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.

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