While most people tend to overlook the Pittsburgh Steelers in the era prior to the 1970s dynasty, this Steelers History Series will look back on some of the history of the franchise, ripe with some nuggets you may not know and hope you will enjoy.
Prior to the 1957 season, it was an opportunity that seemed too good to be true. Art Rooney jumped at the chance to hire Raymond “Buddy” Parker to coach the Pittsburgh Steelers. Unlike any other coach he had hired, Parker was a proven success in the NFL. Parker was hired by the Detroit Lions in 1951 and he swiftly guided the Lions to back-to-back NFL Championships in 1952-1953. Parker’s Lions reached, but lost, the 1954 NFL Championship game – coming just shy of accomplishing three consecutive NFL Championships 13 years before the legendary Vince Lombardi achieved it with the Green Bay Packers.
How the Steelers landed a winning coach
Buddy Parker abruptly resigned as the Lions coach on August 12, 1957, during the “Meet the Lions” preseason banquet. He was expected to deliver a keynote speech, but instead stunned a crowd of over 600 people when he said, “I can’t handle this team anymore. It’s the worst team I’ve ever seen in training camp. They have no life, no go, just a completely dead team. I’m leaving Detroit football. And I’m leaving tonight.” He walked off the podium with no further explanation. The Lions were a league powerhouse and would win the 1957 NFL Championship with the roster that Parker assembled – and have not been a contender since. He never gave a reason for why he quit, but many rumors pointed to his inability to co-exist with ownership. In any case, Parker wasn’t unemployed for long.
On August 27, 1957, Parker took over as head coach of the Steelers and it appeared that the fortunes of the franchise were finally looking up. The thing about Parker is that he was a tyrant, especially when he drank, or the team was coming off a loss. And he would often drink when the team was coming off a loss. He would cut players on the bus or plane ride home after a game and it got so bad that guys would hide to stay out of his sight following a loss. Parker hated rookies, so he took the Steelers draft and threw it out the window in pursuit of a winning team. He dealt 7 first round picks (including 1956 1st round pick Hall of Fame QB Len Dawson) and multiple years, the Steelers did not even have a pick until the 8th round due to his disdain of rookies.
Success under Parker
Parker brought the Steelers close to success, in particular after trading for his former QB in Detroit, Bobby Layne. Layne was the first franchise QB in Steelers history and a Hall of Famer, although he was in the twilight of his career. The Steelers also assembled a roster full of veteran talent like Eugene “Big Daddy” Lipscomb and John Henry Johnson and they would achieve four winning seasons under Parker, tallying a record of 51-47-6. While he took the team to within a game of NFL Championship in 1963, Parker could not quite get the Steelers over the hump. His temperament won him no loyalty from the players, who he would trade at the drop of a hat.
Dan Rooney had worked his way up the ranks of the Steelers organization, from ball boy to draft consultant and eventually to the role of Steelers Vice President. Rooney was responsible for the day-to-day operations of the Steelers at the same time Parker was implementing his strategy. As Danto assert more influence on the organization, it was met with hard resistance from Parker. Parker hated rules and authority to the point he butted heads with NFL Commissioners Bert Bell and Pete Rozelle as well as Art Rooney. If he wouldn’t take orders from the owner, he sure wasn’t going to take them from the son of an owner half his age. For many years, he just would ignore Dan Rooney’s explicit instruction to not trade or cut players without authorization by simply going over his head to Art Rooney. “The Chief” let Parker get away with the short-sighted decisions because Parker had the Steelers competitive in the moment.
Dan Rooney stands his ground
Parker was able to persuade “The Chief” through the “near Championship” of 1963, but his unrelenting method of mortgaging the future for the present caught up with him after dealing Buddy Dial (the best WR in team history until the 70s) and for Scott Appleton – who never played a down for the Steelers. After a disastrous 1964, Dan Rooney realized he had to stand up to Parker. Parker told Dan Rooney he was going to trade Ben McGee (a young TE who went on to two Pro Bowls) and this time; Dan Rooney’s orders stood. Parker pushed back, “I’m the coach, you can’t tell me what to do. I can’t work like this, maybe it’s better if I leave.” Dan Rooney recognized this was a power play and responded, “I’m sorry Buddy, I’m going to have to accept your resignation. But it’s late. We’ll meet in the morning.”
