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Chad Millman

October 12, 2011

Chad Millman, Author, The Ones Who Hit the Hardest (July 28,  2011):

First, what made you decide to write on this subject – especially with this unique angle?

I was born in the early 70s and by the time I was really becoming a fan the only teams I saw with any consistency on TV — outside of the Bears because I grew up in Chicago — were the Steelers and the Cowboys. They were in nearly every Super Bowl that decade, including playing each other twice. And those games were so epic; no one was neutral about those teams.

When I started the project my wife, who is not much of a sports fan said to me, “oh man, I loved the cowboys.”  it was a story and a decade that had always resonated with me as a fan, so it seemed like a natural subject to tackle.

You focused a good deal of the book on the economic hardships of Pittsburgh during the 70’s. How much of the city’s issues really caught the players’ attention and inspired the team do you think, or was it merely a backdrop?

I think it was very important to them. Especially when they were going through their own labor struggles before they won that first Super Bowl.

Rocky Bleier tells a great story of getting hammered by fans for being the face of the NFL strike. He had been a war hero and come back and he was in this union town getting blasted for not wanting to play a game when so many steel workers were losing their jobs. That affected him, and all the guys a lot.

They weren’t rich and most of them were living in Pittsburgh full time—many of them still do. So it wasn’t just a place they rented in for six months of the year. They were part of the city. 
 
What were some of the most interesting facts/stories you uncovered in your research?

The three most interesting characters to me were Chuck Noll, Joe Greene and Franco Harris. I knew them so superficially before this project. But each one had so many quirks to their personality.

Noll wasn’t as rigid as I originally thought he was. He didn’t care if players caroused or had facial hair or showed personality. He just cared that whatever they did did not impact the team.

Greene was so driven by fear of failure that every little slight, even long after he was a hall of famer, Sent him into a fit that was manifested by brilliant play. And Franco was the thinking man’s running back. He couldn’t just do what the coach said, he had to know why first.

In doing your research, what were the biggest differences between Coach’s Noll and Landry in terms of how they coached and managed players and personalities?

Noll seemed to care a lot more about his players. He also seemed less concerned with the glory of winning.

I don’t mean he didn’t want to win. I just don’t think it consumed him the way it did Landry. Partially that was because Landry had so many tough losses before finally getting over the hump. Whereas Noll’s team won the big games the first time they played in them.

But, like I wrote above, Noll did not feel the need to control everything his players did. In fact, for better and worse, he tended to look the other way if there were things he didn’t want to know, like steroid use on the team.

What were the main steps Chuck Noll and Rooney took that had the greatest impact on turning The Steelers around?

Having patience and focusing on the draft.

The Steelers had a history of giving away draft picks to try and win immediately with veterans. It meant coaches had old players with bad habits. Noll decided he didn’t want anyone who could disrupt what he was trying to teach, so he took young players and made them learn his style of football.

Malcontents were shipped out and replaced with more young players. All they knew was the Noll way, so they didn’t have any bad habits. It helped that he and his scouting depo were as good as anyone has ever been at finding talent.

How involved was Rooney in the day-to-day of the team? Did he and Chuck Noll work closely or did he take a hands-off approach to give Noll freedom to do as he needed?

Rooney did not interfere with Noll’s decisions as far as scouting or coaching at all. That has been a longstanding Rooney tradition that Art started.

Once, a couple of the Rooney boys had been practicing with the team, catching passes during warmups for the QBs during training camp. They felt the fourth-stringer, a local kid, was clearly the best of the bunch but the coaches weren’t giving him any time. So they wrote Art a letter making their case.

He read it, threw it away and told his boys, “The coach gets to choose his players.” Soon after that the QB was cut. His name: Johnny Unitas.

Fans/media today seem to decry the behavior of many players today. In truth, were players any different then in terms of their off-and-on field behavior- if so, how?

I think they mentality towards players was different. They didn’t make as much money, they weren’t in the spotlight as much. There was still plenty of partying going on, people just knew a lot less about it.

Many feel the NFL has targeted the Steelers not just now, but in the 70’s as well, for their physical play. What are your thoughts on this and how has this helped define the franchise, in your opinion?

I don’t get that sense. I do think they are a remarkably physical team and the success of the franchise has been built on that. But I always felt this was something they were admired for.

We know that players like Lambert and Green were locker room leaders during those 70’s teams – but what other players may surprise fans as having also been locker room leaders?

The linebacker, Andy Russell, especially on those first couple of Super Bowl teams. And the center, Ray Mansfield, too.

Those were two of the only holdovers from before Noll took over and it’s because they were both so smart. But also because they were old school players.

Mansfield was the first one to protect a teammate. And he seemed to crave physical contact in a way that other players just accepted it as part of their job. Russell, meanwhile, was the one everyone took cues from as far as studying film, listening to coaches and dealing with the media.

How close-knit were those Steelers teams really? Were there rifts – if so, between who, and why?

They were very close.

Lots of team meals outside of the locker room. Poker games on Tuesday nights between offensive players and defensive players, white guys and black guys.

Noll forced it that way with the way he designed the locker room. Many are organized by position groups, but he organized it by number. It forced players to get to know whoever was around them.

Was there a real dislike between those Steelers and Cowboys teams or was most of that media hype?

They hated each other. Especially from the Steelers perspective. They were the ones always winning and never understood why the Cowboys got the tag America’s Team. 
 
Any other thoughts for readers?

Enjoy the book!

 

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