THE 1978 PITTSBURGH STEELERS

Buddy Parker was the Steelers head coach from 1957-64 before being replaced by Bill Austin. No longer coaching, Parker put forward the idea of a scouting cooperative that would collate the data on college players to make draft selection more effective.

BLESTO took its name from the teams involved. Bears, Lions, Eagles, Steelers Talent Organisation. In the sixties, before the days of instant information, this was an innovative concept and with the four teams sharing the expenses, cost effective.

“We have eight full time scouts in the field and they report on promising prospects to insure us of a good crop of rookies,” is how Russ Thomas, director of the Lions player personnel, described the organisation.

“We get better information for less money,” observed Joe Kuharich, the Eagles head coach on BLESTO’s budget of $250,000.

The scouts were allocated a specific area and would watch players in games, practice and if possible, films. The players’ attitudes and backgrounds would be scrutinised before they were evaluated on many counts, physical and mental and given a rating, zero to four.

Zero meant certain to make it in the NFL. One indicated could make it. Two, has a chance to make it. Three, very remote chance.  Four, no chance.

With the draft now taking place later in the year, Steelers Director of Player Personnel Dick Haley believed that it levelled the playing field for teams that were not as well organised in scouting the colleges.

STEELERS 1978 DRAFT

  1.  Ron Johnson (DB) Eastern Michigan 22
  2.  Willie Fry (DE) Notre Dame 49
  3.  Craig Colquitt (P) Tennessee 76
  4.  Larry Anderson (DB) Louisiana Tech 101
  5.  Choice to Green Bay
  6.  Randy Reutershan (WR) Pittsburgh 160
  7.  Mike Dufresne (TE) Nebraska 187
8a.  Rick Moser, (RB) Rhode Island 208 (Choice from St. Louis)
8b.  Andre Keys (WR) Cal Poly 214
   9.  Lance Reynolds (T) Brigham Young 241
10a. Doug Becker (LB) Notre Dame 268
10b. Tom Jurich (K) Northern Arizona 276 (Choice from Oakland)
11a. Nat Terry (DB) Florida State 279 (Choice from Tampa Bay)
11b. Tom Brzoza (C) Pittsburgh 300
12.   Brad Carr (LB) Maryland 327

STEELERS SELECT A CORNERBACK

Ron Johnson of Eastern Michigan became the Steelers first pick in the draft. Coach Noll confirmed that Johnson would be played at cornerback. Selecting 22nd of 28, Noll said, “We were just hoping Ron would be there and we’re happy it turned out the way it did.”

Coach Noll, who scouted Johnson at the Senior Bowl and spent hours watching his college films added, “He runs a 4 or 4.5, he’s a tough hitter and tackler and just an outstanding individual. He hit, he covers and he’s a leader… all the good things.”

Ron Johnson admitted he was “quite surprised” to be taken by the Steelers with their first round pick in the 1978 draft before saying, “I’m pleased that I’m going to Pittsburgh, I’m happy to be with a contending team.”

“I pattern myself after (Oakland’s) Jack Tatum and I really admire Mel Blount,” Johnson revealed. “Tatum gets mad and he plays the game hard and tough,” Johnson said. “I don’t think he ever takes cheap shots. And Blount, he plays all receivers the same – tough. I’m the same way. And the best thing I do is stay consistent.”

Second round pick Willie Fry was just as upbeat as his fellow teammate. “I’m a darn good defensive end,” Fry boasted. “My forte is the pass rush. That’s stems from my quickness. My technique comes from what I know about the rush, but there’s a lot more to learn. I’m just looking forward to getting in there and learning as much as I can.”

Fry was known in Pittsburgh for delivering the tackle that broke the arm of Pitt University quarterback Matt Cavanaugh that cost the Panthers a shot at an undefeated season and a national title in 1977. Fry was impressed with the Steelers defense and said he couldn’t wait to be part of it and learn from the best men in the business.

Defensive back Larry Anderson of Louisiana Tech was selected in the second round, before the Steelers priority need of a punter was resolved with the pick of Craig Colquitt in the third.

Coach Noll confirmed he had no personal aversion to drafting a punter in a high round, but was pleased to plug some defensive gaps before taking a punter. When someone joked that Noll was locked in a closet when the Steelers made the selection, Dick Haley quipped, “We got him in the shower room.”

In effect, Johnson and Fry will replace Dave Brown and Bob Barber, the defensive back and defensive lineman who were the first two players selected in the 1975 draft. Neither made it with the Steelers. George Perles, the Steelers new defensive coordinator said Johnson and Fry are better prospects then Brown or Barber. “We’re very happy with these prospects compare to the other two,” he volunteered.

St. Louis drafted a punter in the first round and Cleveland took one in the second.

COACH NOLL BEGINS HIS PURGE

“We’re trying to rid ourselves of distractions,” stated Coach Noll before adding, “We can’t have another season like last year. We’ve got to work like hell to get the distractions settled.”

Ernie Holmes was the first part of the peace process put in motion by Coach Noll when he was traded to Tampa Bay for a 10th and 11th draft picks. “He didn’t fit into our plans,” explained Noll. After drafting Willie Fry and trading for Dave Pureifory to add strength to the defensive line, Noll observed, “We have a lengthy list of defensive linemen and we have to thin it out a bit.”

Noll made it obvious that Holmes wouldn’t be missed. “We’ve been trying to trade him for a long time. I don’t think his season last year was up to what it had been in the past.”

Time magazine 1975 Pittsburgh's Front Four
In 1975 Holmes was on the cover of Time magazine along with the other members of the front four.

Holmes fall from grace began when he arrived at the 1977 training camp over weight which led to him losing his starting job, sulking and eventually walking out.

MIKE WAGNER RETURNS

“I seemed to come across a lot of people who said, ‘you’ll never play again,’” Mike Wagner revealed when visiting the Steelers offices. Wagner cracked one vertebra and chipped two others during the Steelers game in Cleveland in 1977 and admitted, “People said, ‘you might as well forget about it; your career is over.’ But I never believed that and I have no reason to believe it now.”

Six weeks later, team physician Paul Steele told Wagner he was completely healed and Wagner had confidence in the diagnosis. Wagner and his wife Cathy made Colorado their new off-season home and he joked, “I confirmed my belief and the doctor’s belief that I was okay by spending all winter falling down mountains.

One reason we went to Colorado was to get away from all the questions. It’s not nice to hear people say, ‘You’re done.’ People don’t really understand what it is to be a football player.”

JOE GILLIAM TRYS OUT

“I have been drug free for over a year,” announced former Steelers quarterback Joe Gilliam before adding why he was in the Dallas Cowboys free agent tryout camp. “I want to play football. I know I have a contribution to make to the game.”

The head of the Cowboys scouting operation Gil Brandt admitted, “I thought I was seeing things when he walked in.” Brandt conceded it would be hard for Gilliam to succeed because Dallas already had three quarterbacks.

STEELERS 1978 ROOKIE CAMP

Terry Bradshaw joined 29 rookies and 19 veterans at the end of May for the Steelers rookie camp that would prepare the players for the summer camp.

“It still hurts,” explained Terry Bradshaw talking about his left wrist he broke in Houston during last season. “I just never get over joint injuries. The doctors may say I’m crazy, but the joints never seem to be the same.”

Bradshaw was still wearing a cast and said it wouldn’t affect his play. “It’s the story of my life. You just grin and bear it. It won’t bother me at all. I’m used to it now.” Bradshaw admitted he still has lingering pain from past neck, shoulder and ankle injuries, but just shrugs it off. Twisting his neck, he said, “It feels like there’s a golf ball back there.”

The wrist injury was supposed to take nine months to heal and he feels there’s a chance it will still improve although he believes a bone chip pressing on a nerve that may be causing the pain.
The wrist isn’t as sore as it was at the end of the year. “I couldn’t even dribble a basketball with my left hand last December,” he confessed. On the positive side, Bradshaw confirmed, “My legs are strong and my arm is strong. I still love it like a kid.”

Looking forward to the new season, Bradshaw suggested the Steelers needed to make the running game work better. “We’ll try to get it balanced,” he said. “We never really got the running game going last year.”

Reflecting on the 1977 season that fell short, he was hoping the club could put all the problems of last year behind it. “I’m hoping the team will pull together and play consistent, solid football. We just never played together last year. We played helter-skelter.”

NOLL BREAKS NFL RULES

John Banaszak in padsThe Pittsburgh Press revealed the Steelers were holding contact workouts in pads. Behind closed doors with the media excluded the workouts were a violation of the league’s rules that prohibited contact work or the use of pads as part of an off-season training camp.

