First, tell me a bit about how you got into broadcasting – was that something you always had an interest in as a post-NFL career?
It wasn’t something I was thinking about at all really. When I coached I didn’t have a TV or radio show. I was just looking at the team and helping the team. I had no thoughts about broadcasting.
Dick Enberg called me and asked if I would think about broadcasting after I was done coaching and I said no. But my wife told me I should try it. That after twenty-eight years of coaching I would miss the game if I just stopped. So I sat in in the studio during the broadcast for the Steelers-Arizona Super Bowl. It was intriguing. It was a like a team you’d find in football. The producers and staff working together to make a good broadcast like an NFL team would. After nine years now, I’ve enjoyed it immensely.
How difficult was that post-NFL adjustment for you?
Some things were easy. I’d prepare every week for a show just like we did for a game. We game-planned like we did for the NFL and made adjustments at halftime like we did in the NFL.
It was funny. During the first half of the Super Bowl we talked about what we would discuss during halftime. How the Steelers held Larry Fitzgerald to no touchdowns – the coverages they used and how they did it. Then James Harrison had the interception for a touchdown right before the half and the producer told us we had to forget everything, That we had to break down the interception as it was the biggest gamer-changing play in Super Bowl history. We had to change everything seconds before we were going on air. We used the commercial break to get ready!
Being a broadcaster allowed me to stay in the game and visit friends and organizations and talk to people I hadn’t seen in a while.
Dissecting things in a way people understood was hard – and realizing you can’t always keep everyone happy. Like the last play in Pittsburgh versus New England, talking about what Ben should have done. You don’t want to criticize friends but you have to be honest. It’s tough at first. It may not be what friends and coaches want to hear but my obligation is to my job and NBC.
So, as a coach, what mentors really shaped how you approached coaching. What lessons did they teach you that you were able to use?
I played for the Steelers for two years under Chuck Noll before being traded to San Francisco. I knew it was the end of the line for me when I was twenty-five years old. In my mind I was going to play until I was thirty years old, make some money, start a business…..But I was twenty-five…it felt so sudden.
Coach Noll called me and asked if I wanted to help coach the Steelers. He said he thought I had an aptitude for it and could help the staff. It was something I wanted to do and when I got there I was excited – they were so energized, I always did what the coach told me to do as a player. But as a coach I could see why he did what he did. It was a tremendous experience. To be on the inside – with the Rooneys – Art, Chuck, Dan….there was no better experience, They did things the right way. I took all of the fundamentals I learned from them and used them in my coaching career in all four cities I coaches for.
Any specific lessons that really helped you most?
The first thing was from Art Rooney – how you have to trust your players and coaching staff. To treat them like family and understand your impact on fans too. He told me the team will support you through all kinds of weather. But you can’t just take it in. You have to give back. Art wanted you to be someone who gave back to the community as a player.
Chuck Noll taught me that my job as a coach was to help players play better. Not to be an authority figure or disciplinarian. My job was to make them the best they can be and to connect to each individually. Not to get hung up on making each player learn the same way or you’d miss how to help players who needed to prepare and improve in their own way.
He also taught me to be myself. He told me I shouldn’t try to be like him. He didn’t want eight coaches like him. And that players would see right through it if I tried to be someone else.
So I learned from them that to be a good coach I had to treat people right, help players be the best they could be and to be myself.
So, you were a quarterback in college, but found your way to Pittsburgh as an undrafted free agent, playing safety. How did that happen and how did you make that transition?
I think the Lord must have set it up for me to be there. Through elementary school, high school, and college I always thought I’d play quarterback in the NFL
I could have played quarterback in Canada for the Montreal Alouettes out of college. Marv Levy was the coach there and he wanted me to play for them and told me I could be a successful quarterback for them. But I wanted to play against the best, in the NFL.
The Steelers called too and they told me they wanted me to change positions and help the team at a different position. Now it was a decision to play a position I knew or to go against the best.
It was something, a feeling inside that is hard to explain.I could have taken a $50,000 bonus and guaranteed money in Canada, or the $2,000 bonus and no guarantee in Pittsburgh to even make the team. But something inside drove me to go to Pittsburgh and try to make ti work there.
Anyone help men tor you in Pittsburgh and make that adjustment to both NFL life and a new position?
Noll put me in a room with Donnie Shell and told me Donnie would teach me how to play the position. He told me to do what he does. Donnie taught me how to be a Christian – a good man and husband as well as a competitor.
When I got there, I just watched the players. When I was a kid I remember watching the Immaculate Reception and thinking how lucky that play was for the Steelers. Well, when I got to the Steelers I watched Franco practice. Every play they ran from the forty yard line he’d always run the ball into the endzone. If he didn’t have the ball he’d always sprint to where the ball was. That’s when I realized it wasn’t luck. The ball happened to bounce up but that was what Franco and all the backs did on every play in practice. They practiced and played at one-hundred percent all of the time.
