The 1976 Pittsburgh Steelers

1976 EXPANSION DRAFT

The Steelers lost Ed Bradley, Dave Brown and Dave Reavis to the expansion draft for the new Seattle and Tampa franchises. Each existing NFL team was allowed to protect 29 players.

Although their roster had been affected with the loss, the Steelers managed to keep their base team together. Joe Gilliam was protected to enable the Steelers to gain compensation when he is traded.

STEELERS PREPARE FOR THE 1976 DRAFT

In late February, the Steelers personnel department were attending “timing days,” a recent development in pro football.

Dick Haley, the department’s director, explained the schedule to the Pittsburgh Press, “Michigan today, Tulane tomorrow and Pitt is March 4th.”

“The colleges started holding timing days four or five years ago, now all of them are doing,” Haley continued. “”Really, it’s the sensible way to do it. If it wasn’t done this way, the coaches would be running their players in 40-yard sprints every day in the fall. They would never get a decent practice in.

This way every team gets a chance to see the prospects and get basic information – height, weight and speed – at one time. The coaches get everybody out, put them on the scales, line them up and run them 40 yards. It’s usually at the end of the winter conditioning programme, so everybody’s in shape and you get a good, reliable time on them.”

With its abundance of talent, Michigan came in for some special treatment. Tim Rooney, one of the Steelers scouts, joined the defensive line coach George Perles to fly there in Dan Rooney’s new plane.

“We, the Steelers, don’t go to every school,” added Haley. “Blesto does that, but we’ll send our own man when there’s someone we’re specifically interested in. Now, if there were a number 1 draft choice at say, Podunk (editor’s note: denotes or describes an insignificant, out-of-the-way, or fictitious town), we’d be there. You better believe that.”

Haley felt the Steelers had benefitted from the draft being postponed due to the litigation the NFL had been involved in. “Great for us,” he offered. “We got the coaches involved in it. They got a chance to see game films which they wouldn’t have seen if the draft had been held in January.

Being in the Super Bowl, our coaches lost a couple of valuable weeks in January. There was no way they’d have been able to see as many players if we had drafted earlier.”

Having the 28th pick suggested the talent wouldn’t be there when the Steelers choice arrived, but Haley didn’t agree with this. “There are some good football players out there,” he predicted. “People are saying this isn’t a good year, but it’s very good in some positions – running backs and offensive linemen. There are some pretty good defensive linemen around too.”

“That’s right,” agreed Bill Nunn, also in the personnel department. “Maybe they won’t walk in and make the team right off, but in a couple of seasons.”

Looking ahead to the draft, Haley said, “Our test for the next few years is to maintain our position.”

Art Rooney, head of the scouting department, commented, “My dad always says scouts are like horse breeders. They’re eternal optimists and never die because they’re always looking forward to next year’s crop.”

Because of previous trades, the Steelers will have eight picks in the first four rounds.

DICK HALEY

Dick Haley 1963  media photoIn an 2012 article for the Pittsburgh Sports Daily Bulletin, Haley explained how he got into scouting after playing football with the Steelers for four years.

“My last season I was hurt, so the team had me work part-time as a scout. The Steelers took the lead getting into scouting well before most other teams did. Before then teams drafted off of newspapers and magazine articles.

I coached a minor league team in Washington, PA as I did part-time scouting. Blesto had started – Jack Butler had just taken it over. I moved to Atlanta for four years and scouted the Southeast there before they brought me back to Pittsburgh as the Director of Player Personnel.

Art Rooney Jr. was the leader in their scouting advancements. He pushed it further with Dan – they pushed hard on spending time and money to develop their scouting organization. That was the main reason we were able to develop those 70’s teams.

People didn’t have scouting departments and player information then. The Rooneys started by having a guy go to every college in the country and have their own territory. All the scouts went to schools in their area. We started seeing all the players and got accurate measurements for the first time of their height, weight and speed. None of that was available before – it was a big factor in the early years.