Much of the work focused on the defensive line where strong competition is expected in the team’s training camp in the summer. Four regulars (Joe Greene, Dwight White, Steve Furness and L.C. Greenwood), newly acquired Dave Pureifory, three injured reserve linemen (Gary Dunn, John Banaszak and Tom Beasley) and rookie Willie Fry (2nd round draft pick) and free agent Fred Anderson will fight for a roster spot.

“Last year we went with six (linemen) and injuries put us in bad shape by the end of the season,” said Banaszak, “So I think they might go with seven this year.”

Confirming pads had been worn, Fry confessed after the workout,, “Well, I’m not sore all over for nothing,”. Having not yet signed a contract, Fry didn’t have to take the hits. “The thought of not coming to rookie camp entered my mind, but I knew it would be best to be here. I’m just trying to make the team now. So far, nobody’s ahead. Everybody’s equal, whether you’re a second round draft choice or not.”

The picture taken by Robert Pavuchak of John Banaszak wearing shoulder pads was also a bit of a give away to the rules violation. The pittsburgh Press published it to run with their story.

STEELERS RECENT NUMBER ONE DRAFT PICKS

Two years ago, the Steelers number one draft choice was Bennie Cunningham, a mammoth and modest tight end from Clemson. When he signed with the Steelers, Cunningham said softly that he realised there were veterans in front of him and thought patience might be trait to emphasise.

Two years later he is the Steelers starting tight end.

Ron Johnson and Art RooneyLast year, linebacker Robin Cole was the team’s number one pick and in contrast was resolute in that he would be starting immediately and would make All-Pro within a few seasons. This season Robin Cole is the favourite to be the Steelers right outside linebacker.

This year’s first round selection Ron Johnson is certain he will be playing frequently in the Steelers’ secondary this season. “I’ve watched J.T. Thomas and Mel Blount on film and I think I have the talent to play with them,” Johnson told the Pittsburgh Press.

“I can’t make too many rookie mistakes,” Johnson acknowledged before addressing the weakness in the Steelers secondary last year. Assistant Coach Woody Widenhofer had described a season in which the Steelers were more vulnerable than usual against the deep pass.

“The films I’ve watched have been mostly highlight films so I haven’t seen many people getting beat deep,” Johnson offered, “but Woody mentioned it to me.”

Johnson added, “Frankly, a secondary is only as good as its defensive line. If that quarterbackhas enough time, it’s always going to be hard on the defensive backs. But I think the line here is tough and it will be better than it was last year. I don’t think it will be a problem.”

Photo of Ron Johnson and Art Rooney by Albert Herrmann Jr.

STEELERS REPUTATION TARNISHED

NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle issued a statement that took away the Steelers third-round selection in the 1979 draft for using shoulder pads in the team’s rookie camp.
Previous violations by other teams had been punished with fines, but an NFL spokesman suggested the commissioner no longer feels fines are an effective deterrent. “Everyone stands up and takes notice when you take away a draft choice,” he acknowledged.

With Dan Rooney and Coach Noll away on vacation, it was left to the Steelers public relations director Ed Kiely to say, “Rozelle’s action speaks rather eloquently for itself. The case is now closed.

A story circulating around the NFL has legendary Paul Brown warning Dan Rooney that, “You guys are getting a rep as cheats.” On his return to Pittsburgh, Mr. Rooney said, “I don’t think we’re getting that sort of reputation. I sure don’t want us to have that reputation and I don’t think we deserve it.”

Mr. Rooney confirmed they were not flaunting authority or acting to break the rules. “We just don’t operate that way,” he told reporters. “I feel we broke the rule by not thinking.”

“Losing a third-round choice is difficult,” he admitted. “There’s a tendency to try to put a dollar value on it, but you can’t. What team would sell a draft choice? For how much?”

JOE GILLIAM TRIES ONCE AGAIN

In contrast to his last NFL appearance against the Los Angeles Rams in Memorial Coliseum, Joe Gilliam will make his debut for the semi-pro Pittsburgh Wolf-Pak in tiny Valley High Stadium.

Joe Gilliam joined the Wolf Pak of the new minor league Atlantic Football Conference in an attempt to showcase his ability again. Assistant coach and friend of Gilliam, Hubie Bryant, said, “I told Joe, it’s going to be rougher than the NFL. People are going to be trying to test him because he’s Joe Gilliam.”

Gilliam said in reply, “It doesn’t have me worried, but I am very aware of it. I know they’re going to want to get me, but as long as they play the game fair, what can you say?”

Steelers pro scouting director Tim Rooney admitted, “I’m not building my hopes up too high. I just hope that the pressure of football isn’t his poison, as opposed to being his cure. Then the poor guy’s gonna be worse off than ever.”

SAINTS BELIEVE STEELERS ARE SINNERS

Rooney insists the Steelers were unfairly criticised when New Orleans coach Hank Stram claimed they were told nothing about the possibility of a drug problem when Gilliam was picked up from waivers. Stram insists the Steelers lied.

Media photo of Wolf PakRooney is adamant that in reply to a questions whether Gilliam had a drug problem or anything else, Stram was told two things, “One is he was either physically sick or that there could have been a drug thing.”

Gilliam was claimed on the Monday and within days he was arrested for the first time. On the Thursday, Stram said the Steelers never told him of a potential problem. Rooney said he notified the league so he was on record.

MEDIA FRENZY

With the start of the NFL season still weeks away, Gilliam appearance in the blue and scarlet of the Wolf Pak, created a lot of media interest with over 100 media passes being handed out for the game.

Wolf Pak head coach Terry Henne was philosophical about Gilliam’s appearance against the Scranton Stars. “I’m predicting Joe won’t finish the year with us. He’s throwing the ball real well. Just like he used to.”

Admitting that at first he wasn’t completed sold on the idea of Gilliam playing for the team, Henne said, “I had my doubts. I wanted total commitment because I knew he had some personal problems and I didn’t want them to interfere with the team.”

Gilliam confirmed, “I know people will be watching, but all I can do is go out there and try to do my best.”

WOLF PAK TRIUMPH

Joe Gilliam (picture left as a Wolf Pak) completed 17 of 33 passes for 219 yards and three touchdowns. One review stated the quarterback gave a poised performance that included a crisp passing game, but several wobbly long bombs. He scrambled well and did a good job picking out secondary receivers.

“It’s good to be back,” acknowledged Gilliam and then revealed he was prepared to play semi-pro for a long as it take. I know I can play in the NFL.”

Gilliam faced pressure both on and off the field. The day before the game, a grand jury in Tennessee returned an indictment that alleged he was in possession of heroin in connection with his arrest in 1976. “It’s in the hands of the gods,” Gilliam granted. “His will will be done.”

1978 STEELERS TRAINING CAMP BEGINS

The 1978 Steelers season started with 34 rookies and 22 veterans arriving in Latrobe for the beginning of training camp on July 14. The rest of the veterans would arrive a week later. With the regular season increased to 16 games and the exhibition games reduced from six to four, the new format brought more questions than answers.

The Steelers had been against the change. “The 14-game season was a helluva long season physically, mentally and emotionally,” said Coach Noll. The shorter preparation time also concerned Noll, “We won’t have the luxury of working with a lot of people,” he added.

“And the rookies will have to earn the right to play in the pre-season games. It’s a dilemma. But everybody else will have the same problem,” Coach Noll added.

The players’ association reminded veterans they were not obliged to report to camp until 15 days before the first exhibition game, but Coach Noll always suggested those who had been injured the previous season or lacked experience entered camp early with the rookies.

John Banaszak media photoJohn Banaszak observed, “When the man asks me to come to camp, I better be there. If I say no, the players’ association isn’t going to pay me.” Banaszak was a veteran who always appeared to be a rookie and once again was fighting to find a place on the roster.

As a free agent defensive end in 1976, he had to beat out second round draft choice Bob Barber. “It’s the same situation,” revealed Banaszak. “But I didn’t really worry about Bob Barber. I was only in my second year. I don’t worry about anybody else. I’m just gonna worry about making it through training camp.”

Banaszak suffered damage to his knee ligaments and spent the last few weeks of the 1977 season on injured reserve. With the Steelers selected Willie Fry in the draft and Banaszak would once again be up against a second round draft selection.

“There’s always a battle,” Banaszak observed. “Nobody said it was going to be easy. You’re never guaranteed a job, but I accept all challenges from everybody.”

With a touch of realism Banaszak added, “If Willie Fry is better than I am, then that’s it. It’s not like I have to beat out Willie Fry. I want to be the fifth man on the front four and if I go out and play like I can, I should be good enough to be the fifth man.

Everything being equal, L.C. Greenwood and Dwight White have to start because they’re experienced.”

