoms, several doctors have since told me he was bi-polar.

"My dad had a soft spot for Parker. He liked him and he really respected his football acumen, so he put up with him. Often Buddy would go into one of his rages and quit — I don't know how many times he quit — but The Chief would always take him back.

"My brother Dan, who was beginning to take charge of the team, said, 'If he ever quits on me, he'll only do it once — I'll take his resignation.' Which is exactly what happened."

Mike Nixon, a Parker assistant, canvassed for the '65 job. The Chief countered with the choice of lifetime employment in the scouting department.

"I can make you head coach," The Chief warned, "but I'll have to fire you. You'll never win with this team; we don't have any players."

Nixon pressed — please, sir? OK. A 2-12 finish got him canned.

"Soon afterward," says Rooney, "my dad, Dan and I were on three separate phone lines, listening to Vince Lombardi tell us Bill Austin was the right man for the job. He was convincing. Lombardi had been winning championships, and Austin was his top man.

"Austin had a lot of the trappings of Lombardi, but it was like buying one of those knockoff watches. He did things the Lombardi way — the tough practices, the discipline … very firm in his demeanor. He didn't understand that conditioning and toughness were just a means to an end, not ends in themselves. We got worse every year under Bill Austin."

Mr. Rooney, can you take a call? There's a Mr. Noll on the line …


Tom Danyluk is an award-winning freelance writer based in Chicago. His book on pro football, "The Super '70s," is available at Amazon.com. You can contact Tom at Danyluk1@yahoo.com.