THE 1976 DRAFT

As the Steelers entered the 1976 draft, only Mike Collier survived from the previous year when the franchise had the last choice because of their Super Bowl victory. With selections through trades, they expected do better this year, especially with three second round picks.

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette forecast the Steelers would be looking for defensive linemen as a hedge against Joe Greene’s injuries and Ernie Holmes off-field troubles and offensive linemen to fill the gaps after the loss of their three players to the earlier expansion draft.

Art Rooney Jr. told the newspaper that it was a good year for centers. “This year, there are three exceptional ones (Boston College’s Don Macek, Washington’s Ray Pinney and Colorado’s Pete Brock),” Rooney offered. “Brock is likely to go very, very quickly. Tight end is another position with unusual strength this year.”

“We like Bennie Cunningham, but he won’t last long,” Rooney predicted.

STEELERS DRAFT TIGHT END BENNIE CUNNINGHAM WITH #1 PICK

Bennie Cunningham media photo“He’s a big strong kid with good speed and good hands,” enthused Chuck Noll.  “We thought he was the best guy available when it came our time to draft.”

“Cincinnati we interested in me, but I never dreamed I’d be playing for Pittsburgh,” said Cunningham. “I wasn’t sure I’d go in the first round because I had an off-season last year.”

David Hill of Texas A&M and Cunningham of Clemson were rated as the top tight ends, but the Steelers preferred Cunningham for his blocking techniques.

In the second round, the Steelers selected offensive linemen Ray Pinney and Jim Files and a quarterback in Mike Kruczek. The latter choice was perceived as preparing the way for the departure of Joe Gilliam.

If Cunningham is as good as the Steelers believe, why did the twenty seven other teams pass on him?

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette delved into the question and discovered that the player had earned a reputation of having a wealth of talent, but he didn’t give 100 percent all the time. “He’s a head case,” one source told the Gazette. “He could be a great one, but sometimes he feels like playing and sometimes he doesn’t. Clemson started losing last year and he said the heck with it. But on a winning team like the Steelers, he might live up to his potential.”

When Dick Haley was asked about this outside opinion, his response was that the Steelers only like to stress the positive things about their draft choices. “Let’s face it,” Haley added. We’re drafting 28th. The other twenty seven clubs are scouting too, and they’re not going to leave something for us. If this kid was tough in the trenches on every play and playing to his maximum ability in college, he would have long gone by the time we picked.

After earlier spending an afternoon at Clemson talking to the player and his coaches, Haley believes the Steelers made an acceptable gamble and even thinks they may have gotten a steal. “I talked to him about how much he cared about football and whether he really wanted to play and I got a good response. His coaches were positive about him too.”

STEELERS DRAFT RATING

“It’s a real good draft for Pittsburgh,” concluded Ralph Kohl of Blesto. “I’m not saying it’s the best, but it’s one of them. Detroit and Buffalo drafted well, but if you want to see a real draft, look at this one,” pointing to the Seattle one.

Dick Haley commented, “I had a list of nine men and I thought I’d be lucky to get three of them. I got five.” Mike Kruczek was their number one rated quarterback while Blesto rated him third.

  1 Bennie Cunningham TE, Clemson
  2 Ray Pinney OT, Washington
  2 Mike Kruczek QB, Boston College
  2 James Files C,  McNeese State
  3 Ron Coder OG, Penn State
  3 Ernest Pough WR, Texas Southern
  4 Wonder Monds DB, Nebraska
  4 Theo Bell WR, Arizona
  5 Rodney Norton LB, Rice
  6 Gary Dunn DT, Miami
  6 Jack Deloplaine RB, Salem International
  7 Barry Burton TE, Vanderbilt
  8 Ed McAleney DE, Massachusetts
  9 Wentford Gaines DB, Cincinnati
10 Gary Campbell LB, Colorado
11 Rolland Fuchs RB, Arkansas
12 Bill Carroll WR, East Texas State
13 Larry Kain TE, Ohio State
14 Wayne Fields DB, Florida
15 Mel Davis DE, North Texas
16 Randy Butts RB, Nebraska-Kearney
17 Kelvin Kirk