STEELERS PICK UP A QUARTERBACK FROM THE CFL

After he was cut by Montreal, the Steelers picked up quarterback Larry Lawrence. “I was going to go through the rest of the league for a job until the Steelers called,” Lawrence revealed. “So I thought I would try the NFL.”

If the Steelers keep three quarterbacks, Lawrence must beat out Cliff Stoudt, a second year man who spent part of last season on the injured reserves.

TRAINING CAMP CONTINUES

1978 media guide image Woody Widenhofer“I like a couple of our defensive backs,” noted Woody Widenhofer (picture left) the Steelers defensive backs and linebacker coach, before adding, “Those kids from Notre Dame have shown me something too.”

The Steelers number one draft choice Ron Johnson was one player who had caught Woody’s eye along with two lesser-known prospects, Nate Terry and Larry Anderson. “All three of them are doing well, “revealed Widenhofer although he added nobody had done any hitting yet.

They all have the qualities all coaches desire in a defensive back, Widenhofer told the Pittsburgh Press, size, speed, quickness, balance, body control as well as intelligence and football sense. “We’ve only been working on two coverages so far,” said Widenhofer, “and they seem to have caught onto them pretty quick.”

Reviewing his linebackers, Widenhofer acknowledged, “So far, Doug Becker is doing better than the other linebackers. He’s not as tall as you like your linebackers to be, but he has a lot of other things that you like in a linebacker.

He’s got good straight-ahead speed and he’s strong. His size though might be a problem,” added Widenhofer. “We’re going to have a 15-minute scrimmage today and we’ll get a better idea of what these people can do.”

Becker’s former Notre Dame teammate Willie Fry has been impressive as anyone in camp. “I’m really pleased with Fry’s toughness,” said Widenhofer. “Willie’s a lot tougher than I thought he’d be. On top of that, he’s a very bright guy.

NFL RULE ALTERATION BRINGS CHANGES FOR DEFENSE

The defensive coach has focused on the new rule change that restricts the blocking of receivers to within five yards of the line of scrimmage. “We have to change everything we’ve been doing,” explained the coach. “We studied our game films during the off-season and most of our jamming was done beyond five yards downfield. We won’t be able to do that anymore.

It’s going to be a real problem for middle linebackers like ours who play three-and-a-half yards off the line of scrimmage. The middle backer is going to have his problems, particularly when the tight end releases inside and breaks downfield.

Last year, Jack Lambert could drop off and jam the receiver as he broke downfield. He could disorient him. No more.”

The answer? “A quicker jam,” noted the coach. “And make sure we come off him. Come off him and run with him. The linebacker’s going to have to run more than he ever did before.”
Widenhofer was enthusiastic about some of the things they were doing, admitting they were a lot better than the things they had done before. “As soon as these fellows learn to do the things we want them to do, we’ll be all right. I have no doubts about that.

MEL BLOUNT EXPECTS BIG THINGS

Some fans believed Mel Blount’s hold out last season was part of the disruptive behaviour that Coach Noll believed caused the Steelers to lose their focus and create an atmosphere of turmoil.
Blount appeared on time and stated, “I expect good things from this secondary. I don’t think the secondary has any more work to do than the whole team. I don’t think you can pin-point it to one phase. Maybe last year management was weak. Maybe the kicking game was weak. It’s like Chuck Noll always says, ‘You never arrive.’”

Blount acknowledged, “Being out last year was like missing a season. Your mental outlook. It begins right here in training camp.”

Cornerback J.T. Thomas was lost for the season with a disease that prohibits physical exertion while Jimmy Allen has been traded. “It’s gonna be tough,” accepted Blount. “Nobody’s gonna replace J.T. from a mental standpoint. By that I mean not only what he knew about the game, but what he meant to all the players. He’s such a likeable guy.”

JIMMY ALLEN TRADED

Defensive end Jimmy Allen, who played out his option year with the Steelers in 1977, failed to find another team prepared to acquire his rights from the Steelers.

In accordance with the collective bargaining agreement, Allen was sent a contract by the Steelers with a ‘qualifying offer’ he could accept or sign instead to play for 110% of his 1977 salary. The Steelers received nothing back.

Just after he told the media he was reporting to camp, the Steelers traded him to the Detroit Lions for an undisclosed draft choice. Disturbed by the way Allen had walked out on his team, Coach Noll told the Pittsburgh Pres, “We learned from history last year. We had to depend on him and he walked out.

