Steelers preview: The more things change, the more they stay the same
Todd Haley is in the rare position of starting a new job with an organization with which he already has a long history.
Father Dick Haley, then team director of player personnel, talks to the news media about the team's top draft choice, in 1982, Walter Abercrombie.
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Many changes occurred since Todd Haley last worked in Pittsburgh. Smokestacks disappeared, the air cleared, the sun splashes against new buildings made of glass, three modern pro sports venues popped up, and a subway went down under the Allegheny.
So many changes. Yet so many things Haley once revered about Pittsburgh remain. Rooneys own the Steelers, they have camp at Saint Vincent College, they appear in Super Bowls, the natives remain unpretentious, Terrible Towels wave and -- as he settles with his own large family in the place where he grew up -- Upper St. Clair has the same high school football coach.
"Jim Render is still there!" Haley states as if finding a long lost class ring. "He was my high school coach."
Todd Haley worked for the Steelers as a waterboy, ballboy and Sunday visiting sideline helper up to 1985, when his father Dick was in the midst of a 20-year career as their player personnel director.
Plenty happened since he left, and not just to Pittsburgh. Haley pursued golf, played on pro mini-tours, taught that game professionally and coached the team at Jacksonville University. Then he spun a career 180 and found a job in the NFL as a scouting intern. That led to the coaching profession. He became an offensive coordinator whose Arizona team nearly upset the Steelers in Super Bowl XLIII, became a head coach of a rag-tag Kansas City team that did upset the Steelers, and finds himself working for the Steelers in a more important role than his previous jobs with them.
"So many of my early childhood memories revolve around the Steelers," said Haley, 45 and the father of four girls and a boy with his wife, Chrissy. "Whether it was going to the Super Bowl -- and the Rooneys would put all the kids together in a couple of rooms, and a lot of those people I was hanging out with are still here. So, if I'm walking and someone asks to sign a Terrible Towel, I have firsthand experience with the Terrible Towel.
"It's very meaningful to me, and enough has stayed the same in my mind to make it really special, and when you feel like that, it makes you want to do special things and come in and be part of greatness."
What does Haley see as greatness? A quarterback at the top of the passer rating? An offense that rings up big numbers? A path that would lead to another head coaching job?
"I want to go to New Orleans and get my first Super Bowl ring where my father got his first."
Dick Haley, a Midway native who played for Pitt and the Steelers before joining the team's front office in 1971, received the first of four rings after the '74 season when the Steelers beat the Minnesota Vikings in Super Bowl IX in New Orleans.
Before his son can follow the same path, he must deal with both change and nostalgia in his new job. He is charged with overhauling the Steelers offense, turning it into a more efficient scoring machine and returning it to his early ballboy days when they could strike at will on ground or air.
It has been a somewhat rough beginning this summer. Running backs went down to injuries with regularity and some severity. Pro Bowl receiver Mike Wallace skipped all of training camp before returning in time to get ready for the regular season. Yet, with Ben Roethlisberger, Haley believes they have the most important part of any offense.
"You need a good quarterback, and I feel like with Ben the sky's the limit," Haley said.
There was an uneasy feeling when Bruce Arians was replaced by Haley. He and his quarterback seemed to ignore each other for a while, not even talking. Roethlisberger was close to Arians and made no secret about it. Haley came with a reputation that he rubbed some of his quarterbacks and receivers the wrong way.
Through August, however, there has been no hint of trouble, but then no games that count have been played.
"Having now worked with him up close and personal -- I already thought he was really, really good -- he's impressive," Haley said of Roethlisberger. "He has high football IQ, he can make all the throws. He's big, strong, he can create plays when needed. That's a big, big piece right there. Everything starts there with play design and things like that.
"That makes your job as a coach a lot more fun. And on top of that you have two really good veteran backup quarterbacks. You count on Ben being around for a while, so you're not necessarily in the business of having to develop somebody, but you have two proven guys who have played in the NFL and are really good themselves. It's a nice dynamic for us across board at quarterback."
Players say they still are not sure what to expect from their new offense, but they were sure about one thing -- Haley is determined to improve their running game and make them more efficient as a passing team.
"I can't say there's an emphasis on running the ball more," quarterback Byron Leftwich said. "I'm quite sure we're trying to improve on everything. We're just trying to be better as a whole. We don't really know what our identity is going to be on offense. Even if we do know, we haven't proven it or shown it."
That starts Sunday night in Denver, where the Steelers were stunned by the Broncos in overtime, 29-23, in their playoff game Jan. 8. Since then, they have made changes to their offense besides switching coordinators; they rebuilt their offensive line, for one.
"If we can be good up front, you have a chance to be successful in whatever you're doing," Haley said. "If we can continue to develop and go forward and stay healthy, you have a potential dominant group."
Upon Haley's arrival, they began talking about switching tackle Willie Colon to guard. After they drafted guard David DeCastro and tackle Mike Adams in the first two rounds, they made it official. Haley said it was a collective decision.
Mike Tomlin insists it was a one-man decision for him to hire Haley, that he was not influenced by any of his bosses. It wasn't Tomlin, though, who initially went after Haley as much as Haley went after the job. He knew Tomlin from NFL meetings and coaching against him when the Cardinals and Chiefs played the Steelers. They were by no means close.
After team president Art Rooney II did not renew Arians' contract, Haley -- fired by the Chiefs as head coach -- went to work to get an interview. He let the word be known he was interested, then called Tomlin. They set up what was to be a quick visit at the Senior Bowl practices in Mobile, Ala.
"The next thing you know, it was four hours later," Haley said. "You knew there was some positive vibe going on. Mike and I, we think lot alike in a lot of different areas. It's going to be a lot of fun. And it's great to be around not just a different personality, but a guy who believes in a lot the way you believe."
Todd Haley is Pittsburgh, even if he has not been back much. He left for college and was a member of the golf teams at Miami and Florida and entered that world after he graduated from North Florida in 1991. He credits his job as coaching the golf team at Jacksonville -- has there ever been another college golf coach become a NFL head coach? -- with helping him coach football. Chuck Noll always said that just playing golf with someone can tell you a lot about that person.
Haley became a teaching pro at a course in Long Island when his father was just down the road as the player personnel director for the New York Jets. One day, instead of going south to play and teach golf for the winter, he asked his dad if he could find him a job in football.
"When I started blocking off the [golf] lesson book on Sundays to watch the football games -- that was your busiest day, you're money-making day as a teacher -- I knew it probably wasn't for me."
Dick Haley put him to work as a scouting intern, and he would stay up nights making tapes and "cutups" and whatever else he was asked to do. Then-Jets coach Bill Parcells was going to give him the team's Southeast scouting job, a secure position with steady income.
"I always wanted to coach," Haley said. "That was always in my blood, I think it was in my dad's blood actually."
The Jets had a less-secure quality control coaching job open that would pay little. Haley asked Parcells for that job instead; the coach told him he was nuts and gave it to him. That was 1997. By 2001, the Chicago Bears hired him to coach their wide receivers. Dallas did the same in '04 and promoted him to passing game coordinator in '06. Ken Whisenhunt hired him as his offensive coordinator in '07. The Chiefs hired him as their head coach in '09.
So, the Steelers are just a steppingstone then for the still-young Haley to find another head coaching job?
"It's not even on my radar," Haley insists. "I'm so happy to be back in Pittsburgh. We're building a house. My wife's and my attitude is, we'd like to stay here, as I was able to, and have our kids kind of spend a lot of time in the South Hills in Pittsburgh. It's become such a phenomenal city, it's changed so much downtown. We'd like to stay here and have some fun."
First Published September 6, 2012 12:00 am