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All-Time Pittsburgh Steelers ‘What-Ifs’, Part 1

The winter of our discontent. The founding of the team through 1968.

Tobin Rote Blocking Chuck Noll
No, neither of these players are Steelers, but the airborn defender is CHUCK NOLL. Seriously.

Recently, I published a pair of essays reimagining the Steelers’ most recent decade if a handful of bounces had gone differently. (Find them here and here.) Aggravating as it was to relive some of those moments, I couldn’t get the great “what if” out of my head. So, as we wait to discover if the 2020 season is even going to happen (another great “what if”), I’m back for a little more punishment — this time through the whole history of the franchise.

This will be a five part series, asking questions and exploring some possible answers through the Steelers’ 87 years in existence. In some cases, questions that seem strange and meaningful will turn out to be nothing but historical curiosities. With others, we’ll find that minor changes cause rich, complicated ripple effects (for good or ill). These are all questions I’ve knocked around in my head over the years, but they are hardly the only roads-not-taken by this team. If you’ve got a burning counterfactual scenario that I skipped, please post it in the comments. I love this stuff.

There will eventually be articles that look at the 70s, 80s, 90s, and 2000s, but this one will interrogate four crossroads moments from the dark days before Chuck Noll.


Part 1: The winter of our discontent... (1933 through 1969)

1938: What if Whizzer White didn’t get a Rhodes Scholarship?
1940: What if the Steelers were still called the Pirates?
1957: What if the team realized it was sitting on a quarterback goldmine?
1969: What if the Rooneys had hired their first choice, Joe Paterno?


1938: What if Whizzer White didn’t get a Rhodes Scholarship?

‘Whizzer’ White
“The decision of this court is final. Good day, sir!”
Photo by New York Times Co./Getty Images

The Situation:

Future Supreme Court Justice, Byron “Whizzer” White, only played one season with the Steelers, leading the league in rushing as a rookie in 1938 before sailing to England. An All American and Heisman runner-up at the University of Colorado (as well as a college basketball star), White was convinced to postpone his studies and come to Pittsburgh by the richest contract in the NFL: $15,000. (Side note: this would be worth around $250k today. Sports salaries have changed a bit...)

White left Europe after only one year, returning stateside at the outbreak of WWII. He spent two more season on the gridiron — both with the Detroit Lions — before moving on to, let’s say, bigger things.

His nickname and post-playing career make The Honorable Justice Whizzer remarkable, but he was also a gamer. In only a three year career (spread over four seasons), he was a two-time All Pro, two-time rushing champ, and was ultimately named to the NFL’s Team of the Decade for the 1940s. Art Rooney once declared: “Of all the athletes I have known in my lifetime... Whizzer White came as close as anyone to giving 100 percent of himself.”

My guess at what happens:

If White didn’t leave for his scholarship year, he probably would have stayed in the NFL and (for the money Rooney paid him) stayed with the Steelers. He likely wouldn’t have stuck around long — in our timeline, White used his football earnings to fund his Yale Law degree — but even if his career only lasted the same three or four seasons, he’d have probably been a rock star.

That said, it’s hard to imagine that mattering in the great scheme of things. The team went 2-9 with White in 1938. His presence may have brought some ticket revenue in, but it certainly didn’t lead to much on-field success. (It should be noted that, while White led the NFL in rushing and scrimmage yards during his one season in Pittsburgh, he also led the league in interceptions with 18 on just 73 attempts.)

I suppose it would be fun to build a living legend around a leather helmet hero with a ridiculously good nickname — the way Bears fans always could with Bronislau “Bronko” Nagurski and Red Grange (the “Galloping Ghost”). But then again, early Steelers heroes Johnny “Blood” McNally and “Bullet” Bill Dudley were about as good as any players on the planet in the 30s and 40s, and people barely remember either today.

This one seems like a wash.


1940: What if the Steelers were still called the Pirates?

Chicago Bears - 1940’s Team File Photos
Bullet Bill Dudly, about to demonstrate where he got his nickname — launching, horizontal, through the Washington defense.
Photo by Nate Fine/NFL

Situation:

If you were unaware, this is true: from 1933-40, there were two Pittsburgh Pirates in the Steel City. At the turn of the new decade, the Rooneys held a fan contest to rename the football team. Amazingly, they came up with something more creative than “Pittsburgh Football Team.” (It’s almost as though the whole process wasn’t a farce.)

