CHUCK NOLL AND THE STEEL CURTAIN | FANS’ REACTION: “WHO’S JOE GREENE?”

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In a move that would forever change the Pittsburgh Steelers, and create the cornerstone for their legendary “Steel Curtain,” a little-known defensive big man named Joe Greene from North Texas State was drafted in the first round. The silence was deafening.

Fans’ Reaction: “Who’s Joe Greene?” — headline from The Pittsburgh Press, January 28th, 1969.

The day before, 37 yr old Chuck Noll, was brought in as Head Coach to brutally retool what was considered to be the worst team in all of the NFL– Yep.  The Pittsburgh Steelers.

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Feb 1oth, 1982, Pittsburgh, PA — Steelers’ defensive tackle Joe Greene displays his number 75 jersey after announcing his retirement. Greene was the foundation (and many argue, the Steelers’ greatest and most valuable player) used by coach Chuck Noll to build four Super Bowl Championship teams. — Image by © Bettmann/Corbis

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Defensive Captain at the time, Andy Russell (with the Steelers since ’63) recalls his first meeting with new Head Coach Chuck Noll–

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Back in the ’60s, the Steelers were– pretty bad. We just could not consistently win games. We would lose games by the most bizarre circumstances– we’d find a way to lose every time. So, it was quite a frustrating experience — and a remarkable change — when Chuck Noll came.

He called me in on the off-season. I’d made my first Pro Lowl in ’68, prior to him coming, and I thought, “Oh, he’s calling me in to congratulate me.” So I went in to see him. We shook hands, but he wasn’t overly friendly. He looks right at me and says–

“You know, Russell, I’ve been watching the game films since I’ve taken over the job here– and I don’t like how you play. You’re too aggressive… You’re too out of control… You’re trying to be the hero… You’re trying to make big plays. I’m going to change the way you play. I’ll make you a better player than you are right now– because you’re not disciplined enough.”

I was just stunned!

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1972 — Pittsburgh Steelers’ coach Chuck Noll beams after Franco Harris scored the winning touchdown against Oakland to win 13 to 7. On the play, Steelers’ Terry Bradshaw passed to Frenchie Faqua. Faqua and Oakland Raider Jack Tatum collided and the ball bounced to Franco Harris. Tatum denied he touched the ball but the official ruled he did.American Football Playoffs — Image by © Bettmann/Corbis

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When we got to our first training camp, Chuck Noll’s first speech to the team goes–

“Look, I’ve been watching the game films since I took the job.  And I can tell you guys that the reason you’ve been losing is not because of your attitude, or your psyche, or of that ‘STUFF.’  The problem is– you’re just not good enough.  You know, you can’t run fast enough, you can’t jump high enough, you’re not quick enough.  You’re techniques are just abysmal.  I’m probably going to have to get rid of most of you– and we’re going to move on.”

And you know– five of us made it from that room to our first Super Bowl following the ’74 season.

–The Steelers’ Andy Russell

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1975, Miami, FL — Members of the Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh Steelers pose for pictures as the AFC pros opened training.  (L to R)  Franco Harris, Andy Russell, L.C. Greenwood, Jack Ham, Roy Gerela, and Joe Greene relaxing on the sod.  — Image by © Bettmann/Corbis

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Joe Greene had been holding out on the Steelers for 2 to 3 weeks.  The day he signed the contract and joined the team, he was escorted down to the practice field for the Steelers’ “Oklahoma drills.” There he was met by the Steelers’ offensive linemen who were looking to break the greenhorn in.

“Immediately we did a one-on-one blocking drill. Ray Mansfield picked him to go first, because he wanted to show Joe Greene that he was better, and pull a– “we’ll show the young rookie.” Joe destroyed Ray Mansfield, our center for so many years, and we were like, ‘whoa– this guy can play!'” recalled Andy Russell.

It was obvious to his teammates (and soon the entire NFL) that “Mean Joe” Greene was an unstoppable force– the likes of which had never been seen before. His skill, strength, intensity, and determination to win were unrivaled– and gave the Steelers franchise the badly needed backbone it had been lacking for some forty years.  Even with his excessive roughness on the field and multiple ejections, he deservedly won the  NFL honor of Rookie of the Year.

