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Abby Mendelson

October 12, 2011

Abby Mendelson, Author, The Pittsburgh Steelers: The Official History :

First, can you tell readers about your new book The Pittsburgh Steelers: The Official Team History – what it entails and how you went about deciding what to include and not include.

I started with Art Rooney’s birth, his life on the North Side, buying the franchise.  

The new, Fourth Edition ends with the Super Bowl loss to the Packers.  In between there are all the highlights, obviously more time given to the good years than the bad ones.  That was part of what went into deciding what I would include.  

The other part was largely keeping in mind that this is a fan’s book.  I didn’t write it for specialists; I didn’t write it for people who like to read about dirt.  Instead, it’s a fan’s celebration of a great football franchise — always written with a sense of humor.

So much has been written on Steelers – was it hard finding new approaches and stories to tell?

Certainly, I tried to find new information, or new angles, on familiar stories — and of course new or untold stories.  I relied a great deal on extensive personal interviews, always looking for something new or fresh.  

When stories were unavoidably familiar — the Immaculate Reception, for example — I simply tried to tell them as dramatically as I could.  After all, somebody reading this book will indeed be reading about that play, or Joe Greene, or Jack Lambert, for the first time.  So making the narrative readable was paramount.
 
What was the most interesting discovery in your research?

Something that I had suspected but could never state with surety until I began doing many one-on-one interviews: the deep abiding respect and affection everyone in the Steelers organization has, and had, for the Rooney family.  

I have covered a lot of professional sports, and written about any number of franchise owners, and this kind of reverence for owners is simply unique.  I would add that the genesis of this feeling is the adult, mature, decent way the Rooneys treat their players.  That is also very rare.

You covered the Steelers as a reporter in the 70’s. Who from those teams do you remember  most – that stood out the most for you – and why?

Frankly, they all do.  For as regimented as football is, these players and coaches were encouraged to express themselves individually on and off the field.  So that not only in doing the research for this book, but also in memory, the entire Steelers corps really comes to the fore.  

And they were all excellent interviews as well!

Were those teams as close-knit as we hear? Were there rifts and cliques on those teams?

There are always rifts and cliques in any organization, in any group of highly motivated, highly skilled individuals.  But that group set aside any possible disagreements because they knew there were on to something special — they were champions.  As such, they would do anything to help each other to win.  

In addition, the Rooneys, and Chuck Noll, were so focused, were so intent that all distractions be kept to a minimum, that the players could not help but follow suit.  Put another way, I’ve never seen another team with that kind of cohesiveness.
 
What would surprise readers most about those 70’s teams?

Just how smart those players were.  

As a group, they were the smartest, most articulate, most motivated group of men I’ve ever known.  In many cases their on-field personae might have indicated something else, but they were incredibly precise in their thinking and execution.  They simply didn’t make mistakes!

The Steelers went from being a poor team to a Super Bowl team quickly under Coach Noll. What did he do to get the team to believe in its ability to win — and was there resistance to his methods by many of the players?
 
Certainly, there was resistance — and those who resisted were cut.  

If memory serves, only three pre-Noll players lasted into his Super Bowl years.  Noll drafted very carefully  — once again, he wanted smart, motivated, coachable players.  If players proved otherwise, they were let go.  

In terms of getting his team to believe in his vision, from his first day he never lost sight of what he wanted, and never let his players lose sight of it, either.  

In addition, for as tough as he could be, he always inspired them to do better — and coached them every step of the way in game skills, strategy, and technique.  To this day, no player has ever lost sight of that.

Conversely, how did Coach Noll manage to keep the team grounded and hungry once it found  success?

There are some sports theoreticians who feel that is the hardest thing in sports — not making it to the top, but in keeping players focused on the team goals once they have made it.  Noll, to his great credit, never let his team focus on anything but the game in front of them.  

They all enjoyed the experience of it, the sheer playing of football on that very high level, so that they maintained the Steelers corporate culture.  Once again, newcomers and veterans who didn’t fit were cut.

Where there players that struggled more with Coach Noll and with success? Who, and can you  describe those struggles?
 
Of course, the stories about Terry Bradshaw’s struggles with his coach are legion.  Bradshaw discusses them with great candor in my book, chalking his troubles up to immaturity and chronic depression.  (He masked the latter very well during his playing days.)  

Noll was not a man to tolerate what he called distractions, and if players fought with him they found themselves on the outside looking in.  It is a tribute to these men that as a group they’ve had very few, if any, post-football difficulties.  

Sadly, one cannot say that about every star player in sports.

How would you compare Coaches Noll, Cowher, and Tomlin? How did they differ –and what  common traits did they have that enabled all three to find success with the Steelers?

Certainly, there were differences of style.  Cowher’s rah-rah sideline pep talks — no, not what the stern, steely Chuck Noll would ever do.  Nor would he joke the way Tomlin does.  

But in the main, they are cut from the same cloth: extremely focused on the task at hand, interested more in teaching, in creating a finely tuned mechanism, than in berating players or fault-finding.  

In identifying each player’s strengths, and in using them to great advantage, each of these coaches had achieved extraordinary results.  Incidentally, it’s hardly an accident that Mike Tomlin’s mentor was Tony Dungy, who was a student of Chuck Noll.  The Steelers have created a Dynasty in more ways than one!

Who have been some of the more under-appreciated Steelers players/coaches/front office personnel over the years, in your opinion. And what makes them so?
 
In any given news report there is only so much time for Steelers coverage — even though we seem to be drowning in it these days.  And in Steelers coverage, it’s hard not to focus on what Mike Tomlin calls the “splash plays.”  

So rightfully so, Roethlisberger and Polamalu, Bettis and Lambert, Swann and Greene, get — or got — the lion’s share of the coverage.  There are countless players who do all the little — and not-so-little — things who deserve recognition.  Start with virtually anyone on the offensive and defensive lines.  Move to the coaching corps — most Steelers fans would be hard-pressed to give a good accounting of who Tomlin’s assistants are and what they do.  And so on.  

As one historical example in my book, a lot of the Steelers’ Steel Curtain defensive success came through ideas propounded by assistant coach George Perles.  If any fans say “who?” that’s exactly my point.

No team has rivaled the success of the Steelers over the past 40 years. What do you attribute  that success to? What characteristics of this organization have led to this success –and why  can’t other teams seem to emulate this with close to the same degree of success?
 
Success starts at the top.  The Steelers are justifiably legendary for their patience — the Rooneys choose a coach and leave him alone.  That kind of confidence, that kind of focus on stability and excellence, is all-too-rare in professional sports.  

Most teams operate on win-it-all-now or how-little-can-we-spend-and-still-keep-our-profits-high?   The Steelers are interested only in excellence, and it’s reflected all throughout the organization.  Anything less is not tolerated.  I have not found this kind of corporate culture anywhere else in professional sports.  

I have heard whining, excuses, fault-finding (notably with the fans), and the braying of fast-buck artists who own franchises to fleece the public or get their names in the media.  But I have never heard the kind of self-effacing, responsible, mature vision of running a professional sports franchise as I have heard from the Rooneys — and everyone in the organization.  

Any last thoughts for readers?

I like to think I’m like the Rooneys, at least a little.  I like to take the long view of things.  Too much sports reporting focuses on the daily controversies, the minutiae, the trivia that dominates talk radio.  

My book avoids all that pettiness.  My book instead celebrates greatness, telling stories in a clear, positive, often humorous way.  It’s a fan’s book.  I highly recommend it.  It makes a great holiday gift item.   What holiday?  Any holiday!

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One Comment leave one →
  1. December 1, 2011 5:24 pm

    Just wanted to post and say nice site, great to read from people with a clue.

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