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Better than anyone, John Banaszak knows what it's like to be an underdog. He wasn't supposed to make the Steelers as a free-agent defensive lineman from Eastern Michigan in 1975, but he did. He went on to earn three Super Bowl rings and start 45 consecutive games for the Steelers in an NFL career that lasted through the 1981 season. He also played three years in the USFL. After his playing days were over he worked as a sales representative and started his own business. Washington & Jefferson College coach John Luckhardt ultimately talked Banaszak into giving coaching a try and he served as W&J's head coach for four years, compiling an impressive 38-9 record, after being with the Presidents six years as an assistant. After leaving the Presidents, Banaszak signed on as a part-time coach under Joe Walton at Robert Morris and is in his fourth season with the Colonials, tutoring the defensive linemen and handling all the special teams. When he isn't coaching, watching films or going over game plans, Banaszak, 56, works as a consultant, coaching sales teams. A Peters Township resident, he sat down with the Post-Gazette's Rich Emert before a Robert Morris practice last week.
During your playing days, did you ever think of getting into coaching?
Banaszak: I always knew that eventually I'd get into coaching. There were a lot of other interests that came before coaching. The business world and what I was doing as a sale's rep, and then I had the entrepreneurial bug and that's when I started my own oil change business. And it was so exciting to start my own business and to build it and sell it.
How long did you do that?
Banaszak: I had the oil change business for a little over four years and I started from scratch. I just had the idea and that's what made it exciting to have the idea and go out there and take a good business plan and walk into a bank and try to borrow some money to get the business going, and the bank tells you it's not good enough, and that just makes you the underdog again just like being a free agent all over again. You just get that chip on your shoulder and you go out and prove people wrong.
That's pretty much what you did in football, right?
Banaszak: I did it in football. I think I accomplished that in the business world. Really, I think I accomplished that in coaching. After taking so many years off and starting coaching when I was 43 years old I ended up being a successful college football coach and a successful head coach following in the footsteps of the legendary John Luckhardt, who was 139-39-2.
Following John at W&J, that couldn't have been an easy situation for you. No matter what you did there, you were going to be compared to Luckhardt, right?
Banaszak: That was fine with me. For me to be compared to John was, in all honesty, pretty gratifying, but I pulled it off. We came back after missing the playoffs for two years, and in my first year there we won with a freshman quarterback, a freshman running back and a freshman wide receiver. I think it was the underdog role again and we proved a lot of critics wrong.
Would you like to go back to being a head coach if the right situation comes along?
Banaszak: If the right situation came along, I'd love the challenge of being a head coach again.
College level, high school level?
Banaszak: At the college level. When I first starting thinking about getting involved in coaching I always thought it would be at the high school level once my kids were out of high school. And then Luckhardt just twisted my arm and twisted my arm, and I couldn't say no to him any longer. So, I got into it at the Division III level, and at that level of football is the way it's supposed to be played. They are true student-athletes. And at this level, the mid-Division I-AA level we play at, is the way it's supposed to be. These guys just got their mid-term grades and I've got to chew some of their backsides out for what they are doing academically because it's their future.
Is it nice to be an assistant after being a head coach? Guys who have done that say it's nice to just worry about coaching and not all the other stuff.
Banaszak: There's a lot of truth to that. My responsibilities are much different today as an assistant than as a head coach. Working for Joe Walton and Dan Radakovich is completely different than anywhere else. I coach the defensive line and all the special teams, and I help out with the moral and make sure guys are where they're supposed to be. This is an exciting year for us because we were picked to finish last in our conference and what we've done doesn't surprise us, but it has surprised a lot of people out there.
Do you flash the Super Bowl rings around?
Banaszak: I do wear them. I've got three. I'm the only one who can sign an autograph Super Bowl X, XIII, XIV. There were only two of us who played on three of those teams. Roy Gerela played on IX, X and XIII and I played on X, XIII and XIV. There are 20 some guys who played on all four.
Was the Steelers' 1976 team, one that didn't get to the Super Bowl, the best you were on?
Banaszak: It was an incredible year and the Steelers' current situation is an awful lot like that year ... the injuries and some of the situations are similar.
But this Steelers defense isn't as good as the one in 1976, right?
Banaszak: There has never been a defense that has played since then that has been that good. To give up 28 points in nine games and have five shutouts, go 23 quarters without giving up a touchdown in the NFL. And I started five of those games.
What was it like playing on that defense?
Banaszak: Our backs were against the wall. Everybody was counting us out. We were 1-4 and pretty much embarrassed about that. [Terry] Bradshaw gets hurt. Andy Russell was quoted as saying, 'Just hold onto the football and don't make any mistakes. And we'll win the game on defense.' And that confidence trickled down to everybody on the defensive team. It was very much matter-of-fact, nobody was going to score on us. It was very much after the fact that people realized what we had done.
What's your take on all these guys with dances after a sack?
Banaszak: I was the first one in the history of the National Football League to celebrate a sack. My rookie year we are playing Houston and I got my first playing time and I sacked Lynn Dickey and I jumped up in the air and ran off the field with my arms in the air. It was like, what are you doing? It wasn't choreographed. It was an emotional outburst ... I got my first sack. I proved to everybody that I could play, but all the media guys were asking me why I did that. I went to Andy Russell and Joe Greene and asked if I did anything wrong and they said no. But I can remember Myron [Cope] was like, are you trying to upstage your opponent? I predate [Mark] Gastineau and all those guys. But what they do today after making a routine play, I have a problem with that.