According to the Post-Gazette, the possible options fans suggested included: Wahoos, Condors, Pioneers, Triangles, Bridgers, Buckaroos, and Yankees. There were also steel industry nods such as Millers, Vulcans, Tubers (like potatoes?), Smokers, Rollers, Ingots, and Puddlers. (Steel-knowing readers: how is “puddler” a steel industry reference? Please educate me in the comments.)

Ultimately, though Bridgers or Vulcans would have been cool (to say nothing for Wahoos!), the team chose a name already in use by a local high school: “Steelers.” The rest, as they say, is history.

My guess at what happens:

If this hadn’t happened, honestly, I can’t imagine what would be different. Maybe the Penguins would have been under some pressure to also be called the Pirates. Maybe the 1979 season (with a Pirates World Series and a “Pirates” Super Bowl) would have been flooded with cheese-ball “yarr!” references. Maybe kids across the country would own posters of Terry Bradshaw or Ben Roethlisberger wearing eye patches. Maybe the Buccaneers would’ve had to choose a different nickname in 1976 (might I suggest: Tampa Bay Wahoos). That’s about I can think of.

The Cardinals and Giants both coexisted with baseball teams of the same name (in the same town) for years. Even the Bears and Cubs are echoes of each other. I guess it would be weird, but then again, we wouldn’t know the difference.


1957: What if the team figured out quarterbacks?

Pittsburgh Steelers v New York Giants
#81 is not actually a person, but a Bobby Layne hangover so intense it’s become self-aware.
Photo by Dan Rubin/Kidwiler Collection/Diamond Images/Getty Images

Situation:

Ah, finally a tough one.

The casual Steelers fan with a taste for NFL history probably knows that the 1955 Steelers briefly employed a hometown kid named Johnny Unitas, before cutting him in training camp – notoriously without even giving him a legit tryout. (Coach Walt Keisling reportedly believed Unitas wasn’t smart enough to play the position, though it’s also claimed that Unitas beat out a young Dan Rooney for All City in high school and The Chief ordered the cut himself.)

Many fans probably also know that in 1958, Steelers coach Buddy Parker (two time NFL champion in his prior gig, with Detroit) orchestrated a trade for his ex-Lions QB: the 32 year old, hard drinking, future Hall of Famer, Bobby Layne.

But here are some other names you might recognize that the team once employed:

Earl Morrall (Steeler: 1957-58), the greatest backup quarterback of all time, who won an NFL title (and league MVP) in 1968 relieving Unitas with the Baltimore Colts (before losing a much more famous game a week later). Morrall also posted an 11-0 record for the undefeated 1972 Miami Dolphins, relieving Bob Griese in that one.

Len Dawson (1957-59), Hall of Famer with the Kansas City Chiefs, who would start two of the first four Super Bowls, and take the coolest halftime photo in NFL history during Super Bowl I.

Jack Kemp (1957), eight-time Pro Bowler and two-time AFL Champ with the Bills and Chargers, who would later be nominated for U.S. Vice President as Bob Dole’s 1996 running mate.

In 1957, Morall was 23 and already a Steelers Pro Bowler; Dawson and Kemp were 22 year old rookies. Has any franchise been so set-up for future quarterbacking success, ever? By the time Terry Bradshaw graduated from Louisiana Tech, that trio had started 10 league championship games (posting a 6-4 record), and both Dawson and Kemp would be named to the AFL/NFL’s Team of the Decade for the 1960s. What a depth chart.

And yet, within two years, none of them would play for Pittsburgh. In 1958, the team cut Kemp and traded Morrall to Detroit as part of the package for Bobby Layne. The following year, they gave up on Dawson, and traded him to the Cleveland Browns (which tells you how little they thought of his future).

Layne was a champion and future-Hall of Famer, so it’s tempting to forgive their logic, but let’s put this in perspective: imagine it’s 2004, and the Steelers somehow managed to draft Ben Roethlisberger, Philip Rivers, and Eli Manning (which is some truly undeserved good luck, because this same team cut Peyton Manning a few years earlier, thinking he was too dumb). Then, by 2006, they jettison all three of their young guns and go all in on Brett Favre’s last three seasons.