At the time, Allen had told the team he was ‘retiring’ and left the team for two days complaining he should be compensated for his talents.

“We don’t want people looking for retirement funds. We want active players,” acknowledged Coach Noll while Dan Rooney suggested, “I think our people felt it was best that he go elsewhere. I don’t like this, having to trade players, but it’s part of the game.”

COLQUITT FINDING HIS FEET

The Steelers had relied on Bobby Walden for a decade to do their punting, but with after his retirement with a knee injury, the Steelers picked up Craig Colquitt in the third round of the draft as his replacement.

Coming into camp, Colquitt’s concern was whether he would be able to get Adidas volleyball shoes in Pittsburgh as the one on his right foot is almost a year old? “No problem,” offers Dick Haley, the Steelers’ chief scout.

On a clipboard, Haley writes down the hang time of each punt and how close it was to the goal line at the point it went out of bounds. Colquitt, with his long muscular legs is doing well.

To escape the drudgery of the endless football drills, Colquitt became a punter. “Punting was the easiest part of the game,” he concedes, “and prestigious too; you’ve got pressure on you.”

Unusually, Colquitt is a two-step punter and so far he has not had a punt blocked. “Nothing can demoralise you more than having a punt blocked or returned,” admitted Haley. Colquitt’s hang time which is “excellent” should mean few long returns.

Despite the enthusiasm of Haley, Colquitt doesn’t believe he has it made. “I’m not thinking that way,” he admitted.

STEELERS QUESTION MARK AT CORNERBACK

With the loss of J.T. Thomas to a blood disorder, the Steelers need to find a replacement at left cornerback. The Steelers number one draft pick Ron Johnson and Wentford Gaines were the leading candidates as the Steelers training camp continued.

A rookie in the secondary can cost a team a touchdown per game was the old football saying so for the Steelers, it was a question whether they needed to trade for a veteran. “I don’t feel any added pressure,” admitted Johnson. “I just go through the learning process and concentrate on what I’m doing. I just can’t make too many rookie mistakes.”

Gaines was more realistic about the challenge. “I’ve just got to get on my horse and do everything correctly to keep the coach’s interest,” he said before confessing, “I have these little doubts, they keep you trying. I’m confident I can do the job.” Gaines was selected in the ninth round of the 1976 draft, but had been on injured reserve for two seasons.

Although he was considered the favourite for the position, Johnson acknowledged he wasn’t making any assumptions. “I’m not counting my chickens before they’re hatched,” he said. “Gaines is a helluva defensive back and I think we’re playing pretty much together.”

STEVE FURNESS BELIEVES DEFENSE IS BETTER WITHOUT ERNIE HOLMES

Steve Furness media guide photoThe Pittsburgh Press suggested that Steve Furness who replaced Ernie Holmes at defensive tackle during the 1977 season isn’t too broken up about the absence of Holmes who had been traded to Tampa Bay.

“I think Ernie really hurt our team,” Furness told reporters. “With him gone, we have a lot faster guys and we can do so much more.” With a touch of ridicule, Furness added, “You need guys that can run to rush the passer and you can’t run when you’re fat.”

“I think anybody that is a fan of the Steelers knows he wasn’t playing up to his ability,” continued Furness. “When they first played me, I think they were trying to push him a little harder, but it didn’t work.” On the pass rush, Furness suggested Holmes was slowing everything down.”

TERRY BRADSHAW PRACTICING PUNTS

After Terry Bradshaw was seen punting during training camp, Coach Noll was asked if Bradshaw would be the backup punter. Noll, who the Post-Gazette suggested likes to lift lines from old radio shows quipped, “Who know what evil lurks in the minds of men?”
“Me punt?” Bradshaw joked before adding, “I’ve got this bad wrist.”

Turning serious, Bradshaw acknowledged, “I’m the backup. I’m always the backup unless they draft someone to be the backup and then I’ll relinquish it,” before he admitted, “Not regretfully.”

JACK LAMBERT AND AUTOGRAPH HUNTERS

Vito Stellino wrote in the Post-Gazette that after every morning practice, Jack Lambert takes on the appearance of the Pied Piper of St. Vincent College as he is engulfed in the midst of a crowd of milling youngsters seeking autographs. Lambert patiently signs autographs for 20-25 minutes until he is usually the last player into the dining hall for lunch.

