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Jerry DiPaola – On 1994-2004 Steelers and Pitt Panthers

October 14, 2011

Jerry DiPaola, Trib Total Media, On 1994-2004 Steelers and Pitt Panthers (April 27, 2011)

Steelers:

Who have been some of the most interesting characters on the Steelers teams you covered from 1994-2004, and what made them so? Any examples?

One of my all-time favorite Steelers is a guy who spent only a few years here, running back Duce Staley. Very interesting guy, who abruptly ended an interview one day, and gave you enough time to write a book the next.

One day, I arrived late to his locker stall after a game and by that time Duce had had enough. He saw I was disappointed, but he was through for the day and wouldn’t give me even a brief comment. The next day, a Steelers PR guy summons me and says Duce wants to see me in the cafeteria. He saw I had been shut out the day before and wanted to make amends. We talked for an hour, just the two of  us. I thought that was a great thing for him to do, and something most athletes never would consider in similar circumstances.

Another good guy is Duval Love, an offensive linemen from the 1990s. Duval was near the end of his career when I wrote he was in danger of getting cut. The next day at training camp, a Steelers PR guy said, “Jerry, Duval wants to talk to you.” I met him in a meeting room in one of the St. Vincent College dormitories after practice and when he walked in and saw me sitting there waiting for him, he said, “Don’t worry, I’m not going to hit you.”

We talked for an hour and he told me how hurt he was by what I wrote and we ironed out our differences.

There also have been many, many standup guys, including Jerome Bettis, Kordell Stewart (one of the nicest guys on the team), Jim Sweeney, Dermontti Dawson and Mike Tomczak. Joey Porter was another favorite because he just didn’t know how to shut up. Gotta love those kinds of guys.

No one tops Dan Rooney for cooperation, however. And I don’t think I’ve ever interviewed anyone smarter than Tom Donahoe and Kevin Colbert.

The Steelers came so close to so many Super Bowl wins and appearances in the 90’s. How did Cowher and the team handle those frustrations?  How did Coach Cowher and the team pull through those too-frequent failures to win it all when they were consistently so close? Who else led the team through these frustrations?

Bill Cowher had a special talent for keeping a team focused, no matter what was happening around it and what had happened the day before, the week before or the season before. He put a chip on his shoulder when things were going bad and just dared anyone — the other team, the fans, the media — to knock it off.

The Steelers were very talented while he was coach and he knew it, but he never let the disappointment of a bitter defeat get in the way of his goal.

The Steelers lost AFC Championship games for many reasons, including special teams failures, the inability to make a big play at the right time and the fact that the Patriots and Broncos were just better. But they never lost because Cowher didn’t have them ready to play.

Cowher also had a lot of good leaders on his teams, including Rod Woodson, Carnell Lake, Bettis, Dawson and Hines Ward. Men with strong wills and good heads on their shoulders.

Did you ever get a sense from players that they felt the team too often played “not-to-lose” instead of “to win”? Were there ever any vocalized issues with the offensive strategies among players?

Playing not-to-lose is not how I would characterize the way Cowher coached. Before the loss to the Chargers in the AFC Championship Game after the 1994 season, Cowher had found a way to win that worked and was of no mind to stray from it in a big game. To me, that is a sensible way of doing things. The problem was that the Chargers hit one or two more big plays than the Steelers did.

A decade later, Cowher finally had a quarterback he trusted to make big plays and he opened up the offense for Ben Roethlisberger in the playoffs. Cowher trusted Ben more than he did Neil O’Donnell, for obvious reasons.

Ben is a great quarterback; O’Donnell was a good one, on his best days.

I truly can’t remember anyone vocalizing their complaints about the offense.

What memories stand out to you most about those teams? Any experiences/inside stories that would give readers a good feel for the locker room antics or player relationships?

I was once in the middle of a locker room fight. It was during spring drills in 2000, the final year at Three Rivers Stadium. One day, linebacker Earl Holmes gave running back Richard Huntley a shove as Huntley ran through the line n a non-contact drill. Huntley turned and threw the ball at Holmes. OK. That was no big deal.

