While most people tend to overlook the Pittsburgh Steelers in the era prior to the 1970s dynasty, this Steelers History Series Special Companion Piece will look back on some the coaches expand on some of their more interesting stories.
Replacing a Legend
When Jock Sutherland passed away as he was just turning the Steelers into a winning organization, hard times would follow. Art Rooney elevated 32-year-old John Michelosen – who held the distinction of youngest NFL head coach until Lane Kiffin in 2007. Michelosen, the former QB/captain of the 1937 National Championship Pittsburgh Panthers team, became an assistant coach and the hand-picked protégé of Sutherland. Rooney felt he should be given a chance, but it may have been too soon for the young coach. He never deviated from Sutherland’s single-wing formation as the rest of the league began utilizing the more versatile T-Formation and as hard as he tried, he was no Sutherland. Michelosen, recognizing that he failed to capitalize on the solid foundation that Sutherland had built, resigned after a disappointing 20-26-2 record over his 4-year tenure. He would return to the University of Pittsburgh to helm the program with far greater success, finishing in the top 10 five times over his 11 seasons and would be inducted into the Pennsylvania Sports Hall of Fame in 1970.
Hiring Backwards in the 1950s
Art Rooney would hire his friends to be head coach of the team, particularly in the early years of the team. He also had not yet decided to let the coaches “do the coaching.” It’s important to remember just how competitive Rooney was as well as how intimidating he could be when he wanted or needed to be. Perhaps that is why he would return to hire Joe Bach and Walt Kiesling for a 2nd and 3rd go-around in the 50s.
Bach was the most qualified of Rooney’s early hires and even had the 1936 Steelers a single win from the NFL Championship. He was also a tough customer with the brass to stand up to Rooney. In 1930s, Rooney – who hated to lose – tried telling Bach how to do his job after one particularly embarrassing exhibition game loss to a Los Angeles semi-pro team and a fight broke out between the two on the long train ride back to Pittsburgh. Remember that Rooney was an Olympic level boxer, and he delivered a right cross to Bach that knocked him out cold. Bach threatened to resign one time too many when AJR called his bluff and went back to a coaching college where he won 4 conference championships with the Niagara Purple Eagles. But by his 2nd stint, it was clear the game had passed him by. Having lost the competitive fire that once drove him and his stamina effected by diabetes, he resigned during training camp in August of 1954.
Kiesling was a last second replacement for the third (and final) time. Ironically, Kiesling was never the “first” choice. He initially took over when then head coach Johnny Blood resigned after an 0-3 start in 1939. It was he bizarre and disastrous 1941 season when Rooney called on his old pal to coach the team for the final 3 games of the year. And on a frigid day at Forbes Field against Jock Sutherland’s Brooklyn Dodgers, did Kiesling manage to pull off a win and prevented the Steelers from being remembered for ignominious “accomplishment” of finishing a season with 0 wins.
Before there were 3 Head Coaches in 50 years
The Steelers are well known for having hired only 3 head coaches in 50 years – with the first two in the Hall of Fame. But before that there was 1941, when the Steelers had 3 head coaches, in a single season.
Then Co-Owner Bert Bell began the 1941 season as head coach, but a change was made after an 0-4 start. Rooney & Bell Duquesne turned to Duquesne University head coach Aldo Donelli. The only problem was that Donelli never quit his job with the Duquesne Dukes – coaching both teams at the same time. He would coach the winless Steelers in the morning while classes were occurring and then focus on the undefeated Dukes in the afternoon. This infuriated then NFL Commissioner Elmer Layden, and the conflict of interest ended after the 5-week charade climaxed. It was the morning of a Steelers game vs. the bitter rival Philadelphia Eagles. Nowhere to be found, the players asked, “Where’s the coach?” The response came back, “He’s out of town with the Dukes!” Forced to decide, Donelli easily chose to remain with the successful Dukes football program. Kiesling was called in like a relief pitcher to finish the season.
- 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”
- NEXT: Why the Steelers cut Johnny Unitas
- How Buddy Parker vs. Dan Rooney set up the Steelers Dynasty
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