Tunch Ilkin, Steelers Offensive Lineman, 1980-1992, Steelers Broadcaster
First, can you let readers know how yo got started in your broadcasting career?
My last year was ’93 in Green Bay. I was here in the offseason in ’94 and wasn’t sure what I wanted to do next. It was my fifteenth season and I wasn’t sure if I wanted to play. My thirty-seven year-old body fell apart the season before but a player can fool himself. Was I old or was it just bad luck?
My agent told me I had interest from some other teams. Green Bay said thanks but they wouldn’t need me next year. Mark Malone was hosting the Steelers show with Sam Nover but was hired by ESPN. NBC had the AFC contract then and hosted the pregame show prior to the network show. I got the call from Channel 11 after Malone left and they asked me if I was interested in the position.
Did you have broadcasting experience?
I did some radio and tv in Pittsburgh before. They asked me to come in and take a test. I was 260 pounds Ron, and it was all in my face! I remembering seeing the test. I told them they went from a guy who looked like Tom Selleck in Mark Malone to John Candy on the show.
They offered me the job but my agent told me to wait for the draft. Channel 11 needed an answer though. I prayed on it . Meanwhile my church asked me to be a youth leader at that time too and I wound up doing that for six years, which was a blessing.
So I said yes to the Channel 11 pregame show job. I also did some reporting on the Steelers for the news. In ’95 NBC called. They were interested in testing me for doing color commentary on network games. So I flew to New York and tested with Don Criqui and got the job.
How was it working on live games?
With the games, you are gone Friday morning to Sunday night. If you have kids you miss the weekends and all of the sports. I loved it but I’d miss the soccer and football games. At the same time, Steelers radio had Merril Hoge and Myron and Bill Hillgrove. The funny thing is, Merril wanted my job and I wanted his.
Next year Merril went to ESPN and I called the Steelers and asked them if they still wanted to go with three guys – that I was interested in replacing Merril. They said yes and I’ve enjoyed it since ’98.
Was it a relief?
I could coach my sons now. I’d travel with the Steelers and we’d leave late Saturday and come back after the game. I could see all the kids’ games now. I was in hog heaven!
Working for the network – you weren’t really emotionally invested. When it’s your team you’re invested in it. You want them to win. It was my community, my friends… The network games, do the broadcasters even care who wins? I cared with those Steelers games.
I got to work with a living legend in Myron Cope – he was the funniest guy in broadcasting. And with another legend in Bill Hillgrove. He was a true professional that could handle the banter between Myron and myself. I was working with two of the greatest guys in broadcasting and covering my favorite team and spending time with my family. The greatest job I had was playing football and the second greatest was talking about it. It was great – I was so thankful.
Then you got to work with your friend Craig Wolfley.
Wolfley was my best friend since 1980 when we roomed together. He is very funny – a really creative guy. I told him he would be great in the business but he wasn’t interested. He had such a comic’s timing – I thought he would be tremendous. It was for selfish reasons too – it would be great to have a buddy in the business – to hang out and do radio together.
He finally agreed and we did the Countdown to Kickoff show at the old Forbes Field Tavern on the South Side. The Steelers hired him as a sideline guy too. We did the daily show for two years, but I found out that I was a great football fan, but not a great sports fan. I wasn’t as interested in covering the Pirates, Penguins, Pitt and the other teams. I liked those teams I just didn’t want to cover them every day – I just wanted to cover the Steelers.
Now, we just cover the Steelers. I’ve worked with Sam Nover, Stan Savran, Myron, Bill…..I worked with so many legends.
So, taking a step back to your playing career, tell us about your rookie season and how you finally made the team?
I actually got cut my rookie season – I was released in training camp. I was called into Chuck Noll’s office and I knew that wasn’t good. Back then there were no taxi squads or practice squads. If a team wanted to keep you – they’d say you were hurt. “I tweaked my hammy” or something. They did that for a couple other guys that rookie year and I was hoping they’d do that for me as well.
But I let up a pressure in my first preseason game and had a holding penalty too. I got pulled from the game. Practice that Monday, I got called in and Chuck said he put me on waivers that morning. I didn’t know what that meant – then it dawned on me that he was cutting me.
He told me to stay in shape – that if someone got hurt they’d call me. I thought it was just something he said to make me not cry. But I did anyway…
So what did you do from there?
I went back to Chicago where I grew up. My parents moved to San Francisco so I stayed with a buddy, He didn’t have a spare room but he had an enclosed porch with a cot. I slept there and worked at a health club, vacuuming and cleaning mirrors and stuff like that. But I got to work out and ran during lunchtime.
I also played in a touch football league, and I am proud to say I led the league in sacks. I took all of the moves Joe Greene and Dwight White beat me with in camp and used them!
Then Steve Courson hurt his foot. Chuck called and asked me if I was in shape and I said yes! He asked me to get on the next flight, which was in 45 minutes. I had no extra clothes with me- I went in my gym clothes. I looked like an immigrant for the second time in my life!
What changed that second go-around?
I remember we played the Raiders on Monday night. I was on special teams and looked up to see 55,000 Terrible Towels flying. I thought to myself, last Monday I was playing touch football, today I’m on Monday NightFootball!
Who helped you mentor you as a rookie – on and off the field?
Kolb, Webster, Brown…they were so quick to share their work ethic with me – how to be a good offensive lineman. Me and Craig Wolfley were like baby ducks – we followed them around everywhere. I saw them work harder and figured that if I do what they do, I could at least be half as good.
