If you have been a fan of professional football in Ohio (Bengals or Browns) the last two decades have been tough times. If you are a 20-something football fan, especially if you are a Steelers fan, it might be tempting to think that Ohio does not, maybe never amounted to much of anything football wise. Nothing could be further from the truth. Not only have individuals and teams with Ohio roots been at least as instrumental in the development and success of professional football as Pennsylvania, but just as important the Steelers success over the past 42 years, including its six Super Bowl victories, would have been impossible without the input and guidance of Ohioans.
The organization that would come to be known as the National Football League was founded in 1920 In Canton, Ohio. Jim Thorpe of the Canton Bulldogs was named the first league president. Several Ohio franchises represented the largest contingent of the original franchises with the Akron Pros claiming the first league championship.
Brown was one of the most successful and influential figures in league history. The native of Massillon began his career coaching for his hometown high school team, influenced by the techniques of University of Pittsburgh head coach "Jock" Sutherland. Brown would then move on to Ohio State and would lead the Buckeyes to their first national championship. Brown basically founded both of the current NFL Ohio franchises; the Browns (named after him) in the 1940s and the Bengals in the late ‘60s.
Brown had a well-deserved reputation as an innovator. He introduced face masks to helmets on the professional level, intelligence tests as a form of player evaluation, classroom game preparation, game film libraries, the use of radio transmitters to communicate with players on the field, a messenger guard system for sending in plays and an offensive system that was the ancestor of the West Coast Offense (Bill Walsh was an assistant under Brown at Cincinnati). He also led the way in the desegregation of the sport breaking with the practice of excluding African American players when he signed Hall of Famers Marion Motley and Bill Willis in 1946. This occurred a year before Jackie Robinson integrated Major League Baseball.
What follows may be difficult for younger fans to comprehend, but the Cleveland Browns under Paul Brown's tenure were wildly successful during the late ‘40s, ‘50s and early ‘60s. Beginning their existence in the All American Football Conference, they won all four league championships. They then shocked the football world when they joined the NFL in 1950 and in their very first game solidly defeated the defending champion Philadelphia Eagles. They went on to win the league championship that year, with Brown being the first man to win a National Collegiate Championship and an NFL Championship. During the seventeen years he was at the helm of the Browns (1946 - 1962) the team played in twelve league championship games, winning seven. In the eight years as the head of the Bengals he won two divisional crowns. And, if you were wondering, the Browns mopped the floor with the Steelers in those days the way the Steelers mop the floor with the Browns now.
One of the messenger guards on those ‘50s Browns teams was Noll who hailed from Cleveland. While technically Noll is considered part of the Sid Gillman and Don Shula coaching trees, he was clearly heavily influenced by Brown in his football evolution. He brought the attention to detail, innovative techniques, and, perhaps most importantly, the culture of winning to Pittsburgh. The results are now clearly apparent to all.
One area where Noll continued in the path trail blazed by Brown was in the advancement of minority, and especially African American talent. The Rooneys had their own honorable record in this regard, but Noll, in particular stood out as well. Long time Steeler scout and personnel evaluator Bill Nunn successfully incorporated historically black colleges and universities under the Steelers recruitment umbrella with spectacular results. Though he gave plenty of credit to the Rooneys for his position within the Steelers family, he reserved his highest praise for Noll, saying that he "did not see color." Marlin Briscoe (Denver) and James Harris (Buffalo) played the position for old AFL teams, but Joe Gilliam is credited with being the first starting black quarterback for an old line NFL franchise. Franco Harris was the first African American Super Bowl MVP and Tony Dungy was the first black to occupy a coordinator position in the NFL. Considering that Mike Tomlin is a product of the Dungy coaching tree, the influence of Noll resonates to this day.
My grandparents lived in a small Ohio town southeast of Dayton named Xenia. Before the completion of the Interstate Highway system our route to Xenia passed through a small town by the name of London, which is the hometown of Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau. LeBeau would play at Ohio State under the man who succeeded Paul Brown as Buckeyes head coach, Woody Hayes. LeBeau then went on to have a HOF career as a cornerback for the Detroit Lions.
But LeBeau's greatest contribution to the game may be the defensive innovation known as the Zone Blitz. Coach Dad has said that this defensive system was developed in response the run and shoot offense that was successfully functioning for division rival Houston at the time, as well as the West Coast Offense (Brown, remember). LeBeau's defenses are currently the state of the art in the NFL, and he is in the conversation for consideration as the best defensive coordinator in the history of the game.
Ben and Company
We can't leave this subject without some consideration to players who also have Ohio ties, having lived in the state or having played for one of its schools. Chief among this group is quarterback Ben Roethlisberger (Findley, Ohio and Miami (Ohio) University). This also includes James Harrison (Kent State), Cameron Heyward and rookie Mike Adams (Ohio State). A short list of former players with Ohio ties would include Jack Lambert (Kent State), Santonio Holmes (Ohio State) and Nate Washington (Tiffin).
As you can see, while we are in the habit of sneering at our next door neighbors, without some major contributions and influences the Steelers would hardly be the Steelers that we know and love. The Buckeye State has an extraordinary football tradition, and it is unlikely their teams will remain doormats forever.