Ladies and gentlemen: the pre-Chuck Noll Steelers.

My guess at what happens:

It almost doesn’t matter which guy they hang onto; Unitas, Morrall, Dawson, or Kemp would have been a guaranteed upgrade through the 60s. I can’t say if they’d have won a title in those years (they clearly weren’t just one player away), but Steelers history would look completely different – as would the Colts’, Chiefs’, Bills’, Chargers, and/or Dolphins’ (depending on who the Steelers kept).

With a couple years of success and a QB hitting his prime in the late 60s, those Steelers almost certainly wouldn’t be the dumpster fire that they became during the LBJ administration. Which means they probably wouldn’t be blowing the whole thing up in 1968, just as Colts Defensive Coordinator Chuck Noll began buzzing as a potential head coach.

If the Steelers don’t hire Noll away from the Colts, does he stay in Baltimore, and replace Don Shula when Shula jumps to the Dolphins in 1970? That would make sense for the Colts. Though, if he’d have waited another year, Noll may well have been in line to replace the retiring Blanton Collier with his hometown Cleveland Browns, extending their dominance of the league to nearly four decades (1947 through 1980). Today the Cleveland Browns could justifiably be thought of as the greatest organization in the history of the sport. (This is turning into a nightmare really fast.)

In any case, a little more success in the 50s and 60s means the Steelers almost certainly miss out on Noll. That makes them a little better in the short term, but leaves them no legacy of greatness in the 70s. Though it’s no consolation to season ticket holders of the era, this one probably worked out for the best in the long run.


1969: What if Rooneys hired their first choice, Joe Paterno?

Super Bowl XIII - Dallas Cowboys v Pittsburgh Steelers
All things considered, the Steelers seem to have chosen the right guy

Situation:

As the question suggests, Dan Rooney’s first head coaching search landed on two finalists: Chuck Noll and Joe Paterno. Paterno, in his third year at Penn State, chose to stay in State College, where he would become the winningest coach in NCAA history (a record now voided after a scandal we all remember and none of us wants to relive). Instead, backup-plan Chuck Noll came to town and created the greatest team in the history of the game.

My guess at what happens:

It is completely out of my range to surmise how JoePa would have performed at this level. Some college coaches make the NFL leap seemlessly (Pete Carroll, Jimmy Johnson, John Robinson, and Jim Harbaugh come to mind). But plenty find it’s just not the same (Lou Holtz, Steve Spurrier, Nick Saben, Bobby Petrino, Chip Kelly...). Paterno would benefit from the Steelers stability (which seems to have arrived with Dan’s leadership), but this one feels like it’s over my head. If the rest of you have a better sense, please take to the comments.

While I don’t know what kind of coach Paterno would make at the pro level, one thing I think I can say with some confidence is that the Steelers would never have been the juggernaut they became if they’d never hired Chuck Noll.

Noll may be the most underrated coach in the history of the game — a teacher and mentor, who taught bad players to play well, good ones to play great, and everyone to be an adult. Some have suggested it would be easy to win with the talent in Pittsburgh, but Noll didn’t just help find that talent (though he did that too); he molded it, fine-tuning individuals and teaching the group to work as a whole. That’s harder with a team of superstars than one might think. With the Steelers, if often meant honing and focusing tempermental stars like Joe Green and Jack Lambert (and later Gregg Lloyd and a cocky rookie holdout who shaped up fast, Rod Woodson ). It also meant lifting and developing nobodies like UDFA Hall of Famer Donnie Shell. It also meant refocusing the champs over and over (Noll is the only coach to win back-to-back Super Bowls twice). And for all the success he had with a team full of All Pros, Noll also won playoff games with Mark Malone and Bubby Brister under center. (The losing QBs in those games, by the way? John Elway and Warren Moon.) When Jack Ham, one of the smartest linebackers in the game’s history, was inducted into the Hall of Fame, he pointed to Chuck Noll in his speech as the one man without whom none of it would’ve been possible. I think he’s right.

Would the Steelers of the 1970s have created a new standard of excellence without Noll? Maybe. But history says probably not. After all, they’d never been all that good before him.


Alright, stay tuned for the What Ifs of the 1970s. Until then....