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John Banaszak, Steelers Defensive Lineman, 1974-1981

October 12, 2011
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John Banaszak (August 25,  2011):

First, can you tell readers how you got started in coaching and what you love most about the job?

I guess I always knew that eventually I would get into coaching.  

When the USFL first started I interviewed with Rollie Dotsch and the Birmingham Stallions but I wasn’t ready to make the transition.  I always felt that I would coach at the high school level but I wanted to wait until my children were out of school.  I met John Luckhardt and everything changed.  He asked if I could help his your defensive linemen at W&J.  

I started helping him in the late 80’s during training camp.  That turned into a part time position in the early 90’s and full time assistant coach in 1995.  From the first day I started to work with young men I was hooked.  It has been a very rewarding experience for me.  

I believe very strongly that if all I am to these young men is a football coach then I have failed in my responsibilities.  I must be much more.  I have to be a teacher, counselor, therapist, role model, surrogate father figure than a coach.  Watching these young men develop and grow is what I enjoy.  

Ronald Reagan once said, “most people go through life wondering is they have made a difference, Marines don’t have that problem.”  I have added that good coaches don’t have that problem either.

What coaches do you find influenced you most in your coaching career and what lessons have  you used the most as a coach from your playing days?

I think that every coach that I had in my playing career has influenced my coaching style.  As a coach, I am tough, intense and demanding.  You have to be if you want to be the best.  We only practice a short period of time and the time on the practice field is my classroom.

From Chuck Noll I learned that you have to find young men that are disciplined and motivated, from George Perles I learned that the game demands toughness and from my college coach Dan Boisture I learned that you can coach and still develop a personal relationship with your players.

Coaching is without question the closest replacement there is to playing the game.  I still have a passion for the game that is necessary to be successful as a player or a coach but it is not possible to compare the two.  I was so fortunate to be able to play organized football for 25 years and I still wish that I could buckle a chin strap and break the huddle one more time.  

What are the biggest/best memories you took away from the game as a player – and what made them so?

For me the biggest thrill and memory is playing on the greatest team that ever played the game along with some of the greatest players to ever play the game.  I played on three super bowl championship teams  starting at defensive end in super bowls XIII and XIV.

The team memories and accomplishments are available for the entire Steeler nation to enjoy.  Personally however, the one memory that stands out for me is when I was accepted and gained the respect of my teammates.

I made a very young defending Super Bowl championship team as an undrafted rookie free agent. Not a whole lot of people gave me a chance to make that team.  I remember the first day of training camp when George Perles told us that we could forget about beating out LC Greenwood, Joe Greene, Ernie Holmes or Dwight White.  The only way we were going to make that team was by playing on the special teams.  

That is what I needed to hear, a  way to make the team. I worked hard and played well on special teams in the pre-season and was one of only three rookies to make that team.

George took me aside and explained my role on that team.  I was to be the entire scout team for the offensive and defensive lines.  My job was to get them ready to play on Sunday.  He told me I could forget about playing and concentrate on getting everyone else ready to play and also to play well on the special teams.  He didn’t lie to me.  Other than a couple of mop up opportunities at the end of a game I didn’t get any serious playing time until early November against the Houston Oilers.  

Dwight was going to miss the game because of and ankle, Steve Furness would replace him.  That left me as the only available substitute defensive lineman on the sidelines.  Sure enough in the middle of the second quarter LC got his leg caught in a pile and twisted his leg. While the medical staff was administering to LC on the field a frantic George Perles was administering to me.  He said, “you can’t get hooked, you can’t get cut, OMG isn’t there anyone else I can put in the game.”  I of course nodded and told him that I was the only one left.  He repeated his obviously panicked words and as I was leaving he pulled me back and said “don’t blow it.”  With that motivational message ringing in my helmet I ran onto the field.  

As I approached the huddle I realized that George was right.  This was my chance to prove to the 27 other teams in the league that I belong, that I can play in the NFL and if I don’t blow it, I win.  

It certainly was calming when I got to the huddle and I looked to my right and there was Mean Joe.  I looked to my left and there was Jack Ham.  In front of me getting ready to call the defense was a toothless Jack Lambert.  I immediately was at ease.  I was surrounded by three future hall of fame teammates, how bad could I blow it.  

