Methinks that the psyche of Steeler Nation needs to take a step back from Sunday's debacle. The tonic is a fireside chat with Steelers' legend Dick Hoak. Hoak was with us for 45 years, 10 as a player and 35 as a coach. He is the most loyal and tenured Steeler of all time, not named Rooney. Since Hoak retired after the 2006 season, we haven't seen or heard from him. Don't look for Hoak to lambaste the offensive line. He is far too classy for that. All he did was remind me that tomorrow is another day, that the entire offense broke down and that the line would take more than its share of heat. Hoak reminds us that loving the Pittsburgh Steelers is not a game-by-game proposition, but a lifetime journey.
BTSC: Everybody remembers where they were when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. You guys played that weekend. What do you remember?
HOAK: I remember hearing it on the radio after morning practice driving to McKeesport. I remember the bridge I was driving on. I was like everybody else, until Sunday when I had to play a football game. We were getting dressed. Bobby Layne came in the locker with Stautner and told us Jack Ruby just shot Lee Harvey Oswald. It was really strange going out and playing football. We tied the Bears that day and they won the title that year. Pete Rozelle later said it was the biggest mistake of his career. When 9/11 hit there was no way the NFL was going to play football that week.
BTSC: You played with Rocky Bleier (1968) and then coached him when he recovered from his Vietnam injuries. What were your impressions of him?
HOAK: Rocky worked so hard. He was quite an inspiration. He did something unheard of - he actually improved his speed significantly. That's how hard he worked. He was the ultimate team player. He was a great blocker and as smart a back as I've ever seen. He could play both fullback and halfback. They were two completely different positions back then. Today you see teams with two feature backs, but they are asked to do the same thing in alternating fashion. In the 70s, the fullback and halfback had different assignments on every play. Rocky knew everything and played both. With Rocky, you told him something once, that was all. I loved coaching him.
One of My Many Mint Steelers Football cards
BTSC: If you put all four Super Bowl teams of the 70s in a four-team tournament, which would come out the winner?
HOAK: Can I take the 1976 team? That may have been the best. We were playing lights out, shutting people down every week. Franco and Rocky both gained 1,000 yards that season, accomplished only once before in NFL history. (It has been accomplished only once since, by the 1985 Browns in a 16-game season.) We went to Baltimore in the playoffs and won easily. We scored alot and weren't scored upon, a pretty good combination. That game we lost both Franco and Rocky to injuries. It wasn't like it is now when you ask your back-up to do what the starter did. We couldn't run our two-back set. We had to run a one-back set, which hadn't been done in those days. We actually made up a new offense before the championship game against the Raiders. We couldn't know what we were doing. That was right before Terry blossomed into a great passing quarterback. We didn't have a chance. That team and that year were really great though.
BTSC: As a position coach, what did you do to make Franco Harris and Jerome Bettis better?
HOAK: Very little! Actually we really didn't know exactly what we had with Franco since Penn State featured Lydell Mitchell. In an early preseason game against Atlanta, Franco starts running a play where there was no hole. He makes one cut and goes through the entire Atlanta team. Defensive backs were chasing our fullback and couldn't catch him. He ran 70-some yards for a touchdown. Chuck comes up to me and says, "Don't overcoach this kid." He was that special. Really, I didn't spend a lot of time teaching guys how to run, especially Franco and Jerome. What I taught them was pass catching, getting in position for hot reads, pass protection, reading defenses and reading coverages. Running was instinctive to them, so I taught them all the other things, the finer points.
BTSC: How would you compare Chuck Noll with Bill Cowher in terms of coaching efficiencies?
HOAK: Chuck was a great teacher, as organized as I've ever seen. He came in with a real plan, something we really didn't have before Chuck. He was remarkable in judging talent. I saw guys on tape and thought "This guy can't play," and the guy would become an All Pro. Chuck would see how guys would fit in positions they never played. He made guys who were ordinary in their own positions and made them extraordinary in some other position. I was constantly amazed by his teaching and vision. Chuck was even keel, never up or down. When you saw him Monday morning you couldn't tell if we won or lost. He was the same either way, which is amazing in such an emotional business. Bill was a great motivator. He knew the game and had a way of charging up guys to make them play their best. Bill was a people-person who knew how to deal with different individuals on their own level. Bill had an open-door policy that the players really appreciated. Some coaches say that, but Bill lived it. It was interesting working for both of them. They had opposite strengths, yet somehow were both extremely successful.
BTSC: What sticks out in your mind about the Rooneys?
HOAK: The way they always treated people puts them on another level. George Perles once said, "There are only eight owners who can win it all." He was right, and the Rooneys were always one of the eight. I had a concussion the fourth game of my final year. I spent a week in the hospital. When I woke up, Mr. Rooney was there, bringing me the newspaper every morning. He'd come back at night or call and ask if I needed anything. Other owners didn't do those kinds of things. Art and Dan were always coming into the locker room and talking to us about our families. I'd talk to other players around the league and some of them had never met the owner. I knew we were very fortunate in Pittsburgh to have people who thought they were just regular guys who owned the team. I remember my best year, 1968, when Art called me into the office and gave me an envelope with a large check in it. This was right in the middle of the season when we were losing a lot. He didn't have to do that. At the end of the season Dan called me into the office and handed me another envelope, since I had a pretty good year. I told him his father was already overly kind to me. Dan said, "well, here's another one." The Rooneys were like that with everyone. They did so many things they didn't have to do and they weren't just trying to look good. The Rooneys were and are solid gold.
BTSC: As the running backs coach, how did you acquire Willie Parker and how hard was it to coach him since he didn't play in college?
HOAK: Dan Rooney Jr. gets credit for that one. He was coaching high school in the Carolinas when Willie played against his team. He followed him through college and had him earmarked all the way. After that draft, all the position coaches were calling on the phone to sign free agents. We wanted a fullback and halfback. Dan Rooney Jr. told me not to worry about the halfback, he already signed Willie Parker. I said, "Who's he?" I never even saw him on film. We needed to refine Willie since he never really played in college. Most guys you hope speed up. With Willie we had to slow him down. We taught him how to see an area and wait for the right moment to hit it. He's getting a lot of carries, but remember, his body didn't take punishment as a college player. Nor did he get that experience. He's still getting better.
BTSC: What were you feelings during that famous Colts playoff game of 2005?
HOAK: We were actually a lot more confident than our fans. We saw things on tape that we knew how to correct and we knew we had the right people to beat them. They were so good that year that they didn't have to be complicated. That made it easier for us to game-plan against them. On offense we came out passing to set up the run, something they didn't expect. Our defensive coaches saw how we could take them out of their offensive game. Everything worked to perfection, until the fumble. I was calm and collected the whole game until that. My heart sank right through me. Then Ben made the tackle, then they drove anyway, then we stopped them, the whole thing became an emotional roller coaster.