Jim Sweeney, Steelers Offensive Lineman, 1996-1999
First, can you let readers know about your post-NFL career and your new coaching job at Albany. What made you decide to become a coach?
It just seems like a natural progression to go from player to coach. Even though it has been a few years since I last played, I was just waiting for the right fit. When my buddy, Greg Gattuso, was announced as head coach, I knew this would be my golden opportunity to become a full time coach. Took all of three seconds for me to commit when Greg called.
What coaches and coaching lessons from your experiences do you fall back on now as a coach – and why?
I have had some great ones. Joe Moore at Pitt. Jim Ringo, a NFL HOF’er. Bad Rad, Dan Radakovich, the architect of the Steeler lines of the 70’s. Larry Beightol and Kent Stephenson, both long time NFL coaches. Tried to learn from all the coaches I had. Everybody does things a little different, but the end results seem to always be the same. I am no different. Take what I have learned and put my own little spin on how I want my point to come across to my players. Also learned from older teammates when I was just a rookie in the league.
How does coaching at the college level differ from that in the NFL, from your perspective, and how does your NFL experience help you when dealing with these younger players?
The biggest difference, for me, is I have to learn that colleges tend to defend the field rather than the offensive personnel in the huddle. When it comes to identifying defensive personnel, I am a little bass-akwards.
But, I am learning. As far as relating to my players, it helps having 16 years of credentials. My message to them, “would you rather following someone through a mine field that has read about it or whom has lived it?” I left the answer up to them.
You signed on with the Steelers in 1996 after playing for the Jets and Seahawks. What made you decide to sign with the Steelers in free agency – especially when they were deep at guard and center with Dawson, Strzelczyk, Myslinski and Wolford there?
It was a chance for me to play at home with a pretty good organization late in my career. I enjoyed the fact that I did not have to pack for training camp. It was great for my parents They only had to travel 4 miles instead of 400 miles to watch a game. Not too many people know, but Bill Cowher was originally a Beechview native. It is where I was raised. A little coincidental. The director of football operations, at the time, was my high school coach, Tom Donahoe. It was a chance to be back with him. I guess you could say it would be a complete circle.
Who were the players and coaches that really welcomed you to the team and helped you adjust to the Steelers, and how did they do so?
Jugs(Justin Strzelczyk), Jim Miller, Milo(Tom Myslinski), Dirt(Dermontti Dawson) as well as the Rooney’s, Wig(John Norwig) the head trainer and Rick Burkholder, the assistant trainer and Pitt grad, all made me feel welcomed and that I was one of them. First thing we did after practice, Jugs, Milo, Millsee, T-Zak(Mike Tomczak) and a few others was to go to a local establishment for wings and beer. A perfect fit.
The team at the time had a potent running game and dynamic quarterback in Kordell Stewart.
How did the diversity of a bruising back like Bettis, faster back like McAfee and a scrambling quarterback all affect how the offensive line? Was it more difficult for you having to block for so many different styles of players?
Blocking is blocking. We like to think our style of blocking enable the backs to create their own style running. we had a couple of motto’s to live by, “How the offensive line goes, is how the team goes!” And,”Offensive line, get none of the credit and all of the blame!” Think about it.
As a Pitt guy, how special was it returning home to Pittsburgh, and how much pressure did it add to you, playing “at home”?
It was great returning home for the twilight of my career. I always dreamed of wearing the black and gold and this was a chance for a grade school dream to come true. There really was no more pressure than normal to perform. If you don’t perform, at any time in your career, you don’t seem to be around much longer.
How difficult was it for you as a veteran lineman, mentoring younger players that you knew, to some degree, were candidates to take playing time and even a roster spot away from you?
As an older player, it was my duty, honor and privilege to mentor the younger players. It was and always will be about the team and what is best for the team. If it cost me a position on the roster, so be it. That is the nature of the game. Plus, when I was a rookie, the elder statesman of the O-Line for the New York Jets, Joe Fields, took me under his wing. It was my turn to pay back and pass on the tradition
What part did humor play on those Steelers teams in terms of keeping players loose? What were some of the funnier moments you remember and who were some of the funniest players on the team? Any examples?
Humor plays a major part in any locker room. To be able to make fun of and be made fun of by the guys you go to battle with, week in and week out, is a life learning experience. Everybody should experience a looker room mentality. People would not be so PC on every issue.
You retired after the ’99 season after an amazing sixteen years in the NFL. What prompted that decision for you and were you prepared for life after football? Why/why not?
After 16 season, it was just time. Like riding the Thunderbolt at Kennywood, you know when you get on the ride, that you will also be getting off as well. Same as an NFL,or any other career, you know one day the ride will be finished. That is why you enjoy every moment. Prepared in one aspect, my mind, but not prepared, on predicting what would happen in the future. I was still a young man, even after 16 season. Most of my living years were ahead. Like anything, you may have a plan, but life does not always follow your plan.
What are your thoughts about the way the game has changed today, and what would you tell younger players about how o prepare for life in the NFL after having played for an amazing sixteen seasons?
I guess I played at the perfect time for me. There was no free agency and that was not such of a bad thing. Teams tended to stay together. I felt honored that a team, the New York Jets, took a shot on me. That is where my alliance existed. I always loved and still do love Pittsburgh and their teams. Huge Pirates fan. Love the Penguins. I follow all the high schools from the W.P.I.A.L. and where the future stars may go. It was just a great experience for myself to go beyond the boundaries of the city of Pittsburgh and show a different part of the country how we are as Pittsburghers or “Yinzers.” It’s an experience I recommend highly!