1974 - THE BEGINNING OF A FOOTBALL DYNASTY
The NFL has dominated professional football for so many years that it is easy to forget that throughout its history the league has had to fight off the attention of several other potential suitors attempting to have a share of the gold pot that is professional football.
1973 saw a renewed attack on the NFL’s dominance. This time it was the World Football League, the inspiration of Gary L. Davidson, who had honed his expertise in sports organising strong rival leagues in basketball and hockey.
In 1974, the World Football League held its first collegiate draft a week before the NFL held their lottery at the end of January. With all the established franchises glancing over their shoulders at the fledging World Football League, the Steelers head coach, Chuck Noll, had what I consider to be one of the best drafts ever for one team.
Before the selection process, Noll briefed the media with his usual observation before every draft - the Steelers would be taking the best football player available, regardless of position. That he certainly did.
His first two picks alone, Lynn Swann and Jack Lambert would have been immense additions for any team. But add John Stallworth and then Mike Webster and the final pieces of what became a Super Bowl winning team had been put together.
Under the shadow of the infant league, coach Noll had shone a spotlight on a Pittsburgh team that finally were going to become champions. Noll had cast aside the Steelers image of perennial losers and was now about to move the Steelers up to the final level.
Interestingly, both Noll’s first two picks had also been drafted by the World Football League with Memphis naming Swann in their second round and Lambert selected by Philadelphia in the sixth.
“I just couldn’t keep my eyes off Swann in the practices the week before the Senior Bowl,” Noll enthused. “I had heard about him of course, but the close up was even better.”
Whereas, Swann admitted his interest in football wasn’t great and that he would consider the offers from both teams that had selected him. He also had other career choices that he could pursue and emphasised that he wouldn’t think about playing football unless he was a starter.
Within a week of the draft, the Steelers added two free agents to their roster, Randy Grossman, tight end from Temple and Quincy Daniels running back from Cincinnati. The Steelers assistant coach Dan Radakovich, who had previously coached with the Cincinnati Bearcats, helped the signing of Daniels.
The NFL was still trying to establish its brand after the 1970 merger with the American Football League and having a competitor in the WFL to contend with was more than a nuisance. When the rival league held their draft a week earlier than the NFL went through the process, not only did they chose players coming out of college, but they selected many of the current NFL players.
In 1973, Babe Parilli coached the Steelers quarterbacks. The following January, Parilli left under a cloud. Was he fired or did he resign? In March, as the head coach with the New York Stars, after selecting Joe Namath with his first draft choice he included five Steelers with the rest of his picks.
His second choice was Terry Hanratty (pictured left), who had been unhappy with his role as Terry Bradshaw’s backup, followed by Frenchy Fuqua, defensive back John Dockery, defensive end Craig Hanneman and tackle Gordon Gravelle. The ex Steeler coach also picked up wide receiver Dave Williams, who had recently been released by the Steelers.
Following their draft, the fledgling league allocated the rights of any player cut by the NFL by assigning two NFL teams to each of the WFL. Not surprisingly, the New York Stars took the rights to any Pittsburgh or New York Jets players.
Of the established NFL stars, some from the current Super Bowl champions the Miami Dolphins, who jumped ship to the WFL, none of the Steelers stars decided the switch would proved to be a good career move. Only the Steelers tenth round picks guard Jim Kregel and running back Dave Atkinson went over to the WFL, both joining the Hawaiians.
Dan Rooney was asked about the WFL draft and didn’t hold back with his reply. “In the first place, I think that draft was a joke,” he offered. “They did it just for publicity. For instance, someone picked O.J. Simpson who had just signed a new five-year agreement with the Buffalo Bills.”
“One of the big things in pro football is to have team morale, to get rid of the crazy little distractions which create dissension. We think coach Chuck Noll has built a fine young club, which could go all the way to the Super Bowl. You must have team morale to do it. We hope the WFL doesn’t spoil it.”
On the question as to whether the WFL would actually begin to operate, Rooney observed, “I’m sceptical about Jacksonville. We have played several exhibitions there and never drew well. I would hate to be paying for 250 in tryout camp at today’s prices. Our airplane travel, for instance, is going to cost almost double. It’s a very poor time to start a new league.
I guess the Steelers high for training camp was around 125 when Dr. Jock Sutherland was rebuilding in Hershey in 1946. But we moved them by bus and day coach, a lot cheaper than airplanes today.”
In the middle of May 1974, Dan Rooney told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that he was looking forward to the rookie camp scheduled for the end of the month. He was hoping the players wouldn’t go on strike and that the veterans would, as was usual, attend the rookie drills.
The Post-Gazette also reported that the four linebackers drafted that year by the Steelers had signed with the team and that 16 of 21 their draftees had also been signed. The rookie linebackers were certainly going up against it fighting for a slot on the team.
The Steelers veteran linebacker crew were Jack Ham, Henry Davis, Andy Russell, George Webster, Loren Toews and Ed Bradley. Rookie Jack Lambert, named the Mid-American Conference Defensive Player of the Year in ’72, would be tried at middle linebacker.
The Steelers quarterback situation for the year was now almost settled. This was in spite of the unsettling distraction of the WFL. Hanratty (pictured right) signed a new two-year deal with the Steelers shortly after being picked by the New Stars in their draft.
“It was after that when Parilli contacted me,” Terry Bradshaw said. “I flew to New York with my lawyer to meet Parilli and club officials. After two hours we said no and flew back here. We set a higher price and expect it to be forthcoming.”
Asked what would he do if he were given an outstanding offer, he replied, “I will have to look at more than just the money. I owe a lot to the Steelers, and of course they owe me too, as one who helped them from the cellar into the playoffs the last two seasons.
Some people will naturally say I should grab the big money, but I wasn’t raised that way. Here I am a member of fine organisation with a winning future. It would be tough to leave. Of course, there’s always a question of whether the new league will make the grade. Babe Parilli is enthusiastic, but of course he could be prejudiced.”
Hanratty reported the cracked ribs and sprained wrist that handicapped him the previous season had healed. He confirmed his determination to stick with the Steelers with his new two-year contract plus an option year.
“I wasn’t offered anything concrete by Parilli, but I am sure I could have obtained more money than here,” Hanratty said. “There are a lot of other considerations. I’ve enjoyed playing for the Rooneys. I’m from Butler and have lots of friends here and I took the Stars situation into the picture. They will be playing before small crowds on Randalls Island, the personnel has to be poor throughout the league and I just wouldn’t like it.”
The Steelers third-string quarterback Joe Gilliam (pictured right) said he had received indirect feelers from Detroit and Hawaii of the WFL. “I personally feel that I can lead our team right now and I aspire to be number one, but I also realise I have a lot to learn.
My dad (assistant coach at Tennessee State) has taken a wait and see attitude towards the new league. Maybe I will be better prepared after two more seasons in the NFL if I then got a big offer from the WFL.”
Baby of the quarterback group, rookie Frank Zolch, admitted he was bucking big leaguers in trying for the local quarterback job. “But I’ve always wanted a crack at it and I’ll do my best. The Steelers gave me a nice bonus and a two-year contract. But of course I have to make the squad.
My college coach, Dan Boisture, is the head man of the Detroit Wheels and he says there will be a job for me with his team if I don’t make it with the Steelers.”
1974 RULE CHANGES
There were several major rules changes introduced by the NFL in 1974, primarily on kicks. It’s now taken for granted that on kick-offs, the kicking team can be offside if they go too early, but that only became a rule in 1974.
The owners thought they would eliminate boring fair catches with the new rule, but Chuck Noll didn’t like the change and made his criticism obvious to the Pittsburgh Post Gazette. “No coach would be dummy enough to punt the ball to our Glen Edwards now. Everybody will be aiming out of bounds and the coffin corner kick will return to pro football.”
Edwards (pictured left) was the six-foot, 185-pound, elusive Steeler safety who became a favourite by thrilling fans with his exploits while escaping impossible situations when returning punts.
“Our punter, Bobby Walden, will concentrate on coffin corner (nickname for a kick that goes out of bounds inside the 10-yard line) in training camp this summer,” Noll remarked.
“Roy Gerela will be tried too. He can punt pretty good. If they can’t do it, maybe we’ll have to get someone else.”
Noll was so frustrated by the rule change that the Post-Gazette suggested he was planning some unorthodox strategy to use in exhibition games to bring attention to the crassness of the new rule.
“Don’t be surprised if Walden lines up 25 yards back instead of 15 yards,” he opined. “Of course we have no center who can get the back to him. But we can have it passed to an up-back who can fiddle around and throw a lateral to Walden.” Another idea mooted was to have Walden only 7.5 yards back and get away quick kicks.
After reviewing films, Noll figured his kicking unit would lose 10 seconds on coverage under the new rule. They got going in six or seven seconds under the old rule, now waste that time waiting. It will take three more once the welcome sound of shoe-thudding against the ball is heard.
“If we continued to punt normally, the other team would run down our throats,” Noll added.
NFL FREEDOM RULES
The negotiations between the NFL players and owners were still ongoing and no nearer reaching agreement on their “freedom issues.”
Ted Kheel, the NFL owners’ labour counsel, commented, “The present system in football does not impose an absolute restraint on player transfers. This system has worked reasonably well. The players’ demand for ‘no system’ would constitute anarchy.”
The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette observed that it was nonsense for a reasonable man such as Kheel to believe that the feudal system the owners had created was the only system their business could continue to survive under.
Former Baltimore Colts tight end, John Mackey, who had led the players in their collective bargaining talks four years previously, was quite emphatic with his views. “If freedom will destroy the NFL, then the NFL should be destroyed.”