NFL Draft overall

1) Leroy Selmon to Tampa
2) Steve Niehaus to Seattle
3) Chuck Munchie to New Orleans
4) Joe Washington to San Diego
5) Mike Haynes to New England

ROONEY JR. IN 1976 ON THE ART OF DRAFTING

Looking back to the Same Old Steelers days, Art Rooney Jr. said, “In the old days, you were drafting players who could be starting; it was very tense. We used to get up for the draft like we do now for the playoffs. Even in Chuck’s first year in 1969, there was a tremendous urgency to the draft. You would have guys arguing all over the place. Yeah, Chuck’s a low-key guy, but back then there was a lot of stress anyway.”

During the AFL years, we had people stationed all over the country. In the early 60s you were drafting guys you knew you could sign – not guys that were necessarily good athletes. They didn’t even look good on paper.

Art and his brother Dan decided the only route out of the NFL sewers was through clever drafting. Dan and I thought that was the only way to build a team. We talked about what the good teams were doing and where we had to go.

People don’t realise that in those days we gave out more money to people than we were taking home. One time I gave this kid a bigger bonus than my whole salary was. He was a number 7 pick. My wife said that was more money than I make in a year. For my own personal relief, he made the team and stayed for a year.

The Draft Logistics Board, which is adjacent to his desk, was Art Rooney Jr’s baby. When a round was coming up, Rooney liked to see no more than three or four names on his list to keep things manageable.  “One time I came in the room and a coach was putting all these other names up there,” he said. “I said to him, ‘I’ll let you put names on the board when you let me call the plays.’

You talk about pressure, I think Dick Haley’s the best scout in the business, but back then, when the Rooneys did everything and things were so bad – that was pressure. Scouts only had two days to prove their manhood.

I can remember when we (the Rooneys) had to duck into back alleys. Some guy came up to me at a party the other day and said, ‘You’re a genius.’ I almost died. We weren’t geniuses back then. I think the people got the impression the Rooneys were pretty nice guys, but a little dumb. Just think, twenty five years later some guy is calling me a genius.”

LIVING AS WORLD CHAMPIONS

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette highlighted the low profile the Steeler organisation still displayed a low profile, in spite of being two time Super Bowl winners.  It was the tradition in the offices of the Super Bowl winners for the switchboard operator to answer the phone, “World Champions.”

With the Steelers, that custom only lasted a day until their operator was quietly told the Steelers feel they don’t have to tell the people they’ve won. For the same reason, there is no designation of “World Champions” on the Steeler stationery.

Chuck Noll media photoAnother tradition the Steelers broke was displaying the Lombardi trophy on the press guide. When Miami won two straight, they ran a picture of both trophies on their cover gleaming in the sunlight next to a Dolphins helmet.

Explaining the reasoning behind their policy, Dan Rooney explained, “I really feel this is a plus for us. It’s been unique and people recognise us for that. We’ve made an effort to see that the trophies have been displayed in the public around the area so the fans can get a chance to see them. But our thinking is that everybody knows that we’ve won so we don’t have to announce it.”

In the Miami press guide after their second Super Bowl, Don Shula was quoted as saying, “We want to dedicate ourselves… to becoming the NFL’s first Triple Crown winner.” The Post-Gazette predicted there would be no such rhetoric from the Steelers – and certainly not from Chuck Noll. A Steeler spokesman said, “You know what Chuck will say. ‘Our first objective is to make the playoffs.’”

STEELERS SIGN ANOTHER RUNNING BACK

In May, the Steelers signed running back Tommy Reamon who had spurned them in 1974 to sign with the World Football League where he shared the league’s Most Valuable honour with two other players.

Asked if he had any doubts about making the Steelers squad, he replied, “There’s no question about it. I respect them all, but the one thing I believe in is myself as a player.” Reamon’s addition to the roster would make it a competitive training camp for Frenchy Fuqua, Mike Collier and Reggie Harrison.

