First, can you let us know what’s going on with you now? What are your next steps career-wise?
Well, I have nothing lined up at the moment. I’m not retired but can’t find a job right now. I want to work and keep coaching. I enjoy coaching and hope to get a job in football. I’m 79 years old and some see my age and it scares people. But the important thing is I’m in perfect health and can contribute somewhere. So, I hope someone will hire me.
Tell me a bit about who influenced your coaching style and how and how it fits in with coaching today?
Chuck Noll was the greatest coach I had an opportunity to work for. His big thing was teaching. Teachers motivate through teaching. He was relentless on teaching fundamentals and techniques. Ultimately that’s what still wins football games. I had the opportunity to work for him for 13 years. I was also fortunate enough to play at Iowa with a coach who was very similar. Those two coaches shaped and molded me and put me in the direction I wanted to coach. To focus on sound fundamentals and techniques.
Is it harder today, in your experience, to coach today’s players on fundamentals?
I don’t think it’s hard. Great players want to be great and want to do what they have to do to be great. Peyton Manning – he wanted to be great and worked hard on techniques, So did Marvin Harrison, Reggie Wayne, Dallas Clark, and Joseph Addai in Indianapolis. I think the biggest thing for a coach is they have to stress it. I was fortunate enough to work for coaches like Arians and Dungy. Even when Tony was being recruited and then coached at Minnesota, he was big on the fundamentals.
I don’t think it’s harder to coach the players on the fundamentals. Coaches just have to be demanding and not give in. That’s what it takes. The great ones want to be great and accept that. You’ll always have one or two that don’t and you hear about them. But you rarely hear about the other 98 or 99 that want to be coached. They understand that being better extends their careers and the money they make.
Are players coming into the NFL with less of those fundamentals stressed in college than in years’ past?
No, I don’t think that’s true. The restrictions now prohibit things. In college you have the 20 hour a week rule. In the pros you can’t practice in pads as much. They’re restricted in OTAs and mini camps and training camp. It’s not like it used to be.
It is what it is. As a coach you have to adjust and utilize the time in a very disciplined manner so you get the fundamentals taught.
Let’s talk about being hired by Chuck Noll in Pittsburgh. How did that come about?
Then they had two guys on the staff – George Perles and Woody Widenhofer. I worked with both before. With George at the University of Dayton and Woody at Minnesota. When the wide receivers coach opening came up they recommended me. I’m indebted to both of them. George told Chuck that if I didn’t work out he could fire both us!
What did he look for from you?
He wanted a teacher of the fundamentals. To be able to show them how to read coverages and adjust routes. Chuck was the quarterbacks coach then. He wanted me, the same as the other coaches, to be teachers. He knew what system he wanted. He wasn’t looking for a guy to come in and change the system.
Tell me a bit about your work with what was an already stellar wide receiver group and what made them so great?
They were excellent football players. The biggest thing about them was their work ethic. They were extremely hard workers. It was all business once they stepped on to the field. They collectively didn’t allow for a bad practice. They were always trying to improve. When we had our one-on-ones it was Stallworth versus Blount every day. The best against the best and each made the other one better.
They all wanted to be the best. And they were willing to do what they had to do to get there.
Tell me a bit about the scouting process – what was your involvement and what were some of the more guys you remember being high on during the process of scouting?
In Pittsburgh the coaches were more involved in the scouting. When I got there Swann and Stallworth were already there of course. One guy I really liked and fought for was Louis Lipps. Of course everyone knew about him and thought he was good, but I really liked him.
Most scouting departments are well staffed and those are the guys that make the decisions. In Indianapolis Bill Polian was the master of scouting and personnel. When we worked out Peyton Manning, Polian made all of the decisions. Coaches coached and the scouts scouted. That was their expertise.
Jim Smith was a great wide receiver out of Michigan that was under-rated. He came in the same year I did. We went three wide receivers because he was so good we wanted to make sure he got playing time since we already had Swann and Stallworth there.
How competitive were the receivers?
They were extremely competitive but they pulled for one another. They all wanted to be great but the difference was they did what they had to do to be great. They made the extreme sacrifice of putting in the hard work and long hours.
You were elevated to quarterback coach and offensive coordinator after a while.
It was only a six man staff when I got there. Chuck coached the special teams and quarterbacks. I was interested in coaching the quarterbacks and sat in his meetings with the quarterbacks to learn. I wanted to know what he was saying to them so I could say the same thing to the receivers.
He had his system. Eventually he added a couple of coaches and that’s when I went from the wide receivers to the quarterbacks and offensive coordinator. We continued with his system. We’d tweak it here and there and add and subtract some things, but no great changes.
He gave me more authority over time and was very good to me. He taught me what he wanted me to teach.
Tell me about the quarterbacks you worked with. Most were great athletes – was that by design?
Terry was there long before I got there and when I became the coordinator he was on his way out. Stoudt and Malone – we got to the AFC Championship game under Mark in 1984 and lost to Miami. I think it just happened to be that Malone and Brister were great athletes. It wasn’t by design. Malone was a phenomenal athlete.
Mark would take meticulous notes. If you took those notes and bound them together you could put the in the Hall of Fame! Bubby had a different scenario. He signed with Alabama and played baseball under Jim Leyland. When that didn’t work out he went back to Tulane and then to Louisiana. So he didn’t play a lot of football in college. He was very raw but had great talent and was a great leader. Both were different. They had different make-ups, but both were hard workers.
Any fun/memorable stories of your time there?
I’m a lunch pail guy. I really don’t like stories. They are usually personal and private and what you may find funny, might not be to them!
Any guys you’re most proud of working with?
I think a great story is Tunch Ilkin. We let Tunch go and he was working somewhere in Chicago when we called hm back. The rest is history He turned out to be a folk hero in Pittsburgh and made the Pro Bowl. He did that through a lot of hard work with the offensive line coaches.
Jeff Saturday is an other guy in Indianapolis. We signed him as a free agent after Baltimore let him go. He worked hard with Howard Mudd, the offensive line coach with the Colts and had a terrific career. Again, it was all through hard work and dedication to make it.
Lastly, tell me your thoughts on the game today and how it’s changed since you first started coaching?
Life is about change. It’s the same with the game of football. The NFL is trying to better things and make it more appealing to fans. The technology implemented is trying to make it better with instant replays to make sure that someone doesn’t lose a game because a call should have gone a different way. I believe these are being done to make the game better.
Some say it isn’t what it used to be. I’m 79, and I can change. I just hope people don’t see my age as a reason not to hire me. The game is doing a tremendous job creating programs for players to help them become better players and people. I think they are doing a great job.
Read more by former Steelers via the book Steelers Takeaways: Player Memories Through the Decades. To order, just click on the book: