Tunch Ilkin was a Pittsburgh Steeler from 1980 through 1992, earning two Pro Bowl appearances as an offensive tackle (88, 89). He served as vice president of the NFL Players Association from 1989 to 1994 and was very instrumental in the landmark negotiations between labor and management that still exist today. Tunch joined the Steelers' radio broadcasting team in 1998 with Myron Cope and Bill Hillgrove. After Cope's retirement at the end of 2004, the Steelers decided not to replace Cope and Tunch took on all color commentary. Tunch's understanding and teaching ability of the offensive line is widely known throughout the country. He has been hired as a consultant for 12 NFL teams and currently works with three of them. We thank Tunch for sitting down with us and talking at great length about his views.
BTSC: Having been an original architect of the current labor deal, are you worried about future labor negotiations now that the owners opted to shorten the current agreement?
TUNCH: I'd be shocked to see a work stoppage. There's too much money involved for everyone and both sides realize that. There is some posturing going on which is not surprising, but my gut reaction is that it will get done. Both sides will do what is best for the game. I'm proud to see that most of what we hammered out in 1992 is still in place today, the four years of service before free agency, the franchise tag, transition tag, salary cap and salary floor. I went through the 1987 strike as the Steelers representative and I can tell you that no one wants that to happen again.
BTSC: Tell us about Chuck Noll. You came to the team right after the Steelers won their fourth Super Bowl. What was he really like?
TUNCH: Chuck had an incredible presence that I had never seen before. He was intimidating without trying to be. He knew so much about everything. You got the feeling that you knew less than he did about everything, even outside of football. He combined that knowledge with a tremendous teaching ability. He knew what needed to be communicated and knew exactly how to do it. Chuck's brilliance lied in the fact that he never got caught up with traditional assumptions. He didn't care what college you went to and he knew that size and speed were overrated compared to whether a guy could play football.
Chuck was the king of nonverbal communication. You could lose control of your bladder just by the way he would look at you. Every day I would learn something new from Chuck. I would often go home and look words up in the dictionary that he used. He would often reference history when he spoke to us. To this day when guys get together we still quote him. His words were that powerful. It's not surprising that so many of his disciples have gone on to coaching and broadcasting. It's because they learned so much from him.
People have said that the game passed him by in the 80s because he couldn't duplicate the 70s, but I think one of his best coaching seasons was in 1989. We lost our first two games by something like 96-10. Chuck wasn't concerned about us. He was concerned that the media would contaminate us. He gave us a lecture about how our brain was like a pool with all the chemical reactions and such, and then told us "to not let anyone piss in our pool." We went out and completely turned the season around, made the playoffs, and then beat heavily-favored Houston on the road in the wildcard game.
BTSC: How concerned are you about the offensive line this season?
TUNCH: I'll go back to Chuck to give you my philosophy. If each position on the offensive line gets just a little bit better, collectively the whole thing gets a whole lot better. Chuck used to talk about cumulative effect and that may well happen this year with the Steelers line. They brought in Justin Hartwig to start, Marvel is healthier and Max Starks look terrific. He is svelt, has been working his tail off and he really looks good. Last year he was taken by surprise by losing his job, but he maintained his poise and looked better and better as the season went on. This year he looks leaner and stronger. You can already see different pieces getting a little better, so the cumulative effect might be alot better.
Remember also, we had alot of sacks the last two years, but it's not always the line's fault. Sometimes Ben scrambled when he shouldn't have, and sometimes he scrambled right into a sack. Sacks can result by the style of play calling as much as anything else, so there are different ways we can attack the sack issue.
BTSC: What about Willie Colon? He looks more like a guard than a tackle.
TUNCH: I didn't look like a tackle either so you really can't look at it that way. People think that tackles need to be certain-sized creatures but they don't. They mainly need to be quick on their feet in open space and have enough strength to protect. The pass rushers today are no bigger than they were when I played. Back again to Chuck. He never got boxed in by mindset. Moon Mullins was a tight end and he ended up at guard for us. Don't let the eye test fool you. Having said all that, I wouldn't be surprised to see Marvel and Max starting at tackle with Colon rotating with Chris Kemo at left guard, but then again, I'm not a coach so that's just one man's thought.
