First, tell me what you’ve been doing with yourself lately?
At the present I’m job hunting. I was at RMU for the 2016-2017 season as their offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach We had a lot of work to do to rebuild the offense. I only had one recruiting class there and we had to redshirt five of those players – it was the right thing to do for the program to help turn it around.
We had a number of offensive scholarship players quit the programs beforehand so we just had freshmen and sophomores. I was excited about the job we did – we jumped thirty-one spots in the passing game last year.
When Head Coach John Banaszak resigned the new president decided to go a different way. But it was a good experience. The Summer of 2015, I was actually on my way to my son’s baseball game when a guy drove over the yellow line and hit me head on. I just thank God I’m still here, I had great support. I spent the Summer of 2016 in a wheelchair and was lucky my cousin was a physical therapist and he helped me – he was fantastic.
What was it like working under Dan Radakovich and working under him earlier at RMU?
I learned so much under Mad Rad – that was my cornerstone for everything in my career and everything I am. I owe everything to God and Jesus but connecting me to Mad Rad – he showed me all of the fundamentals and techniques that are what I use to educate now.
What were some of those key points?
The first was don’t make things too hard. He taught me to find out who your best eleven are, find out what they do best and that’s what you should do. For us, that’s how we went about things.
Also, same foot same shoulder. When you make contact on the field it should be the same foot same shoulder. Point of power.
There were a bunch of independent things but overall on scouting it was about the fact you can get excited about stopwatches and bench presses, and there’s a certain value to all of that – that players need to have. But as Mad Rad says, what does the film say? The emphasis is on the film – how does the guy play?
You interned as a young man with both the Penguins and Steelers. What did you learn from those experiences?
With the Penguins I worked with their front office mostly with the media, PR, and marketing people.
With the Steelers I had great exposure to everything. I worked with Joe Gordon who was a great man and one of the best guys I’ve ever known. As an intern you do everything, From holding sticks during practices and sometimes even helping with the laundry, to working on the film clips, writing the media guide, picking up players for physicals, planning free agent workouts, sometimes even getting Dan Rooney’s fish sandwiches from Bankovitz’s.
I got to spend time with the late Tom Modrak, Charles Bailey and Bill Nunn. I watched film with Bill. He was a legendary evaluator. I was so blessed for that opportunity.
What made Bill Nunn so Special?
He just spent the time. He was so diligent and got to know every player he evaluated. He talked to people in their conferences and everyone around them. He was always watching film and was always ready to help anyone.
Back then, we only had five interns. Once I even had to go to Dan Rooney’s driveway to help him figure out why his Bonneville wouldn’t start.
How did you get hired by Bill Cowher to become his quality control coach on offense?
What happened was I had a player who was an All-American linebacker – Brad Miller – and his parents were in town, so he asked if I knew anyone who could help him get Steelers tickets. We went to the stadium on a Saturday to talk to people to get tickets. I still knew many of the coaches, players and front office people there. We walked through the locker room – the players were there working out and Cowher was at his desk which was on the way to the locker room. When I interned there I made sure never to bother him but he was always fair the way he treated me.
Well, what they say is true about hard work as an intern. It was a great opportunity for a guy who grew up in Pittsburgh. As I was leaving, I was talking to Brad and Coach Cowher was standing up and said “Hey Mike! What are you doing here?” I was shocked – I didn’t notice him there. I introduced him to Brad and he asked me what I was doing with myself. I told him my graduate assistant time was over and I was thinking of actually calling him for some ideas on what to do next. He told me to call him – that he may have something.
After the Atlanta-Denver Super Bowl he called me on Tuesday and asked if I could come in at 10:00. I raced in and interviewed there. I worked with Hoak and Mularkey when I was there and they had brought in Kevin Gilbride and I spoke to him. Chet Furman helped me as well there. That’s how it happened.
So, what exactly did you do as the Offensive Quality Control Coach?
Everything really. You’re the grunt of the staff. I broke down all of the film and worked up the tendencies and analysis of the teams we were facing that week and in future weeks.
You could work 24/7 – it’s just the matter of when you want to stop and sleep. Sometimes you sleep in your office. I’d help Dick Hoak work with the running backs, Kenny Jackson with the wide receivers. .I’d sit in meeting rooms and read the script for practices.
Sometimes I’d work in the booth and helped steal signals from other teams.
Any success with that?
Oh yeah. You worked on their tendencies during the week which helped with that.
For me, the opportunity to work on all of that at that stage in my career was amazing.
How involved did you get in the draft and scouting process?
Colbert I think is one of the best general mangers ever. He got everyone involved. I went on the road with scouts to college pro days. I got to hear the philosophies of the what type of player they and process they wanted.
Tell me more about that – what differentiated the Steelers from the rest of the NFL?
