From the PG archives: The Steelers 1974 draft still accepted as greatest in NFL history

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In 2002, Steelers beat reporter Ed Bouchette interviewed the key players in the 1974 draft that gave the Steelers four Hall of Famers in one sweep, a feat no other team has ever matched. Here's a look back at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette story from April 14, 2002.

The Steelers bumbled, fumbled and botched their way through 36 seasons without winning a championship or a playoff game before Chuck Noll arrived in 1969. The Steelers were the hapless Tampa Bay Buccaneers of that era. The club cut Johnny Unitas and Len Dawson and passed up the chance to draft Jim Brown. They looked upon the annual college draft as an opportunity to trade for veterans past their primes.

Things were so bad the Steelers did not have a draft choice in the first seven rounds of the 1963 draft, having traded them all away. They traded their first, third, fourth, fifth and sixth choices in 1965.

It didn't matter, because even when they kept their draft choices the Steelers didn't know what to do with them. Their picks turned into bigger busts than Jamain Stephens. In the 11 years before Noll, the Steelers had just five first-round choices and only Paul Martha, chosen in 1964, turned out to be any good.

Noll changed that quickly. He and personnel chief Art Rooney Jr. mapped a strategy to build through the draft, and they began hitting home runs the day they stepped to the plate. Joe Greene was the first in 1969, followed that year by Jon Kolb and L.C. Greenwood. They added Terry Bradshaw and Mel Blount the next year. Jack Ham, Dwight White, Ernie Holmes, Mike Wagner and others arrived in 1971. They went for Franco Harris and Steve Furness in ' 72.

By then, the Steelers had started to win. The Immaculate Reception put them in the AFC championship game in ' 72 and the emerging NFL power attracted the attention of author Roy Blount Jr. He followed the 1973 Steelers, hoping to write a book about a Super Bowl team. Instead, they slipped to second place in their division and Oakland ran them out of the playoffs.

Nevertheless, Blount's book about that season, "Three Bricks Shy of a Load," became a classic, the story of a team that was Super but did not make the Bowl.

On Jan. 29, 1974, Noll, Art Rooney Jr., personnel director Dick Haley and the rest of the Steelers scouts and coaches gathered at Three Rivers Stadium, ready to make their draft picks.

They went searching for those Three Bricks.

"We always had the idea that once you got pretty good -- and we were on our way to being pretty good -- we felt if you can get three guys who can make your team each year, you would have a great turnover," said club scout Bill Nunn. Nunn left his job as sports editor of the Pittsburgh Courier to join the Steelers in the late ' 60s and became one of the best talent evaluators in the business.

Hall of Fame day

On that day in 1974, the Steelers unearthed four gold bars in what is generally accepted as the greatest draft in pro football history

Picking way down at No. 22 (of 26 teams) and without a third-round choice, the Steelers drafted Lynn Swann, Jack Lambert, John Stallworth and Mike Webster in the first five rounds. They went from drafting busts to putting busts in Canton. All four made the Pro Football Hall of Fame. No other team in the history of the NFL draft, which was started in 1936, has selected more than two Hall of Famers in the same year.

"That's phenomenal, absolutely phenomenal, to have that great collection to come out of one class," said San Diego General Manager John Butler, who was GM of the Buffalo Bills when they went to four straight Super Bowls in the 1990s. "With two having been the most, to double that, the odds are phenomenal.

"That's what all those people in personnel dream about, getting one Hall of Famer."

As they did 28 years ago, today's Steelers will be looking for a few good men to put them over the top when they draft Saturday and next Sunday. The draft has changed over the years. There are only seven rounds, compared to 17 in 1974, and it is conducted nearly three months later in the year. Because they reached the AFC championship game last season, the Steelers will pick 30th in the first round, not conducive to getting the best players in the draft.

They proved in ' 74 that it can be done, no matter where you pick.

The Steelers may not have known they had just drafted four Hall of Famers in 1974, but they soon discovered what those players meant. The year they drafted the Canton Quartet, the Steelers won their first Super Bowl and went on to win four in six years. The 1974 draft provided the final ingredients of one of football's greatest dynasties.

"One of the amazing things that you don't realize yourself is that we drafted four Hall of Famers on one day!" Art Rooney Jr. said. "Anyone can have blind luck, but when you looked at it, we took Greene, Bradshaw, Blount, Ham and Franco. We had an off year in ' 73, then came in with those four the next year. That, to me, shows it was not blind luck, we were doing something right."

Remarkably, they did not stop there. After the draft ended Jan. 30, the Steelers signed two rookie free agents, safety Donnie Shell and tight end Randy Grossman. Each collected four Super Bowl rings. Shell became a great strong safety and he could be the fifth Hall of Famer from that 1974 rookie class.

"We worked hard, worked with a lot of passion in that draft," Rooney said.

Who's first?

There was little disagreement on the plan of attack that day. The Steelers knew the players they wanted and felt reasonably confident they could get them. They had resolved questions about the so-so 40-yard dash times Swann and Stallworth had run for scouts at first by getting faster times when they ran a second time.

The next thing they had to determine was which of the two wide receivers they would draft first.