Remember that this was a different time; Parker had been a winner in the NFL. He was the innovator of the two-minute offense and nickel defense. As a 2x NFL Championship coach with over 100 wins over 15 years, a legitimate case can be made that Parker has been shunned from the Hall of Fame. He had brought the Steelers a sustained period of “success” that the franchise had never seen before. Dan Rooney and Art Rooney discussed it that evening and the Chief cautioned Dan saying, “I hope you know what you’re doing. It could be a mistake.”
But Dan Rooney knew that to build a winner, it would require a change in philosophy and Parker wasn’t the guy to execute it. The next morning, it was made official, and Parker was out as Steelers coach. Parker left very bitter and with a depleted roster due to the trades that left the team bereft of any semblance of talent. He reportedly told Art Rooney that, “I can’t win with these bunch of stiffs.”
Between Parker and Noll
Parker also remarked about the Steelers that, “When this team gets lucky, it will be lucky for 10 years.” After his resignation was accepted immediately following a winless preseason in 1965, assistant coach Mike Nixon was informed he would be running the team for the season. Nixon was placed in a no-win situation as he was made interim head coach mere days before the season and it showed with a 2-12 campaign.
Dan Rooney wanted to start over, thing long-term and scouring the country for candidates. He came up with 5 he wanted to interview and the first was Bill Austin, who was an assistant coach with Vince Lombardi. He interviewed well and Art Rooney called Lombardi for his opinion. Lombardi gave Austin a great recommendation and Art Rooney decided to hire him against Dan Rooney’s protestations that he was only the first interview. But AJR was the boss and had the final say. Austin tried to model Vince Lombardi, using the same schemes, and trying to inspire the team the same way Lombardi could. It failed miserably and Andy Russell would later reveal that teammates who once played in Green Bay would say that his “rah-rah speeches” he gave in Pittsburgh were verbatim to those that Lombardi used in Green Bay. Austin completely lost the team after three seasons and knew his dismissal was coming.
The Chief agrees to do it Dan’s way
After a decade of debating on how achieve success between father and son, and after seeing how his quick decision to hire Austin failed, Art Rooney agreed to let Dan Rooney vet the next coach his way. Multiple candidates interviewed, but it was a two-hour meeting on January 13, 1969 (the day after Super Bowl III) that Dan Rooney and Chuck Noll met for the first time. They shared the same vision and believed in patience. Nonetheless Dan Rooney continued to screen candidates, including Joe Paterno. Despite rumors, Paterno did not turn down the Steelers job. They met once and were interested in a 2nd round, but Paterno was committed to Penn State. Dan Rooney interviewed the rest of his short list, then brought Noll in again, this time with Art Rooney sitting in. He was offered the job after his third interview, choosing the Steelers over the New England Patriots and Buffalo Bills. They didn’t agree on everything, but Dan Rooney did not want a “yes man”, but a man of integrity who shared their philosophy. Thus, on January 27, 1969, Chuck Noll was announced as head coach of the Steelers. The revolving door of Steelers head coaches came to an end.
Dan Rooney as President
After winning Super Bowl IX, Art Rooney walked into Dan Rooney’s office and said, “Dan, I think it’s time we call you ‘president’—you’ve been doing the job for years.” There was no announcement, it was simply put in the 1975 team media guide, Art Rooney was Chairman of the Board and Dan Rooney was President. It was truly the Steelers way. There was no focus on who got the credit as both Rooney’s would shy away from such limelight. And Parker was wrong about luck, because the Rooney way hasn’t been about luck but far more valuable characteristics. It’s been a way that has worked for over 50 years as long as a Rooney is in charge, and will continue to work.
- How The Pittsburgh Steelers Came to Be – Art Rooney
- How a day at Saratoga saved the Pittsburgh Steelers
- When Art Rooney played a prank on George Halas
- Byron “Whizzer” White and “Bullet” Bill Dudley: The Steelers first Franchise Players
- The Pennsylvania Polka – When Art Rooney sold the Steelers
- When Art Rooney was offered the chance to buy the New York Yankees
- What might have been – Jock Sutherland
- Same Old Steelers – “Rogel up the Middle”
- Why the Steelers cut Johnny Unitas
- How Buddy Parker vs. Dan Rooney set up the Steelers Dynasty
Thoughts or comments? Leave one below.