Former Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback, Ben Roethlisberger released the fifth episode of his Footbahlin with Ben Roethlisberger podcast on Monday. The episode was the second part of his sit down with another former Pittsburgh legend, Merril Hoge. The pair of former Steelers turned their focus to team nostalgia during part two of the episode.
Both players had the shared experience of playing for Chuck Noll’s successor in Pittsburgh Bill Cowher and their affection for the former coach is obvious. Roethlisberger was there at the end for Coach Cowher’s tenure and Hoge was on his first Steelers team. The former fullback revealed that someone else wanted to succeed Noll in Pittsburgh prior to the Rooney’s decision to bring in an outsider.
Joe Greene was the Steelers defensive line coach in 1991. He was finishing his fourth year in the position during Noll’s final season. Steelers players since 1969 respect and like Greene. Teammates, players he coached and literally any Pittsburgh player since raves about his presence when he is around the facility. Greene, according to Hoge wanted to be more than just an assistant coach in Pittsburgh.
“Joe is our defensive line coach and Joe had asked me as the captain if I would go on his behalf in front of Mr. Rooney to tell him how much we would like Joe to be the head coach,” Hoge began. “I love Joe. I mean, when I first got in the league, I come walking in the locker room and just his presence — the way he helped me in so many ways, even though he’s a defensive line coach, I was like, ‘Absolutely, Joe.’”
It is hard to quantify how important Greene is to the Pittsburgh Steelers organization. Other NFL fan bases have beloved players, but the Hall of Fame Greene is one of only three retired numbers in a franchise that has been around since the league’s inception. The Steelers were around before they drafted Greene in 1969, but since Noll tapped him as the first pick in his first draft, he is the one player who has symbolized the team for six decades.
“Mr. Rooney had an open-door policy,” Hoge continues. “I told him what I was there for. He doesn’t say anything, gets up and goes and shuts the door. I was like, ‘Oh, that ain’t good.’”
Cowher had famously argued on Hoge’s behalf with Dan Rooney for a contract and that did not go well for him after Mr. Rooney closed the door. It is hard to envision the mild-mannered owner of the Steelers dealing harshly with an employee, but when your boss closes the door, you get nervous. It is only human to feel that way.
“Merril, I’m not going to do that to Joe,” Rooney said to Hoge. “Joe will always be compared to Chuck, everybody’s gonna get a character shot, but not like Joe will get compared to Chuck. To do what Chuck did, just to match it won’t be enough.”
Rooney did not have to explain his decision to Hoge, but he took the time to explain his thought process and philosophy to him.
“He actually explained his thought process to me,” Hoge said. “I got it, I mean I feel bad, but I understood. He said we’re going to start over, clean house and then they hired Bill.”
Greene was a defensive line coach in Pittsburgh, Miami and Arizona. He left the Steelers coaching staff at the end of Noll’s tenure and never returned formally to the team. Coach Cowher ended up being a successful hire and a Hall of Fame coach. Hoge related that the Rooney family had a very unique perspective on hiring coaches that has permeated three generations of executives.
“Okay, so when Bill leaves, I’m at ESPN and everybody is talking about all these possibilities. So, they hire Mike Tomlin, now I’m talking to Art,” Hoge concludes. “He tells me when you hire a head coach, you have to help him be a head coach. We’re going to make mistakes; we’re going to work through them.”
The Rooney family has hired three head coaches since 1969. Art Rooney hired Chuck Noll with no experience, and he delivered four championships and a Hall of Fame coaching career. Dan Rooney hired Bill Cowher and he delivered a championship and a Hall of Fame career. Art Rooney II hired Mike Tomlin and that has brought one championship so far and he is on a Hall of Fame trajectory.
No other organization in football has the patience and wisdom to support the decisions they make like the Pittsburgh Steelers. In retrospect, they may have done Joe Greene a favor by not allowing him to succeed Noll, but he never got a chance to be a head coach at the NFL level. I wonder if Greene feels like it was a favor? Knowing him, we probably will never know.
What do you think, Steeler Nation? Looking back, did Joe Greene deserve a shot to take over the black and gold? Please comment below or on my Twitter @thebubbasq.