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.”

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