Joe Gordon, Former Steelers Director of Communications
First, can you tell readers how you first became the Steelers’ Director of Communications in 1969?
I worked for the Hornets minor league hockey team then the Penguins and developed a reputation as being a confident and professional PR person. I had a relationship with Dan and with Art. Art was a big Penguins fan – he attended seven-to-eight Penguins games a year.
In 1970, the Steelers moved to Three Rivers Stadium. It was Dan’s opinion that they needed to expand the staff – including PR. The Steelers had one of the smallest staffs in the league at the time, and with the league merging with the AFL, Dan knew they needed to expand the staff. The NFL-AFL merger meant more opportunities for the team and NFL. Plus, we had an antiquated stadium. They had to generate more revenue to compete and playing at Pitt stadium – that was built in 1927 and had only bleacher seating – well, it was not even up to the standards of the current league much less the merging league.
How did those changes of the early 70’s affect the team and who drove them?
All teams – all sports organizations – there’s a division between business and the playing end. Dan was involved in both. It was obvious Chuck had a great deal of latitude though to operate on his own philosophy of building through the draft.
The Steelers had been known as loveable losers at the time. Playing in an antiquated stadium and losing so many games, there was lots of negativity. The move the Three Rivers uplifted the entire organization. Sam Davis, Andy Russell, Ray Mansfield – the holdovers from the old regime – it was positive for them. The move was one of the biggest things that led to the success of the team in the 70’s.
What was Coach Noll’s role in all of this change?
Noll knew we couldn’t be successful at Pitt Stadium. One of the main reasons he accepted the job was because he knew we were moving in ’70.
From the standpoint of football operations, his direction of building on a long-term basis through the draft was very important. Before Noll, Buddy Parker traded draft choices for players looking for the get-good quick approach. But that didn’t work. The operative word with Coach Noll was patience and all bought into that.
How did they turn it all around after the move?
The combination of Noll having ultimate authority and the scouting department headed by Art Rooney Jr. made for a more professional team. The relationship between Noll and the scouting department – being on the same page was important. Character was a big factor – a major consideration for the draft. Noll also was emphatic that they drafted intelligent players. Both were major motivations for him – he wanted good and intelligent athletes with good character.
There were three or four players left from the Parker team after the second season under Noll. The rest were inferior, Noll felt – they couldn’t win with them. He built through the draft. Gradually, you could see Art Rooney Sr. feeling confident – knowing Chuck never lost the team even when they lost. They all bought in to the mission.
How did you role change over time?
The PR situation today is vastly different than it was then. Cable TV and talk radio changed everything – it become much more public- more open and transparent.
In the early days, there was nowhere near as much media coverage. The losing teams don’t generate media coverage. As they started winning, the media came around more.
How did you handle off-field occurrences /issues when they occurred?
The Rooney family – the respect they received from all entities in society – their commitment to the community rubbed off on the players. It was a big factor in Noll’s success – his character was consistent with the Rooneys and that created high-character teams.
There were few problems then and generally not of the same magnitude of the problems you see today. There were no drugs and steroids were just coming into play. Because of the examples set by Rooney and Noll, there were few issues. When we did have problems, we addressed them to help the player. Very few problems like that happened though. The biggest problems were things like fights in bars – nothing like the problems that exist in sports today.
Society is different too. Athletes weren’t as independent like today and were much more respectful of authority than they are today as well.
Who were some of the biggest characters on those teams you worked for?
Frenchy Fuqua of course – he dressed outrageously but it was all in good spirits. I never knew him to have problems.
Greene was Noll’s first pick and the most important player in Steelers history. He was a leader and great player. Franco Harris was the same way…the linebackers too – all quality people and great athletes.
The players then weren’t characters as you would define character. Dwight White was a character in the locker room – but it was all within the confines of the locker room. Trainer Ralph Berlin was a confident trainer (laughing) as was equipment manager Tony Parisi. They all bought into the organization.
What experiences in Pittsburgh stand out to you the most?
Being around an organization that was so successful was positive – and the quality people. It was all a very positive experience. There was nothing negative. I had a very fortunate career.
Many players are still pillars fo the community. Franco Harris did more for the community since he retired even though he did so much as a player.
The players were always cooperative and respectful of the media then – win or lose.We had the reputation as the most open locker room in the NFL. The key point for me was that the Rooneys and Noll let you do your job. That was the example they set for the players too.
It was a special time and team that would be hard to duplicate now due to free agency. They were great athletes and human beings.
What was the most difficult part of your job and time in Pittsburgh?
The hardest part was that during the season we were so busy. It was not uncommon to be in the office for twelve hours then take calls at home. That was part of the experience though.
The stressful parts were the Super Bowls. Early in the week the press conferences – all had to be on board and lined up – but the coaches and players were all easy to work with.
Deaths in the family – dealing with players then was tough too. Art Rooney’s death was a negative moment. He meant so much to everybody – he was the most beloved person in the NFL and Western PA. Things like that,….they are obviously a part of life. But there were no difficult moments with players. Occasionally a player might not be receptive in an interview and we’d have to work with them. But they were always accommodating.
How did you get the players to be so accommodating – especially when many were from small schools and not used to that attention?
There was so much to do in such a short time during the season. The media wants to interview a player and we need to fit that in between practices, film study and their family life.
The small college guys could see the open locker room. We did interviews then in the dressing room. We tried to tell the players and coaches to get with this or that media person to match them up, and if I thought it could be a negative interview I’d prep the player in advance. Chuck Noll was always prepared.
We never lied though. It was Dan Rooney’s mantra – do not lie. If you didn’t know the answer you just say “I don’t know”. If there was a situation we didn’t want others to know about we’d just say “I don’t know.” Maybe they’d still hear about it from a third party, but not from us.
What kinds of things did you try to “suppress”? Injuries?
We couldn’t hide injuries. Disagreements between players that didn’t have a direct effect on the team or game – we’d try to bury that. But that didn’t happen often. I saw Chuck Noll walk past my office – I sensed something was wrong. He came back to my office with Dan Rooney and told me the players thought the media had too much access to the dressing room. I told him I would go in and talk to them and went in and let them know I understood their concerns. I told them the media is not eavesdropping on their personal lives. That they want you to be successful – that makes their job easier.
I told them it wasn’t the right time to go into it now but I would meet with the captains on Tuesday.
In ’75 or ’75, it was Noll’s policy to hold special teams practices on Saturday mornings – home or away games. One Saturday morning I saw Chuck walk by my office and I sensed something was wrong. He came back in again with Dan Rooney and let me know that the players felt that the media had too much access to the dressing room. I told them I’d go in and talk to them,..
I went into the dressing room and told them I understood their concerns. I let them know the media wasn’t eavesdropping on their personal lives. They wanted the players to be successful, I told them, because it made their job easier. I told them I’d meet with their captains next Tuesday – that now was not the appropriate time to talk.
Well, next Tuesday I went to the dressing room and asked Joe Greene when he wanted to get together for the meeting. He just looked at me and said “What meeting?” That was typical Joe Greene…
That’s just another example – Chuck Noll let me do my job. He could have restricted access to the dressing room for the media. Now the rest of the coaches are control freaks – Noll was too about football-related things. But he could care less about extraneous stuff.