"Noll really did like Stallworth and thought he was worthy of the first-round pick," Rooney said. "He was put into the Senior Bowl as a defensive back and that was a tremendous break for us because he wasn't showcased as a receiver and he was put at a position he wasn't real comfortable with."

Noll wasn't happy with Swann's recorded speed of 4.65 in the 40, but when the BLESTO scouting service sent a man to Southern California to time him again, he ran a 4.59. Then everyone agreed Swann would be the first-round pick because the Steelers would have a shot at Stallworth later on.

"We were looking for some offensive weapons," said Noll. "We needed some receivers. We wanted to bolster the offense because we thought our defense was pretty good."

At No. 22, they chose Swann.

Nunn had great relationships with football people at small black colleges which he had developed during his days covering the sport for the Courier, a nationally-circulated African-American newspaper. Nunn had picked the Courier's black All-America team. He discovered some of the Steelers' best players at those small schools, including Greenwood, a 10th-round draft choice from Arkansas AM&N, and Holmes, from Texas Southern. He had convinced everyone that Stallworth, who played at Alabama A&M, would still be there when the fourth round came, although Noll was skeptical.

"He kind of indicated to me -- the way he'd give you that look -- 'You think he's going to be there?' " Nunn said, laughing.

Falling into place

The Steelers also had their eyes on a skinny linebacker who played at Kent State.

Team scouts had visited Kent to check out a small, speedy receiver who had been on the Olympic track team by the name of Gerald Tinker.

"I went in there in August of ' 73," said Tim Rooney, then a scout with the Steelers. "I saw them at practice and talked to Don James, their coach. He said, 'I don't know how I can tell you about this other kid, he's tall and doesn't run fast.'

"So, you give the guy a courtesy look," Rooney said.

His look turned to awe. It was Jack Lambert.

"I was stunned," Tim Rooney said. "He had those skinny legs, he was about 190 pounds, 6-4, and not a super-speed guy. I watched him in practice and I said, 'This kid is growing on me.' I put a real good grade on him. I went out on a limb."

Lambert was an easy choice to make in the second round. Still, "It took a lot of conviction on our part to take a guy like that," Tim Rooney said.

The Steelers had an interminable wait through the third round. Noll hated to trade draft choices, but in 1973 he had sent the third-round pick to Oakland for defensive lineman Tom Keating. The Steelers were to play a defense they thought fit Keating well. It was a bad fit and Keating was gone after one season.

"Well," Noll said, laughing, "that didn't work out. People wanted to trade you people they don't want, so you're getting someone else's castoff and giving up potential. That's the reason I didn't like to do that and that was a good case of it. I don't know why I did it there."

They had two picks in the fourth round, the first acquired in a trade with New England. Stallworth was still available when the Steelers' turn came in the fourth round and they grabbed him. With their second pick in the fourth, they chose defensive back Jimmy Allen. He played four seasons with the Steelers then was traded to Detroit, where he played safety for several more years.

The fifth round came and again the Steelers knew who they wanted: Noll loved the undersized center from Wisconsin.

"I saw him in the East-West game," Noll said. "Everybody kind of downgraded him on his size. He wasn't 6-6 or 300 pounds or anything like that, but he was playing against a defensive tackle who had those dimensions and he handled him like nothing. I saw that and I said the heck with the size, this guy has the wherewithal to play."

So they chose Mike Webster in the fifth round.

The rest of the Steelers' 1974 draft choices did little to distinguish themselves, but the best draft in the history of the NFL was complete.

Something happened that would help to accelerate the development of the class of ' 74. NFL veterans went on strike in training camp and Steeler rookies had St. Vincent College to themselves for several weeks.

"The strike didn't change their talent," Noll said. "The talent did it. But we were fortunate they were able to help us as quickly as they did because of all the work we were able to get done because of the strike."

Lucky and good

Looking back on the 1974 draft, Noll laughed and said, "It's nice to be lucky." While there had to be some of that, the Steelers went into the draft with a plan, knew the players they wanted and got them.

Back then, good scouts and hard work paid off more than it does today. The draft was held shortly after the Super Bowl so there was not months of information collection and hundreds of player workouts throughout the winter and spring, as there is today. Computers played little part and agents did not try to orchestrate every pre-draft moment of their clients.

In 1974, a team with a good staff of scouts and a coach on solid ground could dominate. The BLESTO service, headed by former Steeler defensive back Jack Butler and based in Pittsburgh, was the best of its kind. Only a handful of teams belonged to BLESTO, and the Steelers was one of them.

"One other thing," said Tim Rooney. "You always had six to eight teams that were firing their coaches. When they do that, it drastically affects their draft because you have a whole set of new coaches come in with new demands on the scouting department, the type of guys they want. You keep changing the model and there's little chance of being consistent and successful.

"We always had the model there, developed by Artie and Chuck. Chuck kept the coaches in line and Artie the scouts, and we were consistent and had the benefit of getting a good start because we were always on the same page. Other teams also were trying to make the big hit, turn their team around in one year. We never had that. You could really draft the best player available."

In 1974, the Steelers drafted almost all of them.


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