Then I realized that the Oilers were going to test me right away.  They had no success running the ball at Steve or Ernie or Joe, the would try and run at me.  Sure enough, they ran a power right at me and we stuffed it.  It was now third and long and an obvious passing situation.  I was excited about the situation and I was going to use my best pass rush move and it worked.  

On the first two significant plays in my NFL career I had a solo tackle and a sack.  I was so excited that I raised both arms in the air and ran off the field becoming the first player in the history of the NFL to celebrate a sack. What made that day more memorable however, was that my teammates gave me the highest honor that a player can get and that is a game ball.  I’ll never forget how special that moment was.

Craig Wolfley in our interview with him spoke a great deal about rookies having to earn their  stripes on those Steelers teams –and how the veterans “helped” them do so. How did you have to earn the respect of the veterans –any examples of ways in which they had you do so?

Training camp in  1975 was ten weeks and 7 pre-season games long.  We had two a day practices the entire time.  I felt going into camp that I would use my Marine Corps Parris Island boot camp experience to my advantage.  I knew that I could not afford to have a bad practice or at worst a bad pre-season game.  

I was locked in and focused the entire camp.  Looking back I know that the veterans started to notice me as a guy that could possibly make the team about half way through camp and by the rookie show right before we broke camp had a pretty good idea that I could play and help the team win.

Yes, the rookie show was still in existence.  

Did you get much grief as a rookie – if so, by who, and how?

The show and the singing in the cafeteria were the only forms of hazing that the rookies were faced with.  

After the show and the cardinal puff beer drinking game I headed back to my room.  Ernie Holmes grabbed me and said we were going to go get something to eat.  I told him I was broke and couldn’t by a burger and he told me it was on him.  When we got to Super Burger I went in and Ernie told me he left his wallet in the car.  As I was standing in the restaurant I watched Ernie pull out of the parking lot.  

As I was walking back to campus I noticed the veteran cars in the  parking lot of the old 19th hole.  Ernie by that time had told everyone what he had done and as I walked in to get a ride back Ernie pointed at me and they all had a big laugh.  The joke was on me but in retrospect it did feel good to have the vets buy me a couple of beers.

You won three Super Bowls as a Steeler and played with some of the greats of the game. What  would surprise readers about those teams and players?

I don’t really know if there is much the readers would be surprised about.  We were the classic championship football team.  That is, you run the football and play great defense.  We had nine hall of fame players on those teams.  Not one of those great players felt they were any better than the whole of the team.  

I can remember a number of years ago when the Steelers lost a playoff game.  It was on the anniversary of the Immaculate Reception and Franco had a party to celebrate the anniversary.  He invited about 12 to 15 players and wives.  As we were finishing dinner the manager of the restaurant came in our private room and told us that Kordell Stewart was in the next room with his family. We all went over and introduced ourselves and wished him well.  

What struck me funny was the fact that he was alone.  As a team win or lose we would have had a party or at least guys would of had made dinner plans together.  

Was it difficult being a standout player yet not getting the bigger recognition you perhaps would  have received elsewhere due to the likes of Lambert, Greene, Blount and other Hall of Famers on that defense?

I never once felt like I wasn’t accepted as a valuable member of those great football teams that I played on by my teammates.  I knew that wasn’t as talented a football player as Mean Joe Greene or LC Greenwood.  I  found a way to contribute to the success of those football teams.  Knowing that I gained the respect of those great football players is enough satisfaction for me.  I never made all pro or played in the Pro Bowl but I’ve got three Super Bowl World Championship rings and a lot of memories and stories about those teams and players that I wouldn’t trade for any other accolade.  

How the heck was I going to get attention.  I played with four hall of fame defensive teammates and two that should be in the HOF. Mean Joe, the two Jack’s and Mel.  LC and Donnie Shell should also be in the HOF.  LC is the biggest injustice the history of HOF voting. Are you kidding me!  His number of seasons, Pro Bowl appearances and All Pro’s match more than half of the defensive linemen that are in Canton.  

Throw into that his performance in the Super Bowls and his shoes and my goodness he has to be the number one over looked player not in Canton, Ohio. Donnie “Torpedo” Shell, come on man. Ask  HOF running back Earl Campbell  how his ribs feel.  The hardest hitting safety ever.  I know I’m not in that category of play.  But I also know that I contributed to the success of those great players and teams.  