I think mostly it was how they incorporate everyone into the process. It’s always up to Cowher to make the ultimate decision but everyone’s input was taken. Dan Rooney would say before every draft that after Kevin and Cowher make the pick, that player is a Steeler and it’s up to everyone to make that pick a success. Everyone needs to give their best efforts and everyone needs to be on board. You may have different opinions but in the end when the pick is made we all need to make it right. I really appreciated that. That was special to me to hear him say that and make sure all are on the same page.
Tell me a good story about your time there?
I loved mock draft day. Colbert would hold mock draft day every year the day before the draft. He was always very prepared and we would run through a million scenarios on the magnetic board. Each time showing that if one thing happens and teams do one thing, and a player is still there, which player do we want then. We’d do it again and again.
Well, in 2003 I was on the offensive side of the staff but I watched film of Troy Polamalu. He was amazing. Kenny Jackson wasn’t there for some reason so Kevin looked at me and asked who I’d take in one of the scenarios. Everyone was in the room – the coaches, scouts and front office people.
So, I got up and said we pick at twenty-seven, but at twenty-two, the Jets get a phone call, and the Steelers announce they traded up to get Troy Polamalu. Well, there was a big “Woooo!” in the room from everyone!
The offensive coaches gave me a lot of slack. It turned into an argument. They were pretty upset and asked me why I did it. That the only safety that should ever be taken that high was Ronnie Lott. I told them I watched the film on this guy. I told them Polalamu won’t be as good as Lott.. That he will be better than Lott!
The next day I walked in to the draft room and the coaches asked me if I was happy. I didn’t know what they were talking about. Then they told me the Steelers had traded up at pick sixteen to get Polamalu!
Two year later I remember in Buffalo seeing his picture on the cover of Sports Illustrated. I’m not saying I had anything to do with the decision to trade up for him. Just was a fun moment. And to see how well he played, and that he was a better person than a player. That says a lot. It’s so rare your greatest need is met in the draft with a superstar like that.
Any other good stories about your experiences there?
Yeah. Russ Grimm and I used to share an office. Practice times changed daily – and Fridays were the biggest practice days .Russ asked me on one Friday what time practice was and I told him 12:00. He asked f I was sure and I told him I swore on a stack of Bibles I was.
Well, I headed over there for practice and I went to the indoor facility. Russ was on a call so he was going to be there shortly after me. Well, do you ever get that experience when you go somewhere and people are supposed to be there and no one is there? Well no one was there. I went to the training room and no one was there either. I said “Oh no!” I had all of the walk-through cards. They couldn’t have done anything without me.
Then I saw Tommy Maddox running towards me from the other facility. I ran there with him and they were already doing walk-throughs. I saw Mularkey but I couldn’t look at him – he was so angry he had to start without me.
Five minutes later Russ walks in and all of the offensive guys start clapping. He had his hands up in the air and was looking at me wondering what happened. During the walk throughs he asked me what happened and I told him I thought it was at 12;00. I was scared for my job. He told me not to worry but I told him only one of us was on a Hall of Fame ballot!
Well, after practice Coach Cowher gestures to me with his finger to meet with him. So I’m in his office with Mularkey who is glaring at me. Cowher asked me what happened and I told him it wasn’t Russ’ fault. That I just had the wrong time.
So Cowher asked me if I really swore about the time on a stack of Bibles and started laughing, He said “Relax, you’re good.” He told me I would be fined. And, I don’t chew, but Coach Cowher and other guys on the team did. I hated the smell and it used to attract fruit flies. I hated when they’d spit in the garbage cans. So, Cowher told me as a punishment he was going to use my garbage can to spit in every day next week during film room study.
That first film room study of the next week Cowher before he started told me to go get my trash can and used it every day that week!
I have nothing but great reverence for Coach Cowher and am grateful for the opportunity to work with him for five years. I learned so much and we still talk. I call him a friend and we touch base a couple of times a year. He changed the trajectory of my life when he stuck his neck out for me.
Tell me lastly about your thoughts on the way the game has changed in the NFL?
I like it. It’s hard but I think they are doing everything they can to make the game safer. It’s a very physical, tough game. There will always be injuries and head injuries no matter how much you govern it. The players are so fast and strong and physical. It’s just a part of it. I can’t say enough about the players and what they go through, Injuries, personal issues, stress, weather. Like Cowher said, “You can’t give the players enough credit.”
That’s why I’m a huge fan of instant replay. It drives me crazy when reporters say it takes too long or we should leave it up to the refs. But this is about players’ and coach’s livelihoods. They sacrifice so much for this game, so you should want to make sure the calls are as right as possible. When you work one-hundred hour weeks and sacrifice time with your families and friends who are so great in supporting you, you accept that. But with the technologies available to us, we should want to get it right, Look at the playoffs and how many missed calls and ones they got wrong. Let’s take the time to get it right.
Read more by former Steelers via the book Steelers Takeaways: Player Memories Through the Decades. To order, just click on the book: