Steelers of '60s didn't win often, but the team was a-changing characters like Bobby Layne
Steelers John Henry Johnson, left, Bobby Layne, Dick Hoak and Buddy Dial hold the original Steelmark in 1962. The logo was adopted that year for the team's helmets.
Share with others:
The go-go '60s came with some radically different bookends, and not just with the Steelers.
It started with uncomplicated times that conjured images of Camelot. Bill Mazeroski's home run slew the Yankees. A new president played touch football on the White House lawn. And some swashbuckling Steelers introduced Baby Boomers to life in the fast Layne, as in quarterback Bobby Layne, along with coach Raymond (Buddy) Parker's rogues' gallery of Tom (The Bomb) Tracy, Buddy Dial, Eugene (Big Daddy) Lipscomb, John Henry Johnson, Ed Brown, et al.
"Lots of characters," mused Dick Hoak, who was a rookie running back in 1961 and a witness to history before he collected five Super Bowl rings as the longest-tenured assistant coach in franchise history.
It ended with Rocky Bleier wounded in Vietnam, a 13-game losing streak under future emperor Chuck Noll and the Steelers ready to make a fresh start in a new alignment and the first home of their own.
The one constant in a decade of tumultuous change? The franchise again failed to win a title. They may not have been the Same Old Steelers, but they posted the same old results. It's always darkest before the dawn.
Through the lens of time, the early '60s were less innocent than they appeared. But before pro football took off like an Atlas rocket in the Mercury Program, pro quarterbacks still partied into the wee hours and then drew up plays in the dirt on crisp autumn afternoons.
It has been said that Robert Lawrence Layne, who quarterbacked Detroit to three NFL titles in the 1950s, never once threw a pass that spiraled and never passed up a night out. Mr. Layne, who died in 1986, never got the Steelers over the hump in his twilight years, but he is a member of the Legends Team and one of the all-time free spirits.
"He used to say he wanted to run out of money and breath at the same time, and he came pretty close," said Mr. Hoak. "But he was as good a two-minute quarterback as there was."
And all the stories of late-night antics?
"They were all true," he added. "A lot of them you can't print, and the ones you can't print were true, too."
A Hall of Famer who played without a face mask, Mr. Layne passed for 66 touchdowns and ran for eight more in his time with the Steelers, during which the perennial losers were 33-28-3. The high point came in 1962, the year of the Cuban Missile Crisis and the year the Steelers first put the American Iron and Steel Institute's Steelmark logo on the right side of their gold helmets. Their nine wins stood as a franchise record for a decade, and they earned a spot in the Playoff Bowl, also known as the Losers Bowl, pitting the runner-ups in each division against each other.
Asked once how he could play so well after staying out all night, Mr. Layne once said: "I sleep fast."
As proof, the Steelers had assembled in Miami over New Year's Eve for the Jan. 6, 1963, game against the Lions. Mr. Hoak ran into his quarterback in the hotel lobby at about 1:30 a.m.
"He said we were going upstairs to play cards, and that I was going to be his good luck charm," Mr. Hoak recalled. "Before you know it, it was 5 or 6 in the morning and we had a meeting at 9 o'clock. I said, 'Bobby, I've got to get some sleep.' And he said, 'Aw, go on, your luck's no good anyway.' When it came time for the meeting, his hair was combed, he was freshly shaved and it looked like he had slept for 10 hours. I guess he could sleep fast."
The Steelers lost, 17-10, to the Lions in the second postseason game in their history. It was Mr. Layne's final game, and his last pass was an interception in the final seconds. It was also the game the Steelers switched to black helmets but kept the new logo, which was put only on the right side. (The official version is that the logo was attached only to one side to see how it was received, and when the fans liked it, that's the way it stayed. Conspiracy theorists spin all kinds of variations, however.)
The times were a-changing, and not just because the team had introduced the novelty of cheerleaders. Yes, the Steelerettes and the Ingots adorned the sidelines in the '60s.
By 1963, the year the San Diego Chargers of the upstart American Football League put the steroid Dianabol on their training camp tables, future president George W. Bush was a senior cheerleader at his prep school in Massachusetts and a fateful day awaited President Kennedy in Dallas.
The Steelers had been stunned by the off-season death of All-Pro defensive lineman Eugene Big Daddy Lipscomb, who died of a heroin overdose on May 10, 1963, in a Baltimore apartment after a night out in his new yellow Cadillac convertible. At 6-foot-6, 290 pounds, he played just two seasons with the Steelers but was named to the Legends Team. In retrospect, his death was an early illustration of a decade notorious for sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll.
America, in turn, struggled to come to grips with the Nov. 22 assassination of President Kennedy. Three days later, the NFL went ahead with its Sunday schedule, and the Steelers settled for a tie with the Bears. That game was played just hours after Lee Harvey Oswald was killed on live TV by Jack Ruby.
In the final game of that season, the Steelers needed to beat the Giants -- a team they had shut out 31-0 earlier at home -- to advance to the NFL title game for the first time.
The inside story, as once written by Myron Cope in True magazine, was that quarterback Ed Brown decided to go on the wagon in the week leading up to the game. He played shakily, and the Steelers suffered a sobering 33-17 defeat to finish fourth.
"After that year, things started going bad," Mr. Hoak said.
Parker's strange ways
To this day, Buddy Parker trails only Chuck Noll and Bill Cowher on the all-time win list. His teams posted winning records four times in eight years, matching the number of winning seasons compiled by all of his predecessors combined. Yet he left the Steelers with a clouded legacy.
Preferring veterans over rookies, Mr. Parker mortgaged the future for the present. In 1961, for example, he traded five of the first seven picks, including the No. 1, but still got Myron Pottios and Dick Hoak. (The two players were opponents in a 1956 WPIAL title game, with Mr. Hoak's Jeannette team prevailing over Mr. Pottios' Charleroi.) Two years later, the Steelers didn't pick until the eighth round because all the early picks had been packaged in trades.
A moody, brooding man with a volatile temper, Mr. Parker often cut or traded players after a galling loss.
"He was an excellent offensive coach. And he was great when you won, but you never knew what would happen when you lost," Mr. Hoak said.
"On a plane ride home, he would walk back in the aisle of the plane and ask a player to get up so he could sit next to a guy who may have fumbled or dropped a pass. He'd sit there and call him every name in the book," he added. "One time, we lost a preseason game, and he put the whole team on waivers. The commissioner's office called the next day and said he couldn't do that. He told them 'Why not? They all stink.' He would just lose it."
Fans never forgave Mr. Parker for a trade he made three days after the 1963 loss to the Giants. To shore up his defense, he traded receiver Gilbert (Buddy) Dial -- a fan favorite -- to the Cowboys for the rights to negotiate with defensive lineman Scott Appleton. Mr. Appleton then signed with the AFL's Houston Oilers, and the Steelers were left empty-handed.
The typical sentiment of irate callers who reached Mr. Parker's home was: "You must be crazy."
In other fits of rage, Mr. Parker often threatened to quit only to be talked into coming back. But midway through a winless exhibition season in 1965, when U.S. combat troops had already been dispatched to a place called South Vietnam, he resigned. This time, it was accepted, and the Steelers started over.
"When this team gets lucky, it'll be lucky for 10 years," Mr. Parker once said.
No one could see the light at the end of the tunnel just yet.
Younger Rooneys take over
In 1964, the Beatles appeared on the "Ed Sullivan Show," Cassius Clay won the heavyweight title from Sonny Liston, and marchers for civil rights sang "We Shall Overcome."
And on Sept. 6 of that year, Steelers owner Arthur J. Rooney was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Making the speech on his behalf was David L. Lawrence, former mayor and governor, who was a force behind the idea of a Three Rivers Stadium as part of Pittsburgh's Renaissance.
An NFL pioneer, The Chief had argued successfully in 1956 for the right of the players to form a union. He endorsed the system under which NFL owners agreed to share TV revenues. And he was even offered the job of commissioner after his friend and one-time partner, Bert Bell, died watching a Steelers-Eagles game in Philadelphia in 1959. Although he turned down the job, he helped broker the deal that seated Alvin (Pete) Rozelle on the 23rd ballot in 1960, just as the upstart AFL challenged the football establishment.
But the Steelers still hadn't won a title, and Mr. Rooney often ducked down alleys to avoid his critics who held him responsible for every bad trade, every bad personnel decision and every bitter defeat -- all of which were in plentiful supply.
"Nobody feels any worse than I do about losing," Mr. Rooney told those who would listen. "Some of those years were good. It was all fun. We traveled on a train or a bus, and you got to know everybody. You got close with everybody."
The torch had been passed to a new generation of Rooneys, however.
Dan, who was less than a year old when the franchise was founded, took over day-to-day operations in the '60s and represented the Steelers in most league matters. He had served the Steelers in every position from water boy to laundry washer, and it was Dan who took back control of the team by accepting Buddy Parker's resignation.
In addition, Arthur Jr., three years younger than Dan, took over scouting and personnel.
The meaning of 'Heidi'
So much happened it was tough to keep up with it all.
The Pill liberated women. Cities were torched in race riots, including one in Pittsburgh after the 1968 assassination of Martin Luther King. More and more Americans felt misled by President Lyndon Johnson, a tough-talking Texan who had declared a war on poverty but left it to his successors to find an exit from Vietnam. There was an arms race, a space race, a generation gap, a credibility gap and the band played on.
