O’Brien: ‘Puttin’ on the Blitz’ at North Side Brownstone
This was in a grand French ballroom below floor level in a magnificent brownstone building on the city’s North Side.
There were about 150 people filling the room at a fund-raiser to sponsor disadvantaged kids to attend a summer football camp featuring the Steelers’ star center Maurkice Pouncey and his pals on the team’s offensive line.
It was easy to pick Pouncey out of the crowd and I also recognized his linemates Chris Kemoeatu and Marcus Gilbert, as well as linebacker LaMarr Woodley. There were a few other big men sharing the same tables but I didn’t recognize them.
About a dozen waiters were strolling through the crowd to offer hors d’oeuvres – beef and chicken on a stick or cheese puffs, cheese and crackers – and there were stations for wine and beer.
The party, advertised as “Puttin’ on the Blitz II,” was co-hosted by Pouncey and Russell Livingston, the present of Babb, Inc., an insurance brokerage whose offices are in this landmark building. DeShea Townsend hosted the party last year.
I’d been in that building at least a dozen times over the past 30 years, twice signing my books at the firm’s Christmas party, but I had not been there for a few years. Russell’s father, Ron Livingston, a big Pitt booster and Steelers’ fan, was running the firm back then.
I had bumped into Russell last two days earlier in late November at The City Game, when Pitt defeated Duquesne at their annual meeting at the Consol Energy Center, and he had invited me to his party.
I knew about five people at the party and, worse yet as far as I was concerned, that’s about all that knew me.
Being in the ballroom, which is mostly below street level on Ridge Avenue, brought back some good memories. I had been told once that the richest people in Pittsburgh often gathered there when William Penn Snyder resided there. He owned the Shenango Furnace Co., and had the Carnegies and Fricks at his gala parties, and the city’s elite danced on that ballroom floor.
I was also reminded of days when Pitt had one of the best college football teams in the land, when Jackie Sherrill’s teams went 11-1 three straight seasons in the early ‘80s. They were twice rated the No. 1 college football team in the country during that span.
Jimbo Covert came over to greet me and made me feel welcome and comfortable when I entered the ballroom that Friday evening. He introduced Casey, the oldest of his three children, and a friend or two, and that was an ice-breaker.
Jimbo Covert, in case you don’t recognize the name right away, was an All-American tackle on Sherrill’s teams and played his last season under Foge Fazio, and was the first round draft choice of the Chicago Bears in 1983.
That was the draft class famous for producing five outstanding quarterbacks, including Dan Marino of Pitt, the last of the five picked that year. How good was Covert? He was the fifth player taken in that draft. Marino was taken 27th.
Covert played eight years for the Bears, including the 1985 season when they won the Super Bowl. He was the league’s offensive player of the year in 1985 and played in two Pro Bowl games. He was named to the NFL’s All-Decade Team of the ‘80s.
He and May were both top-notch students at Pitt, but they got pulled away from their classes after their senior football season for evaluation camps – that’s when teams conducted their own tryouts and not at a combine – and for awards dinners. They came back to Pitt in later years to earn their degrees.
Covert’s line coach at Pitt was Joe Moore and his head coach in Chicago was Mike Ditka. Both were legendary coaches and Covert shared good stories about both of them.
Now 51, Covert was still the best and brightest lineman in the ballroom last Friday night. He played at 6-4, 280 pounds. He looked successful in a dark blue suit, white shirt and blue tie. He is the president and chief executive officer of the Institute for Transfusion Medicine.
He told me he’d seen me a week earlier, just before Thanksgiving, signing books in the upper lobby of the U.S. Steel Building. He said he was rushing to get to a meeting with UPMC officials and didn’t have time to stop.
Covert came out of Conway, Pennsylvania, a railroad town in Beaver County, and starred at Pitt. He played on an offensive line at Pitt that was better than the offensive line of the current Steelers. You can read that sentence again. I think I got it right.
Covert was the left tackle on Pitt’s imposing line. Rob Fada and Paul Dunn shared the left guard position, Russ Grimm was at center, Emil Boures at right guard, and Mark May at right tackle. All but Dunn played in the pros. Grimm is in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Covert and May are in the College Football Hall of Fame. Boures lasted six seasons with the Steelers as a versatile lineman.
Covert and former Steelers’ star defensive back Mel Blount are both being inducted into the Pennsylvania Sports Hall of Fame this November at a banquet in Cranberry. The honors keep coming.
“I love Mark May and Lou Holtz together on those college football telecasts,” exclaimed Covert. “They go so well together; they have such great chemistry.”
He recalled Joe Moore getting after them at Pitt. “Some people think the center is the most important position on the offensive line because he has calls to make, adjustments to make, but that’s just not so,” said Covert. “The tackles are the key guys.
“Joe Moore used to get Grimm so upset because he’d say, ‘I can get anybody off the street and teach them how to play center.’ Grimm would get mad at Moore. Joe would tell him all he had to do was lean right or left, and that someone was always helping him block his man.”
Covert recalled what it was like to play for Ditka in Chicago. “I liked Mike,” he said. “You always knew where you stood with him.
“I remember once (early in the 1987 season) that the players wanted to go on strike to gain free agency. The Bears were one of the last teams to sign on. Ditka addressed us one day and he screamed at us, ‘What the hell are you guys thinking? What the hell would you do – could you do – if you weren’t playing football?”
Covert chuckled at the memory. “Can you imagine a coach today telling his players something like that?” said Covert. “But Mike never worried about being politically correct. I see him on those game day panels with those other former players. I know he doesn’t agree with much of what they say, but he just goes along playing the role of Mike Ditka.”
Covert also offered the opinion that Jack Ham and Andy Russell were superior linebackers to Jack Lambert, but the Steelers’ defensive scheme was set up to keep blockers off Lambert so he could make the tackle.
“Buddy Ryan’s defense in Chicago was set up the same way to that our middle linebacker, Mike Singletary, could make the tackles. Don’t get me wrong, though. Singletary and Lambert were both great players.”
This fund-raising event was billed as a mixer, but today’s players don’t understand what they’re supposed to do at such an event. They tend to stick together. That’s their comfort level. Mike Tomlin needs to teach them how to mix.
Like most teenagers, they tend to spend too much time checking their i-pads, Blackberrys and texting family and friends. So the patrons stood around and stared at the Steelers. Some were bold enough to approach them, shake hands and get something signed.
These Steelers had no idea, I’d bet, of the special significance or history of the neighborhood they were in. Ridge Avenue, now the center of the CCAC campus, was once referred to as “millionaires’ row,” when steel magnates lived in all those mansions.
Horse-drawn carriages used to come in and out of the basement of that brownstone they were in through a cut-away entry in the side and back of the building. That area has been converted into a party area for tail-gating parties hosted by Babb, Inc. before Steelers’ and Pirates’ games at nearby Heinz Field and PNC Park. There are murals depicting Pitt football and the Steelers on the interior walls.
If you left the back door of the building you could walk a block and a half – perhaps seven or eight minutes – and be at the front door of Steelers’ owner Dan Rooney’s residence.
Dan and his four brothers grew up in that home on Lincoln Avenue that was shared for years by Art and Kathleen Rooney. Art Sr. used to walk those sidewalks and talk to neighbors. Dan had a garage added to the house and cleaned it up a bit with a renovation project when he moved there from Mt.Lebanon about 20 years ago.
His wife Pat grew up in a humble row house in a large family in the Mexican War Streets about two miles near Allegheny General Hospital.
Now Pat and Dan spend most of their time in a grand home in Dublin, where Dan serves as the U.S. Ambassador to Ireland. They have attendants assisting Pat with looking after the home.
I checked out the Rooney residence when I left the party that night. There were small white light bulbs, maybe two or three strands at best, on a stark leafless tree in the front of the house, decorating the place for the Christmas season.
I spent the next day at the annual Book Fair at the Heinz History Center, where Art Rooney Jr. was one of over 50 authors signing their books. He and Roy McHugh teamed up to write a wonderful book about the Rooney clan called Ruanaidh, which is Gaelic for Rooney.
Someone told me at the signing session that they loved the story about how Art Rooney, on his deathbed, told Dan and Art Jr., “You should have drafted Marino.”
It’s a good story, but it’s not true, according to Art Jr. “My dad wasn’t able to talk near the end,” he related. “But there were many times through the years, at family gatherings, that he’d say to us, ‘You should have drafted Marino.’ ”
CENTURY III BOOK-SIGNING
Pittsburgh sports author and Valley Mirror columnist Jim O’Brien will be signing his “Pittsburgh Proud” series at Bradley’s Book Outlet at Century III Mall in West Mifflin this Friday, Dec. 9, from 11 a.m. till 4 p.m. His books make great Christmas gifts for fans.