But when three of us were circling Huntley after practice to ask him about the encounter, poor Richard’s eyes got as big as saucers because behind us was Earl, looking for restitution. Earl pushed me out the way and started going after Richard. Several players jumped in and a melee ensued right there in the locker room. Running back Chris Fuamatu-Ma’afala tried to be a peacemaker and ended up with a black eye and at one point linebacker Jason Gildon raised a stool and started swinging it over his head while shouting, “You want some, I got some.” Whatever that means.

But that was the extent of it. No one really got hurt. Someone ran down the hall to get Cowher and when he arrived, that was the end of that.

But it did make for an interesting story in the next day’s paper.

You covered the Steelers after Roethlisberger’s rookie season.  What was Ben like as a rookie – any indications of who he was as a person then and of just how good he could be on the field? How did other players react to him? How did he react to the veterans/team leaders?

I became the Trib’s high school sports editor, a position I held until 2010. I am now a general assignment writer with a lot of college football and Pittsburgh Power responsibilities.

From what I could tell, Ben had a lot of friends on the team. I remember he and Bettis making plans for a big night out n New York after a Giants game, limo, dinner, things like that.

There were several indications of how good he could be — the Steelers won a lot of games with him at quarterback, and he made a lot of big plays to make that happen.  And that was in his rookie year.

Who were the locker-room leaders on those team and what players kept the team loose? How did they do so? Were there ever rifts in the locker room that you were aware of and who were the “cliques.”

Bettis was a great leader because everyone respected him. He would engage in lots of locker-room banter and was truly one of the guys, but everyone knew he was different. His shoulders were the broadest and he didn’t mind carrying the team. A true professional.

Joey Porter and Lee Flowers were other very vocal team leaders, who backed up what they were saying on the field.

Pitt Panthers:

How has the new coaching staff looked so far? Is the team adjusting as well as it needs to yet and how is the coaching staff doing in preparing this team?

Todd Graham is a good man and, I think, he will be a good coach at Pitt. He means what he says and is honest and sincere about his beliefs. Players recognize that and will play hard for him. But they also adored Dave Wannstedt and played hard for him, and it didn’t matter.

Wannstedt was forced out because he couldn’t win enough big games. Graham will be judged like any coach — on how many Ws he earns.

I believe the team will adjust to the new coaching staff and its new ideas, but it might take a season or two. I still think they can win enough games to get to a BCS game this season because the Big East just isn’t especially challenging, and there is a lot of talent on both the offense and defensive lines.

Is Graham as good of a coach as he is a salesman?

I don’t know yet until we get deep into the season. He looks to be a good coach, and his staff is very professional and very energetic. But it’s too hard to tell by watching practice for an hour a day.

How is this season’s recruiting class and how much of an impact has Graham been able to have on it considering his late arrival? What players should excite fans the most?

There are a lot of speed guys in the 2011 recruiting class, and I will be interested in seeing the running backs — all five of them. Pitt needs depth at that position, and Graham may have to lean on his freshmen to find it.

Graham did the best he could to salvage the class, and I know for a fact that he and his coaches worked hard to keep it together. It doesn’t look great on paper, but let’s see how these players actually perform in games before judging the class.

Can Sunseri be an elite Big East QB and run Graham’s hi-octane offense successfully?

Yes and yes.

It’s the Big East, after all. Tino doesn’t have to be Dan Marino.

That said, Tino is a smart kid with a lot of heart and a good arm. He wants to win and, I think, he will win. There will
be growing pains, and the fans must be patient. But Tino has a good chance of succeeding because he wants it so desperately.

What are going to be the strengths and weaknesses of this team?

Depth could be a problem at running back, wide receiver and in the secondary. But the starters are good enough, if they stay healthy.

The defensive line can be very good, maybe even elite, in time. I am eager to see Tyrone Ezell, freshman K.K. Mosley-Smith and Aaron Donald develop over the next few years, but seniors Chas Alecxih and Myles Caragein are also excellent.

Who are the locker-room leaders on this team and what players keep the team loose?

Wide receiver Cameron Saddler will keep the team loose because of his outgoing and fun-loving personality. Tino Sunseri will be the leader because if he isn’t, Graham doesn’t want him as the starting quarterback.

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