- Bubby Brister, scribbling on a St. Vincents college black board, Latrobe, Pennsylvania, July 1989
“Potentially, we have a good team,”
- Chuck Noll, opening press conference, Latrobe, Pennsylvania, July 1989
What could animate a quarterback and coach coming off a 5-11 season to commence training camp with such daring declarations? One could write off Bubby Brister as a the cock-sure fiery young quarterback.
But Chuck Noll? The man who epitomized understatement?
Had The Emperor become delusional? Or mightChuck Noll know something the rest of the football world didn’t?
For much of 1989 season many convinced themselves of the later but, by season’s end, the group of Steelers assembling that summer at St. Vincents had vindicated Chuck Noll’s faith.
The Emperor’s Last Hurrah!
Steel Curtain Rising will commemorate the Steelers 1989 season this year. Each week during the regular season, you’ll have the chance to re-live Chuck Noll’s final, roller coaster playoff season through the memories of a high school student growing up in the DC suburbs.
I’ll confess at the outset that the waning moments of the week five game against the Bengals were the only regular season action I caught on TV. Pittsburgh had no Sunday or Monday night games in 1989, and national coverage was sparse.
In fact, many, if not most, weeks I only discovered if the Steelers had won by leafing through the Monday morning paper, as homework and family dinners took precedence over ESPN’s NFL PrimeTime in our family (and I'm better for it.)
Despite those obstacles, I was hooked. I read everything, in the Washington Post, in the USA Today, in Sports Illustrated, or anything else I could get my hands on. I even had my grandfather clip and mail down Monday sports sections from the Pittsburgh Press and Post-Gazette.
“I think we’d have trouble with a grade school team right now.”
- Chuck Noll, at the depths of the Steelers 1988 5-11 season
Few outside of the Steelers expected playoffs during the summer of ‘89 and for good reason. The Steelers had gone 5-11 in 1988, their worst since 1971. This was long before free agency gave teams the ability to quickly reinvent themselves. In the Steelers case, conventional wisdom held that they’d yet to hit rock bottom.
Bubby Brister became starting quarterback in 1988, heralding a new era under center. Brister represented a vast improvement over Mark Malone. Which was scary.
Brister earned a 65.3 passer rating in 1988, completing a meager 47% of his passes while throwing 11 TD’s and 14 interceptions. (For the record, Malone had posted a 46.7 passer rating, throwing 6 TD’s and 19 picks in 1987.)
Steelers 1988 Offense
The Steelers lacked anything close to a 1000 yard rusher, John Stallworth was two years into retirement. Louis Lipps had played well in 1988, but at that point consecutive injury-free seasons had eluded him. Mike Webster was in Kansas City, and during the season it would be revealed that their only Pro Bowl offensive lineman, Tunch Ilkin, telegraphed run and pass plays with his footwork.
As for the '88 defense?
Well, 1987 team MVP Mike Merriweather had been shipped off to Minnesota after holding out for the entire 1988 season. One national publication’s analysis of the Steelers defense consisted of observing that the 1988 MVP award had been shared by Rod Woodson and David Little…. And the defense had finished dead last in NFL in 1988.
Defensive genius Tony Dungy had resigned to work under Kansas City defensive coordinator Bill Cowher as a secondary coach.
Special Teams? We Hopped You'd Forgotten to Ask...
Pittsburgh suffered and NFL-leading six blocked punts in 1988.
Early in the 1988 season first-year signal caller Bubby Brister loudly complained that the Steelers offense was “so complex and conservative, we might as well punt on first down.”
After a rainy day in the slog at Cleveland when, in addition to two other severe punting mishaps, an errant snap resulted in punter Harry Newsome getting tackled 50 yards behind the line the line of scrimmage, Brister offered this priceless gem: “I guess we might as well throw on fourth....”
Nonetheless, optimists were on hand at St. Vincent in July of 1989, and these brave few were far from insane.
Even Emperors Can [Reluctantly] Change
“Rumors are flying faster than a quarterback can throw them. Is Chuck Noll in or out as Steelers head coach?” - KDKA News, December 26, 1988
Might seem like an odd lead quote for a section on optimism, but it was what greeted me fresh off the Turnpike via Becks Run Road as I strode into my grandmother’s living room on Cedarcove St. 21 years ago.
The quote also reveals Dan Rooney did not take the Steelers 1988 woes lightly. As reported by the CBS News/Boston Globe columnist Will McDonough, after the 1988 debacle Dan Rooney asked Noll to fire some assistant coaches.
Noll refused. He called his coaches together and announced his resignation. The news sent Joe Greene directly to Dan Rooney’s office asking “what the hell is going on?” Rooney called Noll to say “Sleep on. You’ve meant too much to the team, too much to me. We can work this out.”
