In the last installment, we established how many players the Steelers have taken over the years, and which schools have provided the most manpower to the black and gold. In this edition, a quick blitz through the Noll, Cowher, and Tomlin tenures, looking at what schools each “administration” has favored, and how well that’s gone. Let’s go...
Chuck Noll drafted 365 players over his 23 years at the helm — an average of 15.9 players per season. Noll’s favorite college to draw from was Penn State; his Steelers chose nine Nittany Lions, highlighted by the only first and only second round PSU choices, Franco Harris (1st round/1972) and Jack Ham (2nd/1971), respectively. The average round the Steelers went to State College was the 5th (choice #124).
After Penn State, some of Noll’s scouts went all the way across the building to Pittsburgh while others flew halfway across the country to Nebraska, settling on players from each school eight times, though frequently at a lower round than PSU. The average choice from Pitt was round 7.5 and Nebraska round 8, and the results show. The only notable Panther who wore black and gold was Jerry Olsavsky (10th/1989), a rotational inside linebacker for the better part of a decade who is still in the building coaching ‘backers. Amazingly, there are no Cornhuskers of note that Noll was able to bring to town.
Beyond those, the Steelers chose seven players from five different programs under Noll: Michigan (average round 4.7, average selection 119), Baylor (5.6, 142), Kentucky (8.0, 206), Arkansas (8.4, 220), and Florida (8.7, 226).
No schools are consistent heavy hitters on this list. Florida’s highlight is high-value ILB David Little (7th round, 1981), but the Gators also produced 1991 first round bust Huey Richardson. Noll went early to Michigan plenty, but only one legit star came from there, 1975 first rounder Dave Brown, who got plucked by the expansion Seahawks the following season, and starred in Seattle for years. Baylor produced 80s rushers Frank Pollard (11th round 1980) and Walter Abercrombie (1st round, 1982), but also hugely underachieving first round RB Greg Hawthorne (1979). Meanwhile Arkansas and Kentucky gave the Steelers exactly one star each, with fifth round Razorback runner Barry Foster coming in 1990, and Hall of Fame center Dermontti Dawson coming out of Kentucky in the second round of 1988.
Noll and his front office (Art Rooney Jr., Bill Nunn, and company) constituted one of the best draft rooms in sports history. And yet, there are a lot of duds here, even with the occasional diamond. The lesson here is that no one hits on every pick — no front office, no university, no draft class.
Bill Cowher drafted 136 total players in his 15 years atop the Steelers pyramid. That’s an average of nine players per season, which is a huge drop-off from Noll’s 16. It’s useful to notice that the NFL draft lasted 17 rounds when Noll entered the coaching ranks. It had condensed to 12 rounds by 1977, which is where it stood when Cowher was hired in 1992. The following year, it dropped to eight rounds, and finally seven in 1994, which is where it stands today.
Cowher had two favorite schools — Colorado and Georgia, with six draftees each — and both yielded some decent talent. Colorado is really the favorite here, with two first round selections, two seconds, a third, and a sixth (average round: 2.5; average position: 66). The highlight Buffalos are the second rounders, LB Chad Brown (1993) and QB Kordell Stewart (1995), and third rounder, NT Joel Steed (1992). As for Georgia, the average round was 4.0 and average position 124. Several nobodies came out of Athens, but so did Hines Ward (3rd round, 1998) and 2001 NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year Kendrell Bell (2nd, 2001). Not a bad haul.
The Chin’s next favorite school is a three-way tie — Nebraska again, plus Florida State and Michigan State — with five selections each. These are each a lot less impressive. No one of note came through Nebraska except kicker Kris Brown (7th round, 1999), and the only MSU Spartan who left a mark in Pittsburgh was 2000 first rounder Plaxico Burress. FSU was a little more successful, with both Bryant McFadden (2nd, 2005) and Chris Hope (3rd, 2002) starting their careers as Seminoles. Of course, busts Willie Reid (3rd, 2006) and Alonzo Jackson (2nd, 2003) also came via Tallahassee. Every program is a mixed bag.