Although signing autographs is not Lambert’s idea of a fun way to spend time, he remembers when he was a kid collecting autographs at the Cleveland Browns camp and how he felt when he was brushed off. “I thought they were rotten,” he says with a smile.

Lambert’s popularity as one of the fans’ favourite target for autographs is a sign that the acrimony from his holdout last season has been forgotten. He was heckled by some fans and the whole experience was a trying one for the player.

“It bothered me the whole season,” he revealed before adding, “It’s a hard thing to put out of your mind. You try to convince yourself it’s not bothering you, but subconsciously it’s there.”
Lambert admits, “I wasn’t happy with the way I played last year. I didn’t play poorly. I still led the team in tackles, but mentally I wasn’t where I should have been.”

Despite all the challenges, Lambert had no regrets about holding out for a contract that made him the league’s highest defensive player at $200,000 according to the NFL salary survey.

STEELERS HOPE TO ATTACK WITH GERELA WARFARE AGAIN

Roy Gerela Pittsburgh Press photoSo ran the sports headline in the Pittsburgh Press revealing how good Roy Gerela was when practicing in Mount Lebanon Stadium on the artificial turf before entering training camp. He had kicked five from 45, three from 50, two from 55 and one from 60 yards out before quitting.

 “It’s nothing I haven’t done in the past,” suggested Gerela pictured relaxing during practice, before adding, “I don’t think last year was a bad time.”

With a dig at the media, Gerela said, “Perhaps you made it a bad time for me. When you said the kicking game is off, you should be more specific about which parts. It could have been the kick coverage that was weak.”

In 1977, Gerela kicked 9 out of 14 field goals and the team went five games without Coach Noll calling on his kicker. Gerela suffered from a lymph problem and a groin pull that impacted on his difficulties and the Steelers kicking game suffered.

Gerela admitted that he had been operating at about 75 percent efficiency. “Last year it would take me five or six kicks just to get loose and that’s very, very unusual for me,” he said. “Last year at this time I couldn’t go through any of the agility or stretching drills without something pulling or causing pain. Now I can go out there right now and hit the first kick hard and feel nothing.”

Gerela, who had failed to be among the AFC’s five scorers for the first time in six years, was looking forward to the challenge of a new season. “It feels good. It’s a big difference.”

STEELERS FOCUS ON FUNDAMENTALS

It’s easy to take fundamentals for granted,” disclosed Coach Noll. The Steelers were putting extra emphasis on blocking and tackling in training camp because it was recognised that tackling, particularly on special teams, had fallen short the previous year.

Coach Noll felt the first two weeks of camp had been productive. “I think it’s been a very good fundamental camp,” Noll offered. “We’ll find out how good they look in the next few weeks. The next real scrimmage is Baltimore.”   

JOHN HICKS – STEELERS NEW OFFENSIVE GUARD

“We can go all the way,” suggested John Hicks the Steelers’ newest offensive lineman. Traded from the Giants, Hicks had been one of college football’s finest linemen, but had not transferred his ability to pro football. When they traded The Steelers were hoping that a change of surroundings and playing on a team that wins its division would revitalise his skills.

“I’ve really been impressed with his leadership on the field,” declared Dick Haley, Steelers director of playing personnel. “He seems to have regained his enthusiasm for the game.”

Hicks felt the Steelers were definite contenders and had the weapons to go all the way. “I haven’t been with a contender, so I haven’t been in this position before,” Hicks revealed. “I never had an opportunity to work with a quality back like Franco Harris. No team is gonna be able to concentrate on one aspect of the Steelers and beat us.”

COACH NOLL HAPPY WITH THE TEAM’S PROGRESS

Two days before the Steelers were to play their first exhibition game, Chuck Noll was asked what his chief goal was in the pre-season opener. “Progress,” he replied before adding, “Oh, we like to win. We don’t like to lose. That’s one of the measures of progress.”

Asked what kind of camp it had been so far, Coach Noll said, “I think we’ve been tackling and hitting pretty good.” Acknowledging the game against the Baltimore Colts was crucial to evaluate the new players during a shortened pre-season, Noll stated, “It’s ended up being a contest between people instead of a gift when somebody screws up.

I have a pretty good feeling about this team right now.”