Noll fired linebackers coach Jed Hughes, guards and centers coach Hal Hunter Sr., strength and conditioning coach Walt Evans, and Special teams assistant Dennis Fitz. He demoted 1988 special teams coach Jon Kolb, to tight ends and strength and conditioning coach. As mentioned before, Tony Dungy resigned rather than accept demotion to secondary coach.
Rooney also promoted Tom Donahue from BLESTO scout to director of Pro Player Personnel and Development. In addition to scouting other teams’ players, Donahue would “advise” Noll on hiring assistant coaches.
The new assistant coaches joining the Steelers were:
- Rod Rust, Defensive coordinator
- David Brazil, Linebackers coach
- John Fox, Secondary coach
- George Stewart, Special teams coach
In the 1980’s owners frequently forced head coaches to purge staff as opposed to giving the head coach himself the boot. Sometimes this worked, some times it didn’t.
But the winds of change touched far more than the coaching staff in that summer in Latrobe.
By virtue of their 5-11 record the Steelers had their best draft since 1971. As Steel Curtain Rising detailed last month, some of the players from the Steelers 1989 draft would ultimately disappoint, but all of them looked good during training camp, and many looked even better at season’s end.
As Rod Rust and Dave Brazil installed a new defense, Noll also oversaw changes on the other side of the ball.
Taking advantage of the short-lived Plan B free agency system, the Steelers added Mike Mularkey a, get this, pass catching tight end. Noll’s offensive evolution did not stop there. During the middle of training camp reporters sighted Bubby Brister lining up under the shotgun, a first-ever for a Steelers quarterback.
Woodson, Lloyd, Dawson, Hoge, etc... had Foreshadowed ’89 Resurgence
Each of these changes had the potential to pay dividends, but players themselves drive any turn around in the NFL.
For all of the despair and desperation the 1988 season wrought, the play of certain individuals that year spawned seeds of hope that the 1989 version of the Steelers would be better.
When asked to explain his “Playoffs 1989” scribble, Bubby Brister pointed to the fact that the Steelers had come within one point of beating the Washington Redskins and the Philadelphia Eagles. They’d also come painfully close to beating the Jets and Bengals, and even given the Bills a run for their money.
The 1988 Steelers had also won three out of their final four games. Two victories came against mediocre Chiefs and Dolphins squads. But on Sunday Night in early December, Bubby Brister rallied for an overtime victory over the Houston Oilers in the hostile environs of the Astrodome.
An impressed Jerry Glanville speculated, “I think we saw a future star in Bubby Brister tonight.”
If Brister didn't dazzle with his overall first year passing numbers, he’d also done enough to tantalize. In single season as a starter, Brister had authored four of the Steelers all-time longest passing plays, including an AFC best 89 yard bomb to Louis Lipps in a losing effort at Philly.
If Brister never blossomed into the “future star” that Jerry Glanville foresaw, there were others who began to grow into their own in ‘88.
1988 marked Rod Woodson’s first full-season of play, and in one year Woodson had already begun marking himself as a future Hall of Famer.
- By 89's end, Woodson had given Steelers Nation plenty of reason to fly the "In Rod We Trust" banners inside Three Rivers Staidum.
With Mike Merriweather holding out in 1988, the Steelers got a certain linebacker from Ft. Valley named “Greg Lloyd” on the field. The name rang few bells in the summer of ‘89, but Lloyd rang plenty of bells that fall as he led the Steelers with 7 sacks while adding 3 interceptions and a three-count on concussed Jets receiver Al Toon for good measure.
- "Avoid Lloyd," "Just Plain Nasty" and "I Wasn't Hired For My Disposition" were about to enter Steelers Nation's venacular
Speaking of Hall of Famers, Mike Webster’s may have gone to Kansas City but, after a one-year apprenticeship at guard, Dermontti Dawson had stepped into his slot at center where he would eventually start 7 consecutive Pro Bowls.
- If justice exists, Dawson someday will follow Webster into Canton
When the Steelers were struggling mid-way through the 1989 season, commentators made light of that their lead running back had the unmacho name of "Merrill Hoge." Yet, Hoge's valiant 1988 effort had not gone unnoticed in Steelers Nation.
- Number 33 had the last laugh when he became the first Steeler to run for 100 yards in back-to-back playoff games
Other players of course stepped up during the 1988 season, and Steel Curtain Rising looks forward to reminiscing over how they banded together in 1989 to give the Emperor Chuck Noll one final Hurrah!
We will celebrate Chuck Noll’s final playoff season all year. The first installment looked in depth at the Steelers 1989 draft. Check back with Steel Curtain Rising for regular additions to the series.