I played with the very best and I am very proud of the way that I played and I know that I was a good player.  

How did the players and coaches keep an even keel as the team got more and more successful? You hear now about Super Bowl letdowns and the difficulty Super Bowl teams have just making the playoffs because of it. How did you avoid that trap as a team?

Okay,  we had great teams and players. We had the Chief and Dan, two HOF owners who were on the verge of taking the franchise to the Nation.  We also had a HOF head coach that put together a great HOF worthy coaching staff. Coach Noll was a great leader of men.  We clearly understood what was expected from each one of us.  He also let his coaches coach.  

All of the assistants believed like Coach Noll in the fundamentals of the game and drilled them.  Chuck loved to teach.  He broke the game down to the fundamental level and taught it.  He is famous for introducing the thought process that each of us would go through pre snap.

In looking back on those teams and what we accomplished I would have to say the Chuck’s philosophy of  the game of football was pretty simple, work hard, have fun and win. After six years in Pittsburgh, you went on to play in the USFL and won another championship there with Michigan. What made you decide to head to the USFL and how was that experience versus playing in the NFL?

I was cut in training camp in 1982 and thought my playing days were over.  I was contacted by the Michigan Panthers and eventually signed with them.  We had a very good football team.  Three of my Steeler teammates were on that team, Ray Pinney, Tyrone McGriff and Thom Dornbrook.  We also had Bobby Hebert and Anthony Carter.  

Jim Stanley was the head coach and has been a guy that I have a great deal of respect for.  It was so much fun.  We started to win in the first year and we started to fill the seats at Pontiac Stadium.  We really had no competition because of the Lions situation and we ended up winning the USFL championship the first year.  After the second year the team moved to Oakland and I wasn’t interested in doing that so I retired from football

After the second game of the next season I got a call from Larry Coyer who was the defensive coordinator of the Memphis Showboats and had been the coordinator of the Panthers.

Larry wanted me to come to Memphis to help with the defensive line.  He explained that the situation was the same as it was in Michigan.  They had some very good young players but they lacked veteran leadership.

I negotiated my contract over the phone and left my coal sales job with Perry Brothers coal company and headed to Memphis.  I was not disappointed at all in my decision.  I had a great time my last year of football.  

I helped coach and tutor two awesome defensive ends, Reggie White and Pittsburgh’s own Sam Clancy.   We were coached by a legend in his own mind Pepper Rodgers.  It was an awesome experience for myself and family.

We were good too, making it to the semi-finals and almost going to the USFL championship game.

Do you still follow the Steelers?

I do not follow the Steelers as much as I would like because of the conflict with my position at Robert Morris.  

I coach with one of the greats in the game of football in Joe Walton.  Coach Walton has forgotten more football than I know.  He has a tremendous relationship with the young men we coach and I have no idea when he will retire.  Robert Morris has given me not only the opportunity to coach these great young men but they have also given  me the opportunity to see the University grow. This is an exciting place to be part of.  I am much more than just a football coach at Robert Morris.

We work on Sunday grading our performance the day before and we start the game planning process for the upcoming game.  I usually will get out of the office well after the Steelers game is over.  Even though I don’t follow them closely I know what is going on.  When our season is finished their season is starting to heat up and I become a fan again.

There’s a great deal of concern among former players on NFL benefits. Many players –including a number of Steelers –have had a great need for surgery/rehab/therapy due to the effects of the  game, but can’t afford it under the NFL’s current benefits package. What are your thoughts on this and how can the NFL improve their support for veterans in need of help?

As far as the current retired player situation and the new CBA I am disappointed again in the unions failure to negotiate on our behalf but you know what, I didn’t expect anything else. I guess I’m not as disappointed for myself as much as I am for the guys before me that get less than I do.  We are the ones who built this game into the billion dollar industry it is today and it is hard to see what they are making today.  

I would have liked to have seen more benefits for the retired players.  I’m fortunate that I don’t have to depend on the NFL, the union or the NFL alumni to take care of me.  I know there are former teammates and guys that I played against that are having issues that should be taken care of.  I also know that there will be current players that will blow large sums of money that will have better benefits than we do.

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