“Mean Joe” Greene’s teammates would feed off of his intensity, and raise their play to new levels– sending a message heard loud and clear, that the Steelers were here to win it, and would not back down to anyone. Greene was always looking for a demonstrative way to make this point.  The bigger the foe, the better. Not even the NFL’s reigning badass, Dick Butkus, was shown any respect.  Greene once spit in his face– in front of what must have felt like the entire world to Butkus. Dick did the only thing he could– tuck his tail and walk away.

Joe Greene would go on to play in 10 Pro Bowls, and lead the Steelers to 4 Super Bowl championships, in a career that defined him as Pittsburgh’s most valuable player of all time.

“Joe Greene would come into the huddle sometimes and say, ‘I’m taking the ball away this play.’ I’ve never in my entire career seen an athlete be able to do that. He was actually unblockable in those early years.” –teammate Andy Russell

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Oct. 5th, 1975 — Pittsburgh Steelers’ defensive tackle Mean Joe Greene kicks Cleveland Browns’ guard Bob McKay in the groin as the Steelers stomped the Browns, 42-6.  AP photo via

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Pittsburgh Steelers’ quarterback Terry Bradshaw is attended to by medical staff after being slammed to the turf by Cleveland Browns’ defensive lineman Joe “Turkey” Jones. — PD historical photo.  “The teams didn’t like each other, and they played hard. There were a lot of vicious hits and dirty plays– on both sides. There was the 1976 game in Cleveland where Joe “Turkey” Jones grabbed Steelers’ quarterback Terry Bradshaw and plunged him helmet-first into the turf. Jones received a personal foul penalty and was fined $3,000. Bradshaw suffered a concussion. Browns fans still talk about that play.”  via

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1972 — Pittsburgh Steelers’ running back Franco Harris is mobed by fans at Three Rivers Stadium after scoring the winning touchdown, nicknamed the “Immaculate Reception,” during the American Football Conference (AFC) semi-final game against Oakland. Harris made the touchdown, one of the most famous single plays in the history of professional American football, on a tipped pass from quarterback Terry Bradshaw to Frenchy Fuqua to Harris for the score in the fourth quarter in Pittsburgh. — Image © Bettmann/Corbis

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Dec 23rd, 1972, Pittsburgh, PA — With 22 seconds left in the Steeler-Raider playoff game, Steelers’ quarterback Terry Bradshaw threw a 4th down desperation pass intended for John “Frenchy” Fuqua. When the ball was deflected by Raider Jack Tatum it traveled 7 yards into the arms of Franco Harris who ran 42 yards for the winning TD. “I learned early at Penn State to always be around the ball, be around the action,” admitted Harris.  “Maybe there will be a fumble.  Maybe I’ll throw a block.  Because of that attitude the play happened.” –Image by © Bettmann/Corbis

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1972, Palm Springs, CA — Frank Sinatra was made a one star general in Franco Harris’ one-man army as he watched the Pittsburgh Steelers workout for their big game against the San Diego Chargers in San Diego. Franco, the Steelers’ one man army and leading ground gainer, is pleased at having Sinatra in his army. — Image by © Bettmann/Corbis

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Terry Bradshaw, top draft choice of the Pittsburgh Steelers, poses with coach Chuck Noll at a news conference in Pittsburgh, Pa., Feb. 13, 1970.  The Louisiana Tech quarterback is in Pittsburgh to discuss salary terms with the club.  (AP Photo/Harry Cabluck)

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The following is reprinted from “The Ones Who Hit the Hardest” by Chad Millman and Shawn Coyne–

 

It wasn’t just that Terry Bradshaw liked going to church while his teammates liked going to bars. It was the game. College football was Bradshaw’s domain; pro football was Chuck Noll’s. It was the difference between checkers and chess. Bradshaw had never studied film before. In high school and college, if his first receiver wasn’t open, he tucked the ball and ran. He didn’t know how to read defensive coverages at the line of scrimmage. He underestimated the speed of the game, the intensity, how hard opponents were going to hit and how high a standard his coaches were going to hold him to. He was, in every way, overmatched. And no one had any sympathy.