BACK TO BASICS

Reflecting on the troubles of the 1977 training camp with its holdouts, Joe Greene said, “The biggest difference in this camp compared to last year is that this camp is about football – not gossip. Everything that’s happening in this camp is about football. That’s not saying we’re gonna go out there and kick butts, but that’s saying we’re gonna be going about our business, what we’ve been paid for.”

Greene said that Noll, always a strong fundamentalist, had been stressing the basics more than normal and he wasn’t sure whether it was an indication that Noll felt that the basics had been neglected the previous year.

“We’ve gone back to basic football – blocking, tackling, stance, hitting and the weight program,” Greene stated.

1978 Exhibition game 1: The Pittsburgh Steelers at the Baltimore Colts

Cliff Stoudt Pittsburgh Press photoThe Steelers first pre-season game saw Terry Bradshaw suffer a broken nose early as he tried to run through three Colts players rather than taking to the ground after a good run.

The muddy conditions were not conducive to playing good football and a scoreless first quarter was a reflection of two teams struggling with their first meaningful scrimmage of the season.

The Colts managed the first score on a 2-yard run in the second quarter, but the subsequent kickoff was returned 87 yards by Ron Scott to reduce Baltimore’s lead to 7-6 after a missed point after attempt.

The Colts kicked a field goal to extend their lead until the Steelers new quarterback Cliff Stoudt (picture left) hit Reggie Harrison with a 5-yard touchdown pass. Another missed point after saw the Steelers take a 12-10 advantage into the locker room at half time.

A John Stallworth touchdown catch 8-yard touchdown catch from backup quarterback Mike Kruczek in the third period was followed by a 37-yard field goal to complete the scoring and give the Steelers a 22-10 victory.

The Pittsburgh Steelers 22 at the Baltimore Colts 10
Memorial Stadium August 5 1978; 37,437

“I thought a lot of our young people played very well and were able to distinguish themselves. Obviously, there are improvements we have to make, but I think we’ve improved in a lot of areas.”

“Scott, for one, drew attention to himself,” recognised Noll.

STEELERS KICKING GAME IN TROUBLE AGAIN

“The biggest thing when you’re down like that is to come back,” Roy Gerela said regarding his continued kicking woes in the first preseason game when he had two kicks blocked and a third hit an upright.

Gerela wasn’t the only kicker taking flak. Craig Colquitt had been drafted in the third round to replace veteran Bobby Walden, who had become inconsistent. In Baltimore, Colquitt averaged 33 yards a punt and acknowledged, “I just wasn’t hitting the ball. I’m taking this as lightly as I possibly can. I don’t want to get overanxious.”

Colquitt revealed he wanted to average between 40 and 45 yards with a hang time of 4.8 seconds and explained he had received a lot of moral support from his teammates during the game.

BRADSHAW ACCEPTS GETTING HURT GOES WITH THE JOB

Terry Bradshaw media photo“I’m so used to getting hurt,” Terry Bradshaw told the Pittsburgh Press. “I’d be the first one to tell you that I’d be surprised if I didn’t get hurt.” In 2016 he suffered a broken wrist, before that it was a sprained neck and the sprained wrist, then his shoulder. Now his nose has been shattered, but Bradshaw indicated his sense of humour remains uninjured.

“There goes a Hollywood career shot down the drain,” he laughed. “My nose was about four inches out of place. It was the most horrible thing I ever saw. It looked like somebody hit it with a hammer.”

Looking ahead at the Steelers next exhibition game, Bradshaw said, “I could play Saturday, but I’m not. My goal is for the season.”

Bradshaw was pleased to hear that Mike Kruczek and Cliff Stoudt had performed well in his absence at the game in Baltimore. “It might be a good omen,” Bradshaw offered. “Mike and Cliff need to play. If I was playing, they probably wouldn’t get to play but a quarter or so. My arm was a little tired anyway. It’ll give me a chance to rest.”

JOE GILLIAM’S COMEBACK FIZZLES OUT

After he ignored the play calling from the Pittsburgh Wolf Pak’s sideline in a 12-6 loss to Buffalo, Coach Terry Henne pulled Joe Gilliam from the game. The coach and quarterback had words after the game and owner Bob Baker backed the coach.

“He’s had some problems understanding that he’s a player, not a coach or an owner,” said Baker. “There’s been a wedge between him and the coaching staff the last couple of week.”
Gilliam wanted Henne gone plus he wanted more money than Baker could pay him and he wanted another shot at the NFL. “He just didn’t want to play for the Wolf Pak,” accepted Baker.

 

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