The establishment Packers won five NFL titles in seven years under Vince Lombardi -- the coach, not the trophy -- who was credited with saying winning isn't everything, it's the only thing. The anti-establishment AFL, with its two-point conversion and names on the backs of jerseys, lit up scoreboards and packaged a Beaver Falls quarterback as Broadway Joe Namath. After a spending spree almost wrecked both leagues, a merger was worked out to create the Super Bowl and a common player draft.
Meanwhile, a 1965 Harris survey registered a seismic shift. Sports fans said they preferred football to the national pastime of baseball by a margin of 41 percent to 38 percent. The "Heidi" game of 1968 between the Jets and Raiders, when TV cut away from a dramatic finish to show a movie, convinced the networks of the power of America's passion.
In Pittsburgh, John Henry Johnson became the first 1,000 -yard rusher in franchise history, performing the feat twice in a Hall of Fame career. On Nov. 28, 1965, Ray Mansfield played at center against the Browns and remained at the position for 181 more games. The Steelers had nine passes intercepted in a 1965 game with the Eagles to tie an NFL record. They also allowed 12 sacks in a 1966 game against the Cowboys, a record shared with three other teams. The Steelers trotted out a 1967 uniform with a gold V-shape; it was called the Batman jersey because it resembled the outfit worn by Adam West, TV's caped crusader.
Leaving Forbes Field
While the concrete shell of Three Rivers Stadium rose near the Bridge To Nowhere, the Steelers played their final games at Forbes Field and Pitt Stadium while practicing at the Allegheny County property of South Park.
The players dressed in what was a Red Cross shelter, which they called the Hospital. In the absence of lockers, players hung their clothes on hooks. The showers, when they worked, often lacked hot water. Rain or snow barged in through broken windows. The commodes had no seats to leave up. There was no track to run on, so the players ran through the woods. Wily veterans would get to the tree line, sit down for a rest and then rejoin the rookies as they ran back to the Hospital. After the first frost, the field would turn into a quagmire. Practice was sometimes held in a barn, but the dust from leftover hay clogged eyes and noses. Players had to drive to team headquarters Downtown in the Roosevelt Hotel to get paid.
But the place had its moments.
"Buddy Parker would practice in the mornings and have meetings in the afternoon. We'd go out to lunch at the South Park Inn, grab a couple of beers and come back for the afternoon meeting," Mr. Hoak said. "One day, after the offense met, I walked by the defense's meeting. The lights were off. The projector was running, and there was a click, click, click from a reel of film that had run out. Everybody in that room was asleep."
A man with a plan
After enduring three different coaching reigns in the decade, Dan Rooney launched a coaching search to lift the cloud that hung over the family. Joe Paterno had turned down the job. Cleveland assistant Nick Skorich was under consideration, but it was a Cleveland native and a former Browns player who impressed him the most.
On Jan. 27, 1969, Chuck Noll was introduced to Pittsburgh via a conference call. A defensive coach with the Baltimore Colts, he was asked his thoughts about coming to Pittsburgh, the City of Losers, given the history of the Steelers.
"We'll change history," he replied.
Mr. Noll, who was called The Pope by former coach Paul Brown because he was always right, laid the foundation for the turn-around by selecting Mean Joe Greene from North Texas State with the fourth overall selection in the NFL draft. Terry Hanratty, Jon Kolb and L.C. Greenwood were also chosen in that draft.
Another metamorphosis was afoot. To complete the merger between the AFL and the NFL, the Steelers agreed to bolt the establishment and play the next season in the American Football Conference of the realigned NFL. Art Modell of the Browns said he'd move too if the Steelers went with him, and the Baltimore Colts also switched. Each team got a $3 million payout for moving. For the Steelers, it promised a fresh start.
Before training camp was over, and with President Nixon withdrawing troops from Vietnam, word arrived that Rocky Bleier had been wounded in battle. On Aug. 20, in an ambush in a rice paddy, the Army infantryman was wounded in the left thigh, and shrapnel from a grenade tore into his right leg and foot. A 16th round draft choice out of Notre Dame in 1968, Mr. Bleier received a get well card from The Chief during his recuperation in a Tokyo hospital.
Astronauts had left bootprints on the Moon that summer, but the Steelers tracked more mud into their record book.
They won their first game under Noll, then suffered 13 straight losses -- a record number for a franchise branded as a perennial loser. Joe Greene seethed so much during the streak he once tossed a football into the stands during a game against the Eagles, and he was ejected from two other games for flagrant penalties.
"I'm not going to accept the losing," he said, drawing a line in the dirt.
The Steelers shared the NFL basement with the Bears, whose only win that season was over the Steelers. A coin toss was scheduled in early 1970 to determine who would get the No. 1 pick in the draft.
"Our record didn't change. But our sense of destiny, the way we felt about ourselves, changed under Chuck," said Mr. Greene. "He had a plan."
First Published September 30, 2007 12:00 am