When some guys got hurt, that made room for me to make the team and I was able to be one the Super Bowl winning team my second season.
How did your faith impact you and that Steelers team?
It germinated there. My mom and dad raised me to be Christian snd my grandfather was a Minster and I knew about Christianity and right and wrong growing up. But there were strong Christian athletes in Pittsburgh – Donnie Shell, John Stallworth, Jon Kolb, Larry Brown… They were great players but they also did things the right way. That’s what I always wanted in my life. They had me attend Bible study and church with them and helped me make up my faith and career. It was awesome that they had drafted me then and that faith helped me to become who I am over these past thirty years.
Any fun stories from your time in Pittsburgh?
Oh yeah. In October I remember Franco coming up to me and tellong me that for Thanksgiving all the rookies get a turkey, but that he knew I probably didn’t how to cook it, so if I didn’t mind, maybe I could just give it to him. I said sure. About six weeks later Mel Blount came up to me and asked if I could give the turkey to him. That his wife would cook it and invite all of the defensive backs over to eat it with them. I told him I really liked the idea but I had already promised it to Franco. Mel told me that Franco was just being selfish – that he does that every year. So I asked Franco if he would mind me giving it to Mel and he said sure, that he’d just get one from one of the rookie offensive linemen,
Well, the night before Thanksgiving Mel told me that Jim Boston had my turkey and that I should go get it from him. So I went to his office and he said I should get it from Dan Rooney. So I went to him and he told me he gave the last one to Chuck Noll – that he felt really bad and that this wasn’t like them to make that kind of mistake. He told me I should just go ask Chuck for it.
Well, I went back to Mel and told him there was no way I was going to ask Chuck Noll for his turkey! The whole locker room started laughing. I knew other teams played jokes on their players, I just didn’t see it coming!
I also remember my first practice with the first team group. Lambert, Mel and a bunch of guys held out that year in 1977. Jack was back by the third preseason game and in that first huddle together he told me that here’s how it was going to work. That I should stand next to him on the huddle, but that when it’s a real game, he won’t have his teeth in, so I may not be able to understand him. That I should make sure to let him know if I didn’t.
So I was like, wow. That’s different. We had some good times there. They were smart players who would describe for me how to handle things and what I should look for and how to do things. The guys knew it all because they had been in that defense for years – as long as many of the coaches.
One reason I do these interviews is that more and more it seems like players are being seen less as “people” and more as fantasy stats and numbers due to fantasy football and social media. What are your thoughts on this?
I think fans often forget that. I remember when I was playing it was an issue then and it’s probably gotten worse sure. I remember my second year we went to Cleveland for a game. We’d either take a bus or plane to those games and this time we took a bus. Jon Kolb’s wife was about to go into labor and he was deciding what to do. It didn’t look like she would go into labor over the weekend so he decided to play and we got to Cleveland Saturday night. Sunday morning he got a call that she went into labor. There was not enough time to take a bus or plane to get back so he stayed there and played.
Well, he had four false starts that game. Fans were wondering what was wrong with him and criticizing him. They had no idea his wife was in labor and he was thinking about his wife and getting back after his son was born.
I think it’s just part of the game now. Fans don’t see those things. They don’t know.
I like the days when we would fly to games and the coaches would sit in first class, the veterans in the front and the players would all have assigned seats. The media would sit in the back and would write their stories on the way back and walk up to us on the plane to make sure they got things right or if they had a question. When we were losing it wasn’t always comfortable, but they could get the true story. Now, it’s not that way any more. Now everyone is writing from far off, from New York about a Steelers game in Cleveland. It’s not the same. They aren’t as accountable. It’s different now. I’m glad I played when I did.
Any thoughts on the way the NFL and game has changed?
I think it’s changing for the better in a lot of ways. Especially for the safety issues. It’s helped protect players in a lot of the ways it’s changed.
But, it’s not as personal .That I don’t like. The Rooneys made sure every player was treated in a personal way. That was critical to them. People stayed a long time there. The players coached me more than some of the coaches did they were there so long. Many were there for eight, ten, twelve years, Now, maybe one-to-two players stay that long. With free agency and the salary cap it’s tough.
Much of the game has changed for the better, but I still long for those more personal days.
Any last thoughts for fans?
There’s a reason why the Steelers won for all those years and continue to do so. It’s a top shelf organization. You can chock that up to good leadership, and that starts at the top. Pittsburgh is one of the special organizations. Kansas City was the same way. For me, I tried to bring that to Tampa Bay, and then to Indianapolis. I tried to do it the same way, to create that personal side to the organization. It’s the biggest lesson – to do things the right way. It’s still a business and a violent sport, but you succeed if you do it the right way and treat people right. And all that I learned through my time in Pittsburgh.
Read more by former Steelers via the book Steelers Takeaways: Player Memories Through the Decades. To order, just click on the book: