A Look at the Steelers Before Chuck Noll, Joe Greene Turned Them Into Winners

If you’re a semi-regular reader of this site you’re probably aware of our fascination with Steelers history, no matter how random or obscure it may be (Two words: Walter Abercrombie). Since the early 1970′s the Steelers have been one of the most successful organizations in not just the NFL, but all of professional sports. From 1933 through the end of the 1960s, however, things were noticeably different: the team stunk, and was consistently a bottom-feeder in the NFL. Recently I came across this gem which gives us a window into analysts thoughts of the Steelers before Chuck Noll came into town and built a dynasty: Frank Gifford’s NFL-AFL Football Guide 1968.

In 1968 the Steelers were coming off a 4-9-1 performance the previous year and were led by head coach Bill Austin, entering his third, and what proved to be final season with the club. What did Gifford have to say about Pittsburgh’s prospects for the ’68 campaign? Below are a couple of word-for-word excerpts from the four-page chapter previewing a Steelers team that would ultimately finish with a dismal 2-11-1 record.

On how the Steelers should be able to play with any team in the league, and how the quarterback situation would play out with new starter Kent Nix:

“Bill thinks the Steelers should be able to play on a par with any team in football in 1968. By trading his starting quarterback of last year, Bill Nelsen, Austin has indicated that he is thoroughly satisfied that Kent Nix is more than capable of handling that all-important position. Nix showed a remarkable amount of cool last year in his first starting role, and also displayed a first-rate arm for both the short and the deep pass.”

As it turns out, Nix would start just three games (all losses) and appear in five others, completing 56 of 130 passes with four touchdowns and eight interceptions. The leading passer for the Steelers in ’68 was a contender for the greatest name in NFL history, 26-year-old Dick Shiner who would go on to have the best season of his eight-year career, finishing in the top-10 in passer rating, touchdowns, yards per completion and touchdown percentage. He would start one more season for the Steelers in 1969, Noll’s first season, as they finished 1-13, dropping the final 13 games of the season after winning the season opener.

And about the Steelers ability to play with any team in the league? They were 0-7-1 against teams with winning records and were outscored by a 283-138 margin in said games. The only teams they managed to beat were the 2-12 Philadelphia Eagles, 6-3, and the 2-12 Atlanta Falcons 41-21 (which begs the question: How awful were the 1968 Atlanta Falcons to not only lose to the Steelers, but to lose by three touchdowns?)

On the wide receivers Nix and Shiner would be throwing to…

“He has a good corps of receivers, headed by Roy Jefferson, who was hampered last year by injuries, and J.R. Wilburn. Jefferson is a top all-around football player who has found a home on the flank. His best route is deep across the middle, but he also runs all the short patterns necessary for third-down ball control situations.

John Hilton is another fine receiver, whom Nix likes to use on the square out to the flanker side, on third-and-long situations. Hilton is also adept at the turn-in pass that Green Bay uses so frequently.”

The “turn-in pass” that Gifford described is one of a handful of play diagrams featured in the book…

Gifford’s praise for Jefferson was justified as he would go onto finish second in the league with 58 receptions and 11 touchdowns, while also leading the league with 1,074 yards, narrowly beating future Hall of Famer Paul Warfield.

On the running game that was anchored by Jeannette native Dick Hoak…

“The Steelers’ running game has been bolstered by Don Shy and the improvement last year of Earl Gros. Gros has the same background as Austin, in that he played for Green Bay before traveling to Philadelphia. His big move is the weak-side off-tackle play the Steelers use on short yardage situations.

Operating with Gros and Shy in the Steelers’ ground game is Dick Hoak. Hoak, while not particularly fast, is a very productive runner who handles the “Green Bay” power sweep in good shape and also runs well with the off-tackle takeoff on the sweep, used on third and short.”

Hoak had a career year in ’68 rushing for 858 yards and catching 28 passes for 253 yards.

Finally, here’s Gifford on the Steelers defense and their long-term outlook…

“Defensively, the Steelers do not have to back away from any team. Their front four, in a basic four-three most of the time, is big and strong and well supported by linebackers Andy Russell, John Campbell, and Bill Saul.

The Steelers really stand out in their defensive secondary. Safety men Paul Martha and Clendon Thomas and left corner back Marv Woodson are excellent on the man-to-man coverage which Austin’s four-three calls for. Watch Woodson on his man-to-man play, as he is one of the best in the league.

In summation, the Steelers, as they always have been, are a rough football team. Bill Austin’s demands for dedication are being met and the Steelers, definitely on the way up, can win against the best.”

Well, in some ways things were on the way up for the Steelers, but it had little to do with Austin’s demand for dedication, and more to do with the hiring of Noll after the season, his selection of a little-known defensive tackle from North Texas by the name of Joe Greene, and the Steelers winning a coin toss prior to the 1970 draft that allowed them to pick Terry Bradshaw with the No. 1 overall pick.

1968: The Pittsburgh Pirates were eight years removed from a World championship, three years away from another, the Pittsburgh Penguins were still in their infancy and the Steelers were the worst team in the NFL. In other words, it was bizarro world when compared to today.

Planet of the Apes was one of the top movies of the year, along with 2001: A Space Odyssey. The Mod Squad, 60 Minutes and Hawaii Five-O made their debuts on television, and people were listening to this…

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  • Randy Steele

    Ahhh… I remember it well. I think that 1968 was Rocky Bleier’s first year with the Steelers, the only year he played pro football before getting drafted and shipped to Vietnam.

    By the way, the Falcons were an expansion team in 1966, and they didn’t get any better for a long, long time.

    • Randy Steele

      But, alas, no Buzz Nutter.

  • ROb D

    I was following the NFL exclusively by newspaper reports back then..lol..the media universe was a tad bit smaller. Plus I was only 11. TV was 2 channels and neither of them televised football games. Can you kids imagine a world like that? lol…

    The first guy I ever heard about was Johnny U. This old guy who boarded in the same house with us always talked about him as the greatest QB and leader. My affiliation with the Steelers began in obvious ways..My hometown was a small city with a steel plant as the main employer. A natural fit. But it was really cemented when I watched my first Steeler game on TV. It was really the fans in the stands that made me a Steeler fanatic. It looked like the same kind of mix of ethnicities that I grew up with in my hometown. Minus the African Americans. I knew I had found my team.

    Gifford was/is my favourite play by play guy. He didn’t have to scream and shout to make you feel the drama of a play. Very professional.

  • GlennW

    Good stuff. Typical of the times, in these preseason guides never was heard a discouraging word. We can play with anyone!