Reamon was diplomatic in discussing why he didn’t sign with the Steelers. “I was looking to utilise my talents and play as a rookie,” he said. “Those two years improved me.”

As a ninth round selection, he didn’t have much bargaining power when he was drafted so he decided to gamble on playing with the Florida Blazers of the WFL and in 1974 he led the league in rushing with 1,576 yards.

The Blazers coach, Jack Pardee, who was now with the Chicago Bears observed, “I can’t say enough good things about him. I think the world of him. He didn’t start right away, but we kept working him into the line-up.

He demonstrated he can play in this league. He doesn’t have the size of a Franco Harris and he’s not overpowering, but he’s a great competitive. And he played with pain. He separated his shoulder in the championship game and stayed in there."

ANDY RUSSELL SIGNS A ONE YEAR CONTRACT

Andy Russell media photo“I’m definitely going to retire after this season,” Andy Russell said after signing a new contract with the Steelers. Winning a third straight Super Bowl was the main attraction for Russell to sign for his tenth season with the Steelers.

“I had a hard time making the decision,” he told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “I only wanted to do the right thing. I finally decided the lure of the third Super Bowl and the effort to get to it is something I’d like to be part of.

The opportunity for a third straight Super Bowl is a big one and I might have been haunted twenty years from now if I had walked away from that opportunity.”

Russell explained that he had been touched by so many of his teammates personally asking him to come back for another year. “We’ve got an awful lot of quality guys and I respect them and their opinion is important to me.”

QUARTERBACK MINI CAMP

The Steelers annual quarterback camp hosted five quarterbacks. Terry Bradshaw, Terry Hanratty, Joe Gilliam, second-round draft pick Mike Kruczek and free agent John Madeya. They will have four days of classroom work before the rookies arrive on the Friday for a weekend of workout.

“He’s competing for a position on the team, just like everybody else we bring in,” Noll said regarding Gilliam’s status. Asked what Gilliam had to do to win a job, Noll replied that you don’t win one by politicking or speaking out in the paper, a reference to Gilliam saying he was unhappy with his benchwarmer role at the Super Bowl.

“You win a job on the field. You win it by gaining the confidence of your teammates. You’ve got to be willing to pay the price,” Noll explained.

Madeya impressed Noll when he attended a recent try-out at Three Rivers Stadium before signing a contract. Madeya spent a year on the Atlanta taxi squad and also had a try-out with Washington.

RACISM PUT MY SON ON THE BENCH

Joe Gilliam’s father told the Pittsburgh Press that his son blamed the media for his son’s decline as the Steelers starting quarterback. “In every way possible, you the Pittsburgh media have tried to destroy him, Joey told me to tell you. Joey says he’s received the brunt of all the bigotry in Pittsburgh and he considers the media his enemy.”

When Gilliam was drafted by the Steelers in 1972, he had to compete against two-year veteran Terry Bradshaw and Terry Hanratty, a veteran of three years. He eventually attained the opportunity to become the starter in 1974 when he crossed the picket line to enter training camp before the first exhibition game of that season.

Gilliam then led the Steelers to a 5-0 preseason record as Bradshaw struggled with injury, hinting about wanting a trade as his standing began to drop.

With Gilliam at the helm, the Steelers went 4-1-1 including the 35-35 tied game that made NFL history as the first overtime game played after the rule had been introduced that season.

Coach Noll then reverted back to Bradshaw at quarterback with no indication why he had lost confidence in Gilliam. Noll’s decision wasn’t questioned as the Steelers marched on towards the playoffs.

When the offense began to splutter, it was Terry Hanratty who Noll turned to in an attempt to spark the flagging offense. Gilliam reflected on the racial facet of the abuse he was receiving at the time. “No white guy ever had to go through what I have,” he told the media.” I can handle it. Ignorance is what’s wrong with people today. If we can knock down these barriers, we’ll be halfway to a harmonious world. But it’s not just a racial thing. I know that.”

BRADSHAW ENJOYING HIS NEW CAREER

When Terry Bradshaw arrived for the Steelers quarterback camp, he jokingly complained about the calluses on his hand – caused by holding the microphone for his new singing career.

“The first few shows were kind of rough,” he offered. “I couldn’t sleep. I was sick to my stomach. I didn’t know if they’d boo or what.”

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette compared the quarterback who plays in front of 80 million TV fans in the Super Bowl to the nervy performer before a fraction of that audience on the Dinah Shore show. Although Bradshaw is now more relaxed while doing live shows, he commented that he still hates TV, “It’s kind of scary when that red light comes on.”

GILLIAM NO SHOW

Initially, there was no phone call and no explanation from Joe Gilliam who didn’t turn out for the quarterback camp.

After trainer Ralph Berlin obtained the quarterback’s phone number from the player’s father, Gilliam told the Steelers he had injured his elbow and knee when he drove his go-kart into a wall at the weekend.

THE NEXT JOHNNY UNITAS?

The Steelers signed free agent quarterback John Madeya after he came in for a tryout with Coach Noll saying he would get his chance. “That’s the thing that impressed me about Noll,” Madeya said. “He seemed interested in me.”

Before their Super Bowl victories, the Same Old Steelers were best known for being the team that let Johnny Unitas go. Madeya, who started at Louisville for three seasons, broke the collegiate passing records that Unitas set.

Madeya was drafted by the Atlanta Falcons in 1973 and spent the season on their taxi squad before being cut in the 1974 exhibition season. He visited the Redskins camp last season, but felt he was never getting an opportunity to show his ability. “I just left. I was standing around and they weren’t looking at me, so I just took off,” Madeya said.

The Steelers contacted Madeya and Noll explained, “He’s a local young man and we had good reports out of college on him. We’ll look at him in camp and see how he absorbs things. He seemed to have a pretty good grasp of the game when we had him in for a tryout.”

QUARTERBACK CLASS OF FIVE

Mike Kruczek media photoMike Kruczek (picture left), drafted in the second round by the Steelers joined the quarterback camp late after missing his plane from Boston. Coach Noll had allowed the rookie an extra day off so he could attend his graduation ceremony, so Kruczek was irked to arrive even later.

“I had no idea the Steelers were going to draft me, but I figured if they took me in the second round, I must be one of the best quarterbacks in the country,” offered Kruczek. “It’s gonna take a while, but I’m working towards the number two job.”

Kruczek would be playing in the College All-Star game on July 23 and thought it could work in his favour and the opponents would be the Steelers. “Playing against the Super Bowl champions would be one of my biggest thrills,” he said. “I’ll lose a lot of time playing with the All-Stars, but it’s something I’ve been looking forward to for a long time.”

With Joe Gilliam finally in Pittsburgh, the Steelers quarterback camp was completed by Terry Hanratty and John Madeya, all competing to be Terry Bradshaw’s backup.

GILLIAM GOES AWOL

As the Steelers mini-camp expanded with the arrival of 41 rookies and free agents, Joe Gilliam didn’t join them.  The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette suggested the Steelers didn’t have a clue where the quarterback was, while the Pittsburgh Press said he was in his Pittsburgh hotel room with the Steelers suggesting there wouldn’t be any effort to reach him because he knew where they were.

When his father was contacted in Nashville, he refused to discuss the situation. “You guys have flagrantly misquoted me and I have no comment,” Gilliam senior said. “I never said Chuck Noll and the Pittsburgh Steelers were racist. That’s not the way I feel,” making reference to his remarks about his son’s career being destroyed by racism.

The big puzzle for the Steelers was why did Gilliam bother to turn up for the quarterback camp if he didn’t intend to stay for the whole week?

Among those who came into camp were defensive end Ray Braszo from Homestead who is being given a second chance of making the team after being cut the previous year. Defensive end Bob Barber, a second round draft choice from 1975, who played in the WFL with Shreveport also was in attendance.

Two rookies from 1975 who spent the season on injured reserve were also back. Wide receiver Bob Gaddis and defensive back Brent Sexton had lockers in the dressing room, but couldn’t suit up on Sundays for the home games or travel to the away games.

“I can’t wait until the Collage All-Star game,” said Gaddis. “I’ve got a debt to pay in that game.”

LARRY BROWN SIGNS A NEW CONTRACT

“They’re tough, I’d give them credit for that,” observed Larry Brown talking about the Steelers negotiating team. “They’re real tough negotiators. They’re pretty firm.”

The negotiations were probably the longest in the club’s history as the NFL is no longer enforcing the Rozelle Rule so the Steelers would not receive compensation if Brown signed with another team.

Indicating that he had spoken to other teams, Brown admitted, “I was asking the same from the Steelers as someone else. I just had to consider who was willing to pay and the next thing – who I was willing to play for.” He did acknowledge the Steelers going for a third Super Bowl was a factor in his decision.

JOE GILLIAM GOES TO NEW ORLEANS

For the Steelers, June 1st saw the Joe Gilliam saga enter its final phase when they placed the quarterback on waivers.

After breaking the golden rule by missing a couple of player meetings, Gilliam made it plain that his heart was no longer in competing for a backup role with the Steelers. His teammates agreed that Gilliam had talent, but he will now be plying his trade with another team and for a nominal $100 fee, that team became the New Orleans Saints.

The Saints Coach Hank Stram described his acquisition as one of the finest young quarterbacks in the NFL. Gilliam will be one of seven quarterbacks in the Saints camp. By chance, the Steelers could find out on July 31 what the move means when they travel to New Orleans for an exhibition game.

Gilliam will still have to compete for a starting role in New Orleans. The Saints’ Archie Manning was coming off surgery and had earned a reputation as a glass house because of his injury hit career. Excluding Manning, Gilliam would be challenging five other rivals for a place on the roster.

STEELERS OFFENSE MAKES THE GRADE

“The defense carried us through the years,” Coach Noll admitted to the Post-Gazette. During the off season Noll studied his team’s 1975 campaign and acknowledged, “There were great improvements offensively. We were much better on offense. We controlled the ball and we had it more. We moved toward having a more balanced team.”

Despite the running of Franco Harris and the spectacle catches from Lynn Swann, it was the offensive line that caught Noll’s eye and he cited it for the “biggest improvement” on the team. “The pass protection was much better and you can’t throw the ball without it.”

None of the Steelers O line made the All-Pro or the Pro Bowl and that may partly be due to the team’s rotational system that saw players sharing positions and alternating slots during games. Only tackles Jon Kolb and Gordon Gravelle stayed on the field throughout.

ROCKY BLEIER PREPARES FOR THE SEASON AHEAD

Rocky Bleier media photoRocky Bleier began his pro football career with the Steelers in as a low draft pick in 1968 and spent his first exhibition season under Coach Bill Austin when making the team. Bleier looked back on that season as one of survival while the Noll period has been one of hope.

Bleier missed Noll’s first 1-13 season picking up a piece of shrapnel in Vietnam, along with a purple heart and a bronze star. “When I returned to the team in 1970, I was right on the periphery,” Bleier told the Pittsburgh Press. “If the player limit had been down to where it is now, I might not have made it.”

Bleier always starts his training in June and admitted, “My attitude hasn’t changed much over the past two seasons and neither has that of any of the other guys. The only difference is now I’m getting more out of my June practice sessions than I used it.

I can accomplish as much in a one hour training period as I used to in two or three. Nobody expects you to have a body-beautiful build just because you are playing pro football.”

CHIEFS GILLIAM NOW FACING CRIMINAL CHARGES

The Joe Gilliam tale took another twist when he was stopped by the Tennessee State Police for speeding and they discover found a packet that had been thrown from the car containing three hits of cocaine with two marijuana roaches in the ash tray.

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