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Cleveland, Ohio, 1971 —  From the sidelines Pittsburgh quarterback Terry Bradshaw and coach Chuck Noll watch the defensive unit against Cleveland. — Image by © Bettmann/Corbis

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In his very first game, against the Oilers, Bradshaw completed just four of sixteen passes with an interception and was pulled from the game to a chorus of 75,000 boos. This is where a new Chuck Noll emerged. The calm teacher who preached technique, the master manipulator who looked the other way when Joe Greene attacked opponents with scissors, handled Bradshaw like he was an abusive father. He grabbed his quarterback’s facemask, his jersey and unloaded obscenities that would make the bluest of comics cringe. The anger shot from his knuckles through Bradshaw’s pads. “I couldn’t believe how cruel Chuck was,” Bradshaw once said. “You would think someone as smart as Chuck was would be a better psychologist, but he beat me down. I totally lost my confidence. I was the kind of guy who needed a pat on the back–shouting at me only made things worse.”

So did the fact that, on his first play from scrimmage in place of Bradshaw, local hero Terry Hanratty threw a touchdown. After the game, Bradshaw sat in his car in the Three Rivers parking lot and cried.

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Aug 1974, Latrobe, PA — Quarterback Terry Bradshaw said if striking Pittsburgh Steeler veterans can’t respect his decision to enter camp, “then maybe I can’t respect them.”  Bradshaw, 25, the Steelers’ regular quarterback this past three years, walked into the club’s St. Vincent College training camp and worked out. — Image by © Bettmann/Corbis

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The Steelers lost their first three games that season, with Noll shuffling his quarterbacks practically every quarter. It got so bad for Bradshaw that his mom came to stay with him. One night he took her to a hockey game and fans in the stands started booing the both of them. Another time, before a game, he was standing outside the doorway of the locker room talking to Art Rooney Sr., within the eyesight of Noll. The owner was telling his young quarterback to keep his confidence, that everything would be all right, with Bradshaw’s blond locks bobbing up and down in agreement. When the conversation ended and Bradshaw walked into the locker room five minutes late, Noll, who had seen the conversation between rookie and owner taking place, fined him.

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April 1970, Washington, DC — President Nixon compares hands with All-American quarterback Terry Bradshaw, of Louisiana Tech, when the latter called at the White House with a group from the school. Bradshaw was the number one draft choice of the Pittsburgh Steelers. — Image by © Bettmann/Corbis

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It didn’t help with fans that he was burly for a quarterback. His blonde hair was thinning and unruly and his face lacked the kind of angles Madison Avenue likes in its football idols. He had a funny Louisiana accent that, to those in the North, made him sound simple. He preferred spending time on his farm with his parents to drinking at the Jamestown Inn in Pittsburgh’s South Hills with his teammates. He wore buckskin coats with fringe hanging from the sleeves. “I was an outsider who didn’t mingle well,” Bradshaw once told Sports Illustrated. “No one liked to fish or do the things I liked to do. The other players looked upon me as a bible-toting Li’l Abner.”

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1980 — Show business for Steeler quarterback Terry Bradshaw gets a big yawn as he does an interview with Jimmy ‘The Greek’ Snyder prior to the Eagles-Cowboys game. Bradshaw has been linked to a show business deal that may require that he quit the Steelers. — Image © Bettmann/Corbis

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1970 — Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Terry Bradshaw. — Image © Bettmann/Corbis

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1970 — Pittsburgh Steelers defensive tackle Mean Joe Greene. – Image © Bettmann/Corbis

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3 thoughts on “CHUCK NOLL AND THE STEEL CURTAIN | FANS’ REACTION: “WHO’S JOE GREENE?”

  1. Pingback: THE TSY WEEKLY ROUNDUP « The Selvedge Yard

  2. I’d like to personally thank the 1970’s era Pittsburgh Steelers for pioneering steroid use in the NFL.

    • Yeah, you’re right. It wasn’t around before them or at the same time. They were the only team in the NFL doing it. Nobody else in the league had even heard of it. Nice try on the “pioneering” remark.

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