They taught us to be good players and good fathers and husbands and men – men of God. I grew up Muslim. Through their lives I met Christ and am eternally grateful.
How did you prove yourself to your fellow players and coaches this time?
I just wanted to be the best player I could be. I had great mentors. The organization is a great environment for a young player if you are willing to listen and emulate the guys in front of you, and I followed those guys around.
You have good days and bad days but over time you figure it out. I was drafted as a center but I knew with Webster there I’d never play. So I volunteered for everything – every line spot and special teams – to get on the field. Eventually you catch the coaches eye and get an opportunity to produce.
Many of the guys we spoke to lauded your role as a leader. What made you such a good leader?
I have spoken at a lot of leadership seminars and read a lot of books on leadership – when I see a good leader I know it. Webby and Kolb were great leaders. I don’t know what kind of leader I was – I was just myself. I loved the game and the people. I was really thankful. I took it all seriously even as a player rep for the Steelers.
What were some of your biggest challenges as a player rep?
The hardest thing was the ’87 strike. That year four captains crossed the picket line. These were good friends – it was hard. I didn’t blame them – Dunn, Stallworth, Webby and Shell were in their last seasons. I understood it. But I though I would lose more guys.
It really stretched me. I took the impact of my position on the labor movement seriously. My responsibility was to keep those guys together and it was a heavy burden. They had so many worries about making ends meet and getting paychecks. It was the biggest challenge I ever faced as a leader. I wanted to present all the information to them – I didn’t want to miss anything.
How did you keep everyone together?
I felt very strongly about the ’87 fight. I made a statement early on that even if there’s only one guy left on strike I’m staying out. At the end guys were worried and didn’t know if they could hold out any longer. I kept telling them just to hold out a little more. Gene Upshaw then told us that by Friday, either we have an agreement or we all would cross together.
On the conference call the day before Gene told us he had bad news. There was no deal – and, he said we don’t have any place to surrender to either. I called Wolf and told him there was no deal. It was 2 a.m. and we were all meeting at 8 a.m. that morning. I told him I couldn’t go in. He told me my agent told him I’d be a martyr and told me to stop being a martyr. I believed in what we were doing, I told him. Thirty minutes later after going back and forth, he just asked me if he should bring in the donuts and coffee, or should I…
The next morning I told the guys that if they want to go in they should, but I couldn’t. One by one they all said they wouldn’t. It was crazy -these were private meetings, but the media was always there, no matter where we met. I don’t know who our leak was…those were crazy times.
What were some of the lighter times and funnier players you played with in Pittsburgh?
We had a lot of fun as a team. I remember losing to Detroit 45-3. Larry Brown said to us, “The worst thing about this game, we’re only in the third quarter!” Malone was telling the guys that we got this – and Webby in the huddle just looked at him and told him “There’s no way we can win this.” We all laughed a lot together.
Who were some of the ringleaders?
Gary Dunn and Beasley. Once they took John Goodman’s bed, clock, fan, everything and put it all in the bathroom stall. They left clues behind to make it look like I did it. Kohrs jumped on the bandwagon and he and Goodman accused me of doing it and later got back at me by doing something to my room.
There was also this box with a spring-loaded top that would snap open if you released the latch – it was Dunn’s. He would tell the rookies he had this wild Mongoose in there. I was the keeper of the box after he left. We’d tell the rookies about this nasty mongoose in there – how it would tear up snakes and that we’d let them go feed it someday.
If you looked at the box you’d see this furry tail sticking out. We’d throw chicken bones in there for noise and tell the guys to take this straightened out coat hanger and poke at the mongoose in the box – really playing it up. Then we’d hit the latch and the tail would go flying out. Keith Willis knocked over three guys running out of the door and down the stairs yelling “The mongoose is loose!”
We’d also go out to Beasley’s farm and go deer hinting and ride three-wheelers on the trails. Beasley, Dunn and Wolfley would take me up these crazy trails – I didn’t know what I was doing and would get all beat up, flipping backwards….when I caught up to them and they were all laughing at me.
In fact, me, Kolb, Webby, Peterson and Wolfley all got baptized at Beasley’s farm.
In ’93, you left for Green Bay. How hard was that for you and what brought that on?
The Steelers drafted Leon Searcy in ’92. That was the first year for Bill Cowher there and it was strange. I was the same age as the head coach. When the season ended, in my exit meeting with Bill he told me thanks, but he wasn’t sure about next year. He said they had to make sure Searcy could play as they were paying him a lot of money and he was a first round pick.
Later I called him after I didn’t get a contract yet and he said I should probably look somewhere else. Green Bay called – I wanted to finish as a Steeler but I understood. So I called Jim Boston – the Steelers’ business manager – and told him Green Bay offered me a contract. I just wanted to know what was going on – I wasn’t asking for money. He told me he and Mr. Rooney spoke and that I should probably take the Green Bay deal.
Any last thoughts for readers?
Even in ’87 during the strike, when Rooney heard I was looking for a field to practice on, he called me and told me “There’s a key on Marianne’s desk that unlocks the gate to the practice field.” Marianne was his secretary. He said “You didn’t get it from me.”
He never threatened me as a player rep during the strike. Many reps were worried about getting cut but I never had to worry about that. He always used to come up to me and ask me “Tunch my boy, how are things in Turkey? Still killing each other each other, just like Ireland?”
Everyone in the organization are all just down-to-earth guys. The humility they have is unbelievable.