In the last installment, we established that the Steelers have drafted 1,346 total players since the initiation of the NFL draft in 1936. These players came from 272 different colleges. Over 86 years, this averages out to 15.6 players per draft year.
How did the team average nearly 16 draft picks per year, when the draft is only seven rounds? Because, of course, it was once much longer — in fact, some of these drafts had over 30 rounds. (Imagine: 30 new draft picks could churn a team’s entire roster every other year.) In any case, 272 colleges adds up to about five players drafted from each school. Of course, a whole lot of schools yielded only one or two players, while other colleges produced a whole lot more. So who gave the Steelers the most?
Top 25 universities by number of players drafted
1. Pittsburgh — 46
2. Notre Dame — 37
3. Penn State — 27
4. Purdue — 24
.....Florida — 24
6. Ohio State — 22
7. Michigan State — 21
8. Michigan — 20
9. Tennessee — 19
10. Baylor — 18
.....Miami (FL) — 18
12. Clemson — 17
.....Georgia — 17
14. Alabama — 16
.....Oklahoma — 16
.....Texas — 16
17. Washington — 15
.....Nebraska — 15
19. USC — 14
.....UCLA — 14
.....Arkansas — 14
.....Boston College — 14
.....Maryland — 14
.....Minnesota — 14
It’s probably not much of a surprise that the schools the Steelers drafted more than any other, dating back to the 1930s, are University of Pittsburgh (the next door neighbors), Notre Dame (the Irish Catholic powerhouse the Rooneys could scout easily), and Penn State (the big in-state neighbor to the east). The rest of these are all big-time programs with big-time histories.
But then there are 82 universities that gave the Steelers one or two draft picks over the years. Some of these schools are unlikely but local-ish, such as 1939 selection Jack Lee, from Carnegie Melon (somehow only the 81st selection despite being a 10th round pick), 1943’s 31st round selection Art Jones, from Haverford (who made my all-time all-rookie squad last summer), or 1945’s 30th round selection John Kondrla from St. Vincent (where the Steelers training camp would move in a couple decades).
But some of these other colleges are bafflingly obscure. For example, in 1940, the newly re-named Steelers drafted a tackle from the football powerhouse of Colorado School of Mines. Before the decade ended, they’d grabbed players from those athletic hotbeds of Catawba (2022 student body: 1,238), Kansas Wesleyan (825), and Geneva (540). How did they even find these guys? Who went to scout at Kansas Wesleyan in 1947?
In the 50s, Pittsburgh grabbed one player from St. Norbert and another from Glenville State. Later they filled a roster-spot at College of Emporia, then another (a decade later) from Emporia State. In the meantime, they snagged two players from Marquette (my dad’s alma mater) and one from Loyola Marymount — two catholic schools with rich basketball traditions, but neither of whom has even sported a football program in decades (Marquette shuttered their program in 1960; LMU in 1973).
Even in the Chuck Noll years, the team still reached into the obscure school bag, including spending two picks during the legendary 1974 draft class on players from Simpson (12th round) and Angelo State (17th round) — both of whom were selected ahead of UDFA Donnie Shell. As late as 1984, Noll drafted a running back from the renowned program of William Jewell College (current student body: 738).
My head is spinning a little as I log these (and there’s more where those come from), but while many of these seem absurd, some of those one-off selections have been all-stars too. I mentioned Art Jones a moment ago, but here are some other one-off highlights:
Hall of Fame corner Mel Blount, one of the most dominant players ever to put on a helmet, is the only player the Steelers ever drafted from Southern University.
Hall of Famer John Stallworth is the only former Steeler who owns a minority stake in the team, as well as the only player to come from Alabama A&M.
Then there’s three-time All Pro Gregg Lloyd, from Fort Valley State (current student body: 2,542).
Those three are HBCUs with impressive traditions, and (despite FVSU being so small) each have produced multiple NFL stars (including Aeneas Williams, Robert Mathis, and Rayfield Wright, respectively). Not all the rest of the schools can say the same.
Ricardo Colclough is remembered today by Steelers fans for being the 2nd round pick in 2004 (when Ben Roethlisberger was the team’s 1st rounder), but he is also one of only two players in NFL history to be drafted by Tusculum, and Pittsburgh’s only choice.
Pro Bowl guard Carlton Haselrig didn’t even play college football, and was instead a six-time NCAA national champion wrestler at (and the only player in NFL history anyone ever selected from) Pittsburgh—Johnstown. Seriously.
The other noteworthy one-off selections that grabbed my eye include 1990 first rounder Eric Green, the only Steeler to come out of Liberty. (Malik Willis could be #2.) This came three years after Merril Hoge (10th round) became the only Idaho State Bengal to wear the black and gold (though the Steelers also briefly employed another ISU alum: 1992 linebackers coach Marvin Lewis). More recently, two time Super Bowl starting DE Aaron Smith stands alone among Steelers from Northern Colorado. And current starting OLB Alex Highsmith is the only 49er from UNC-Charlotte to wind up in this town.
What’s the “best” school for the Steelers to draft from?
We have to ask this question, right? What’s the Steelers “best” school? Well, as you might imagine, it’s so hard to gauge “best” in a context like this
Is “best” the school that produced the most Steelers, overall? We’ve already established that that’s Pitt, with a nod to Notre Dame and Penn State.
Is “best” the school that gave the Steelers the most Hall of Famers? That’s a complicated tie, with two colleges supplying two HOFers each: Penn State (Franco Harris and Jack Ham), and USC (Lynn Swann and Troy Polamalu). Though a case will eventually have to be made for Wisconsin as well (Mike Webster and future HOFer T.J. Watt), and if we’re allowed to count players who didn’t stay in town, there’s also Purdue (Rod Woodson and Len Dawson).
Is “best” the team with the best ratio of superstars to total draftees? As we just established, that’s got to be Southern, Alabama A&M, or Fort Valley State, each of which are one-for-one.
Is “best” the team that produced the most studs in the last 28 years (since the draft shortened to only seven rounds)? That’s probably Florida State, which gave us Lawrence Timmons, Vince Williams, Chris Hope, and Bryant McFadden. Other possibilities include Ohio State (Santonio Holmes, Cam Heyward, Ryan Shazier), and Florida (Max Starks, Maurkice Pouncey, Marcus Gilbert).
So you might have noticed that the long history of the pre-Chuck Noll Steelers was a kind of wild wild west in terms of football decisions. And that may have you wondering, “how did Noll, specifically — or Bill Cowher, or Mike Tomlin — face this stuff?” Well, I’ve got you covered. Stay tuned. Next article coming...