Dick Hoak retires after 45 years with Steelers as coach and player

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Change was never a big part of Dick Hoak's life.

He has lived in the same split-level house in Hempfield since 1972, driven the same route to work for 34 years, received a paycheck from the same ownership group for 45 years.

In a profession where assistant coaches bounce from one team to another and rarely survive a coaching change, he has remained with the same organization for five decades, both as a player and position coach.

Beginning today, though, life will change.

For the first time since he took a call from Chuck Noll's secretary in 1972, Hoak will no longer have to make the 30-mile drive to work in Pittsburgh.

Hoak, 67, announced his retirement yesterday as the Steelers running backs coach, ending a professional relationship with the team that began as a player in 1961 and evolved into a familial bond with the Rooney family that has lasted almost as long as Bill Cowher has been living.

"I just think it's time," Hoak said. "Some day you guys will feel that way, too. You'll just feel it. You'll know."

Hoak thanked the Rooney family, including the late founder and owner, Art Sr., for letting him stay so long with the organization. After 10 years as a running back with the Steelers, he spent the past 34 years as the team's running backs coach, making him the National Football League's longest-tenured assistant coach.

"I'm really sorry he is going to retire, but I have to say he deserves it," said team chairman Dan Rooney, the only person in the Steelers organization with more seniority than Hoak. "He earned it. His contribution to the Steelers was second to none."

Pam Panchak, Post-Gazette photos
Steelers running backs coach Dick Hoak was the National Football League's longest-tenured assistant with 34 years with the team. He started with the Steelers as a running back in 1961.
Click photo for larger image.

A Steelers lifer

A look at Don Hoak's career with the Steelers as a player and a coach.
Seventh-round pick out of Penn State.
1965: Led the Steelers in rushing with 426 yards.
1968: Led the Steelers in rushing with 858 yards. Selected to the Pro Bowl.
1969: Led the Steelers in rushing with 531 yards.
1970: Retired as a player after the season, finishing his career with 3,965 yards, which was second in team history at the time. He currently is fifth.
1972: Hired by Chuck Noll as offensive backfield coach.
1992: Retained on staff when Bill Cowher was hired; named runnings back coach.
2006: Retires as Steelers running back coach.

Hoak's longevity is surpassed only by his loyalty and love for his family and hometown area.

He turned down more lucrative coaching offers from other teams, even other leagues, to remain in Western Pennsylvania and stay with the Steelers. And, despite his constant input and understanding of the offense, he even turned down an opportunity to become an offensive coordinator with the Steelers, preferring to stay out of the limelight and remain in the more anonymous position as running backs coach.

"He was very happy just doing a good job and helping to build a winning team," said Indianapolis Colts coach Tony Dungy, who tried to hire Hoak as offensive coordinator when Dungy became head coach in Tampa Bay in 1996.

"He's really blessed to be able to stay in one place, number one, but to have the desire to do it and not feel he has to go someplace else."

Mike Wagner, a former safety from the Super Bowl teams of the 1970s, showed up at Hoak's news conference on the South Side because "I wanted him to know he's important to us old players, even our defensive players."

Hoak began coaching the running backs in 1972, the same year the Steelers drafted Franco Harris in the first round and beat the Oakland Raiders in the famous "Immaculate Reception" playoff game. His final game -- No. 742 as a player and coach -- was Sunday in Cincinnati.

"He's like a perfect coach," Wagner said. "He knew what he wanted to do. He knew what his contributions would be and he was dedicated to it. He found an ideal situation here. It's great the Rooneys recognized that."

Hoak played with Bobby Layne and Ernie Stautner, Terry Bradshaw and Joe Greene, all Hall of Famers. He coached Franco Harris and Jerome Bettis. And he has five Super Bowl rings to show for being the only assistant coach to work under Noll and Bill Cowher.

"It just goes to show there are different ways of getting things done," Hoak said, when asked about the coaching styles of his former bosses. "Bill's more of a motivator, a player's coach. Chuck wasn't as open. He believed that if you were here, you should be able to motivate yourself."

Hoak was a high school star in Jeannette, played running back and quarterback at Penn State and was drafted in the seventh round in 1961 by the Steelers.

The only time he had to leave the state was in 1971, the year after he retired as a player with the Steelers, when he was a coach and gym teacher at Wheeling (W.Va.) Catholic High School. But even that stint was short-lived.

In 1972, he got a call from former Pitt coach Carl DePasqua to work as an assistant coach with the Panthers. A week later, he got a call from Noll's secretary, asking if he was interested in becoming an assistant with the Steelers.

"I set up an interview for Pitt with Carl and for coach Noll the same day," Hoak said. "The first interview was with coach Noll and after I walked out of there, I called Coach DePasqua and told him I was going to take the job with the Steelers and he said I was crazy if I didn't."

He was right.

Pitt went 1-10 in 1972 and DePasqua and his coaching staff were fired.

"So I guess I made the right choice," Hoak said.

Hoak's retirement won't be much different than his professional life because he doesn't plan to venture far from his roots.

"People ask me what are you going to do when you retire and I say, I'm retiring, I'm not going to do anything," Hoak said. "I'm going to take it easy. My wife [Lynn] and I will take a vacation. People say, where you going to move to, and I say, I'm not going to move anywhere. If I want to go somewhere, I'll go there for a week and come back home."

As a player, Hoak led the Steelers in rushing three times (1965, 1968, 1969) and finished as the team's fifth-leading rusher all time with 3,965 yards. He is also seventh all time with 25 rushing touchdowns.

As a coach, he had opportunities to jump to other organizations, even without leaving the city. He was offered the head coach position with the Pittsburgh Maulers of the old United States Football League in 1985, but declined out of loyalty to the Rooneys.

"I just couldn't see myself going across the street to a rival football league in Pittsburgh," Hoak said. "There was no way I could have done that."

In 1996, after the Steelers lost to the Cowboys in Super Bowl XXX, Hoak was the first person Dungy called when he became head coach in Tampa Bay. Like Hoak, Dungy was a former player and assistant coach with the Steelers. Hoak, though, declined the offer to run the Buccaneers' offense.

"There's a saying in football among the assistant coaches: You are hired to be fired," Hoak said. "I've actually beaten the system. I've been hired, but I haven't been fired. That was important to me. That's why I stayed here.

"I had offers. That wasn't important to me. My family was more important to me than that stuff. My kids [daughters Kelly and Katie and son, Rich] all went through the same school system, first through 12th grade. They all went to Penn State, of course. If I needed a doctor, a dentist, a roofer, a new furnace, I knew who to call. ... That was important to me."

Dick Hoak, answers questions at a news conference announcing his retirement yesterday. Hoak, a Jeannette High graduate who played in college at Penn State, said never leaving Western Pennsylvania was a bonus.
Click photo for larger image.

Gerry Dulac can be reached at gdulac@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1466.


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