BTSC: It's often said that an offensive line needs cohesion and chemistry. What exactly does that mean and why is it important?
TUNCH: Fans don't realize how many adjustments are made during the cadence by the offensive line. So many changes take place with combination blocks and switch blocks. You can't see that from your living room. An offensive line needs to communicate quickly and simplistically with each other since there is very little time involved. You have to know each other also. You have to know what your teammates need to do and can do. Everything on the offensive line links together. We're a fraternity on and off the field.
BTSC: Speaking of that fraternity, as a former player in the trenches, does that ever compromise your ability now as a journalist in being critical about other players?
TUNCH: I have to admit sometimes that is a very fine line. My style is to never say that a player stinks or should be replaced, but I will not hesitate to say that a given player got beat on a given play. Remember, those guys who line up across from you are getting paid also. Sometimes they are just better. I like to dwell on the positive since I think it can set the example and feed into more positive. Chuck taught me that as well. It's better to have a mindset of how to correct something that goes wrong as opposed to criticizing it. That said, I am very critical of lack of effort and preparation, and I will not hesitate to point out when I feel that is the case. There is no excuse for that, which is completely different from just not being as good as the guy you're lining up against.
BTSC: What did you think of the Steelers draft this year?
TUNCH: I really liked it. Alot of fans assumed they were going to take linemen early and often. The truth is, the linemen that were available, outside of that top tier who were already drafted ahead of them, were simply no better than the guys they have on the team now. What sense would it make to have more of the same? The guys they have now have a better chance of improving into better players than the guys they could have drafted. Therefore, they added weapons, they added depth and they added versatility. I loved their draft actually.
BTSC: What is your assessment of Mike Tomlin thus far?
TUNCH: The guy is very bright and articulate. Just like Chuck he has a tremendous presence even though he doesn't try to have one. His maturity is way beyond his years. The Rooneys obviously saw all the same things. Mike is very sincere and poised in all his press conferences. He doesn't tell you everything, but he would be crazy if he did. What he does tell you is very sincere. Mike has a great respect for the history of the game and also the Steelers, which too the Rooneys liked. On top of everything, he is very humble. He's not wrapped into himself. People like that. They like being around him.
BTSC: How do you account for the special teams failures last season, especially in the return-coverage aspect?
TUNCH: We were inconsistent, but we have been for awhile. Remember, we lost a trip to the Super Bowl in 2001 on a punt return. The coaching staff needs to iron that out and not necessarilty by working players harder. They worked extra hard last season in that area. It's all about personnel and "want-to." What's interesting about personnel is that the special teams coaches and head coach often battle each other regarding who to put on the field. The special teams' coaches want the very best players period since that is their area. The head coach wants to preserve his best players and wants the special teams to succeed mainly with back-ups. They struggle back and forth.
BTSC: It's said that NFL teams are never stagnant. They are either on the rise or on the decline. Where do you think the Steelers are in this regard?
TUNCH: That's good question and the answer is not obvious to me. I am leaning more to thinking they are on the rise, but their 10-6 record last year was played with a much different schedule than this year. Alot will depend on Woodley and Timmons. The offseason between a player's rookie year and second year is the time they leap the most in their NFL career. Those two guys can have a huge impact this season. They have an entire NFL cycle behind them and now is the time for them to blossom, in year two.
BTSC: Who is going to win the AFC North?
TUNCH: Cleveland looks very good on paper, but Pittsburgh is still the team to beat. Baltimore is struggling and going through alot of transition with coaching and such. Cincinnati peaked in 2005 and has been downhill since. Cleveland made some aggressive moves in the offseason and should really give the Steelers a toe-to-toe battle. It's one thing to acquire players and a whole new ball of wax to get them to play well together. That will be Romeo Crennel's challenge. Remember it's a long season. The dynamics of the NFL not only change greatly in between seasons, but the league changes about every four weeks during the season.