The Early Steelers' Years

Stories of the good ol' days

The Chief by Jim O'BrienEditor's note: This chapter in Steelers history is taken from Jim O'Brien's 2001 book on Art Rooney. Mr. O'Brien prefaced his chapter with this introduction:

It was always a pleasure to visit with Art Rooney in his office at Three Rivers Stadium. He would sit behind his desk, comfortable in his well-padded chair, and simply tell stories. This was in mid-January of 1980, before the Steelers were to play in Super Bowl XW in Pasadena, California.

He had a chance to be the first owner ever to win four Super Bowls. Only George Halas had been in the league longer than Art Rooney, but no one had waited as long to win his first NFL title than Mr. Rooney.

"You know how we're just sitting here talking," he said. "Chuck Noll never comes in here and just sits and talks. It's always business. But he talks to Dan a lot. That's the way it should be, I guess. He's Dan's man."

Here's what Art Rooney had to say that day:

My mother's people were all coal miners and my father's people were all steel workers. They all worked in the mills. Our neighborhood on the North Side was made up of Irish, most of them from Galway, Ireland, with a mixture of Polish, Italian and black.

We lived on the second floor of my father's saloon - Dan Rooney's Saloon. So my dad's name was Dan and my mother's name was Margaret. My dad owned that saloon for years and years.

It was a rough neighborhood, in a way, but in those days kids were on the playground from the time the sun came up to the time it went down. We played baseball and football and we boxed.

In the earlier days, before they raised the streets and built the reservoirs, it wasn't unusual at all that we would go to school out of our second-story window in a skiff. The river came up six or seven times a year. Since they raised the streets and built the reservoirs, we haven't had many floods here, except the year before last when all those rugs and that wood paneling were ruined here.

My brothers Jim and Dan were into all the sports as well. Jim played football at Pitt in the late '20s. I had a try-out with the Red Sox and won some amateur boxing titles.

I boxed those guys who came around in the carnivals. They'd give you $3 a round if you could last with the guy. Sometimes the problem was carrying them for three rounds. They couldn't fight. If they could fight, they wouldn't be in the carnival. Every time I hit a town, I'd always ask if there was a carnival around.

I not only participated in sports, but I started to organize and promote sports, too. I guess I liked it better than anybody else. I founded my first football team, a semi-pro club, in 1916. In a way, I guess that was the start of the Steelers. It grew from that. My first team was called the Hope Harvey team.

Hope was the name of the fire engine house that furnished all our dressing rooms and that. And Harvey was a doctor who never charged us anything to take care of the players. They played right here at Exposition Park and sometimes we had 12,000 people in the stands. Later on, we called the team the J.P. Rooneys.

I never joined the National Football League, which was led by George Halas, back then because the league played its games on Sundays, and Pennsylvania's blue laws prohibited any competitive athletics on the Sabbath. But portions of the blue laws were repealed in 1933, and that opened the door for us to get into what was thought then to be a big-time football league.

1934 Program coverWhen we first started, we called our NFL team the Pittsburgh Pirates, but it got mixed up with the baseball team so much that we decided to change the name. Then we had a contest. And we figured Steelers was the proper name because Pittsburgh was the steel center of the world.

Joe Carr, our ticket manager, really liked "Steelers" as a nickname. Our first coach was Jap Douds, and we had Joe Bach, and the legendary Johnny Blood - he was something - and Walt Kiesling.

We had Jim Leonard; he was an asparagus farmer. We had Jock Sutherland - he was a great coach and he'd have won us a championship but he died too soon - and we had John Michelosen and Buddy Parker and Bill Austin.

And, finally, we got Chuck Noll. He was the big difference.

In your lifetime, you make mistakes. I had Joe Bach twice, and he was a good coach. Letting Joe Bach get away was the one big mistake I made. Had I kept him, we would have won championship after championship at Pittsburgh. He was out and out college, a Joe College. He loved the college spirit and the rah-rah. In those days, despite what anyone else tells you, this league was just a couple of jumps ahead of semi-pro ball.

Art Rooney and coach Bach 1935We traveled by coach and trains and they didn't have the rah-rah spirit. I didn't have confidence in this pro football and he and I and his wife and my wife were very close friends. So I actually helped Bach get the head job at Niagara University.

When Bach left, we got Johnny Blood, who played and coached (1937 through 1939) for a few years. Johnny was way ahead of his time. He was way ahead of these here college free spirits.

That guy had free spirit before anybody else had it. He used to drive up here on a motorcycle. He'd travel cross-country on a motorcycle. He'd get on a boat between seasons and work around the world. He was a ghost. He used to come out of nowhere. He could show up here tomorrow and I wouldn't be surprised.

You know where the Taft Hotel is in New York? On Seventh Avenue? I think it was the Taft. Anyway, Johnny Blood always wore sneakers. And one day Curly Lambeau, the coach of the Green Bay Packers, locked Johnny in his room on the top floor of the Taft.

John was playing for Green Bay then and they were in New York to play the Giants. The hotel was made of small blocks. John climbed out of his seventh-floor window by putting his toes between the blocks and crawled down into Walt Kiesling's room, and out his door.

What a man! Yeah, Kiesling was playing for the Packers then, too.

I remember another time Blood got cut so bad in the calf of his leg - he was our player-coach - that blood was running down his leg into his shoe, and every time he'd take a step the blood would shoot up until the players couldn't stand it anymore. They kept hollering, "Get rid of him! Get him out of here!"

But you never knew when Blood was going to put on a performance. He could have been a great coach. He had imagination, but he didn't believe in fundamentals. So Blood gave way to Walt Kiesling as our coach. The one thing Kiesling didn't have was the knack for get­ting along with the ballplayers.

"We put two bad teams together and made them twice as bad."

Then, we joined up with the Chicago Cardinals to form one team. Kiesling and their coach, Phil Handler, were in charge. Handler was from Chicago. We put two bad teams together in 1944 and made them twice as bad. That team, called the Pitt-Cards, went 0 and 10.

Handler was a horse player. Both he and Kiesling were handicappers. They were at the racetrack all the time. Kiesling carried the Racing Form more than the playbook. And Handler! Both of them. They did more handicapping with the Racing Form than with the X's and O's. They were knowledgeable enough about football, but they were horse­players first and X's and O's guys second.

Then we had Jim Leonard. He could have been a good coach. He had an asparagus farm in New Jersey, and coaching was kinda secondary.

Jock SutherlandJock Sutherland followed Leonard in '46 and '47. He was great. Sutherland was one of those hard-boiled coaches who practiced and practiced. When he was the coach, we sold out Forbes Field every time. He took us to the playoffs against the Eagles in '47. Unfortunately, he got a brain tumor and died (April 11, 1948).

So Michelosen, who'd played for Sutherland at Pitt, took over (in 1948). We were still using the single-wing. We were the last team in the NFL to employ the single-wing offense.

Then it gets complicated. I brought back Joe Bach for two years, but he was not the same rah-rah coach I had known earlier. He had diabetes and died after coaching two years (1952 and 1953). Kiesling came back for three years, until 1956, but he was sick, too. He was not well at all. In fact, he came back from Green Bay because he was sick. It was one of those things. I just took care of him.

Then I hired one of the best coaches available in the business, Buddy Parker, who'd been great with the Detroit Lions. But he had a bad temper and a drinking problem, and he did some irrational things that hurt us. Parker traded our draft choices all the time.

Some years we didn't have a draft choice until the eighth or ninth round. But he had been successful at doing that in Detroit and thought he could do it here. That was where I thought he made his major mistake. In fact, that led to one of the things that made Parker resign.

We told him that we didn't want him making any more trades giving away our draft choices and that was one of the things that irked him. We told him we wanted to build on draft choices. But he was a tremendous guy, truthful and honest. In 1965, Parker quit after a loss and this time we decided to accept his resignation. He'd done it before when he was upset. We replaced him with one of his assistants, Mike Nixon.

Then we brought in Bill Austin. That was Danny's first hire. Austin came highly recommended by Vince Lombardi. Austin was an assistant coach on all those great teams at Green Bay. Lombardi was very close to my family.

One of the problems with Austin was that he wanted to be like Vince, but he couldn't be. It would have been better if he had been Bill Austin in his personality. He'd yell at a ballplayer because Lombardi did things like that. But Austin couldn't do it like Lombardi. The players didn't believe he was for real. "

That's when we took a chance on Chuck Noll. He'd been with Don Shula on some great teams at Baltimore. It was a good move. He gave us class.

He lost 13 of 14 games his first year, when we played at Pitt Stadium for the last season. When Noll didn't lose the team the first year, I told both of my boys, Dan and Artie, that this guy's got it. I told them that he was going to make it, if we could get him the material. And Dan and Artie did just that.

You never heard a squawk from the ballplayers. They never beefed. They went out and practiced as if they had won the game. The biggest problem with a lot of coaches is that they know everything but they can't put it all together. They can't get the most out of their players.

Things improved after that and we started making some good money. There were other reasons we made a profit. We got $3 million for joining the American Football League. They paid off at $600,000 a year over five years. I remember when we made that decision. That's the first time we had real money to work with.

At first, I wasn't happy about leaving the National Football League. We couldn't arrive at any decision on how to do it. And the wind-up was, we were all going into a hat - the whole league - and we were going to draw out of a hat what division you were in and what team you played.

You would think that I, being a horseplayer, would be the last person to be afraid of taking such a chance, but I couldn't take it. I had to be in the same division as Cleveland. We sold out the Cleveland game every year. And out there, too.

I went to Art Modell (the Cleveland Browns' owner) and told him we can't afford to go into the hat. So we agreed to go together, along with Baltimore, and pick up the $3 million, too. I could have made moves to Baltimore, New Orleans and Atlanta, but I'm a Pittsburgher and I like the town. Great people live here. Friendly people.

I have few regrets. I could have done it better, I'm sure. I really didn't spend the time on this like I should have, like Halas or Lambeau. It was my fault. There isn't any doubt about that. I was at the racetrack. I was doing what I could do.

But we had some bad breaks, too. Bach could have done it. Sutherland could have done it. Parker almost pulled it off. Bach never would have gone if I told him I wanted him to stay. I wasn't high on the pro game. I didn't know it was going to come to where it came. I'll be honest about that. I always thought it was going to be better, but not like this.

But I have no regrets. I kept my team. So many guys went by the boards in my time. They lost their teams. I'm still here.

Reproduced from Jim O'Brien's book "The Chief."

The Steelers History index>>>