Mike Tomlin’s 14-draft tenure in Pittsburgh has come with 122 picks, or 8.7 per year. Tomlin (along with Kevin Colbert and co.) clearly has a favorite school: The Ohio State University. Tomlin’s Steelers have drafted six Buckeyes over the years, including two notable firsts — ILB Ryan Shazier (#15, 2014) and DE Cameron Heyward (#31, 2011). Behind those two, OSU players have been a little flat, but they’ve been mostly late-round (the average round overall is 3.2; average slot, 97). The only legit bust is 2012 second round OT Mike Adams.
Beyond Ohio State, Tomlin’s Steelers have a five-way tie for second favorite, with four players each from Florida, Maryland, Miami (FL), Penn State, and Tennessee. Florida has probably given this team the best haul, with All Pro C Maurkice Pouncey (1st round, 2010) and long-time starting OT Marcus Gilbert (2nd round, 2011). Penn State hasn’t been bad either, with Nittany Lions TE Pat Freiermuth (2nd, 2021) and S/LB Marcus Allen (5th, 2018) still in black and gold, as well as former starting TE Jesse James (5th, 2015).
The most disappointing school has to be Miami (FL) with all four Hurricanes (Sean Spence 2012; Anthony Chickillo 2015; Artie Burns 2016; Quincy Roche 2021) coming to town with promise, and none of them really delivering. That said, Spence’s devastating rookie knee injury (which cost him two full seasons of play) wasn’t exactly his fault.
If there’s a school that’s been good to the Steelers in the last 14 years, it’s University of Michigan. The three Wolverines to make their way to Heinz Field have been Super Bowl starter at OLB Lamarr Woodley (2nd round, 2007), and two players still on the way up — TE Zach Gentry (5th, 2019) and ILB Devin Bush (1st, 2019). Interesting: Ohio State and Michigan are the two headline schools of Tomlin’s tenure. That’s kind of great.
Some Extra Notes
We already established that Pitt and Notre Dame are the Steelers biggest contributors, all total, but this has not been recent. Bill Cowher drafted exactly two Pitt Panthers (Alex Van Pelt, 8th round in 1993, and Hank Poteat, 3rd round in 2000), and two Notre Dame alums (Oliver Gibson, 4th, 1995, and Malcolm Johnson, 5th, 1999). Not a lot to write home about in that list. Tomlin went to the classics even less, but got more out of them. The two Fighting Irish Tomlin has drafted are Stephon Tuitt (2nd, 2014) and Chase Claypool (2nd, 2020), and the only Pitt Panther Tomlin ever selected was James Conner (3rd, 2017).
In the first installment of this series, I marveled that the Steelers had drafted two players named Mike Mayock — which is still true (and still marvelous). It turns out that they are father and son. And what’s more, there’s a grandson, also named Mike Mayock, who played college ball at Villanova (the grandfather’s alma mater). Sadly, the Steelers did not draft him when he finished school a few years ago.
In any case, that’s not the screw-up. Where I screwed up is claiming that this was the only time they’d ever drafted two players by the same name. In fact, this has happened four and a half total times:
Mike Mayock — 1955 End (24th round) from Villanova
Mike Mayock — 1981 DB (10th round) from Boston College
Ed Smith — 1955 Back (19th round) from Texas Southern.
Ed Smith — 1979 LB (12th round) from Vanderbilt
John Knight — 1962 Back (20th round) from Valparaiso
John Knight — 1968 DE (9th round) from Weber State
Mike Adams — 1997 WR (7th round) from Texas
Mike Adams — 2012 OT (2nd round) from Ohio State
And then one more, perhaps the highlight of the whole list:
Roger Adams — 1945 C (4th round) from Florida
Roger Adams — 1946 C (24th round) from Florida
That’s right. The Steelers drafted the same player two years in a row. And best part: he never actually played a down in Pittsburgh, or for any NFL team.
If you ever wondered how the Steelers, who have been so successful for the last 50 years, could have been so dreadful for their first 40, this is as good an explanation as any. Goodness.
Hey, let’s talk about positions these guys have drafted. Stay tuned for the next one....