´ Steel Curtain Rising: February 2012

Who gets the game ball for the Steelers win over the Texans?

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Hines Ward Portrait of a Pittsburgh Steeler, 1998-2011

It happens, apparently, about once a generation.

So it was with Franco Harris.

So it was with Rod Woodson.

And so it is apparently with Hines Ward.

The Pittsburgh Steelers today announced that they will release Hines Ward. Another Steeler Hall of Famer will finish his career elsewhere.

Who knows what fate awaits Ward with his new team?

Franco finished his career with the Seattle Seahawks, and looked every bit the washed up running back doing it.

Rod Woodson first went to San Francisco, which confirmed that his days as a shutdown corner were over. But San Fran was only the first stop, as he moved to Baltimore where he made the switch and played All-Pro Caliber football as a safety. He would later finish his career with the Raiders, we he also played at a high-level.

It is fitting perhaps that this move comes on February 29th, a day that is only repeated once every four years.

Any use a team would be lucky to draft a player of Ward’s caliber and quality once every four years.

From Afterthought to the Mainstay of an Offense

The Steelers drafted Hines Ward with their third 3rd round pick of the 1998 draft. They apparently thought that Chris Conrad (an OT who blossomed into a total bust) was better than Ward.

On the day he was drafted ESPN commentators immediately speculated that he was to become the next “Slash” due to his experience playing quarterback, running back, and wide receiver in Georgia.

Ward saw no such action with the Steelers, although his first claim to national fame came as a rookie on Monday Night when he completed a pass to Kordell Stewart.

Absent Yancy Thingpen and with Charles Johnson’s development waning, wide receiver became a glaring need for the Steelers in 1998.

  • Few fans, professionals, or even coaches realized that the Steelers had their answer already on the roster.

Hines Ward only caught 15 passes as a rookie, nothing special to the untrained eye. But the astute observer could see that Ward not only led the team in yards-per-catch but also in special teams tackles.

The Steelers nonetheless used their next two first round draft picks on wide receivers. But it was Ward who would survive to lead the Steelers to victory in Super Bowl XL where he won MVP honors.

Linebacker in an Wideout’s Body

Mike Tomlin said on more than one occasion that Hines Ward was sort of line a linebacker trapped in a wide receiver’s body. That’s because Ward gave everything he had on every play.

  • No one was spared his punishing blocks,
  • No errant ball flew uncontested,
  • No extra yardage was sacrificed to the safety of the sideline

Absent the athletic gifts that Lynn Swann or John Stallworth had, but Hines Ward made up for with his dedication, preparation, and hustle. Hines Ward was also a leader and a play maker. Whether the quarterback was Kordell Stewart, Mike Tomzack, Tommy Maddox, Charlie Batch, Dennis Dixon, Byron Leftwich or Ben Roethlisberger, when the game was on the line and a catch simply had to be made, Ward was likely the intended target.

Georgia Bulldog in Winter

One of the sad truths about sports is that time eventually robs a player of his skills. And, for the past several summers in Latrobe, some reporter would always say, “This is the summer that Hines Ward began to slow a step.”

Ward proved them wrong year-in-and-year-out. Even during the 2010 season, when his production dipped, Ward continued to make catches that counted, and had the Steelers won Super Bowl XLV, Ward most certainly would have been the team MVP.

Alas, father time caught up with Hines Ward in 2011. He continued to start in spite of Anthony Brown’s rise, and while he was still catching balls, Ward wasn’t quite the same. (For an in depth look at Hine’s Ward 2011 season, click here to read Georgia Bulldog in Winter.)

An injury during the Ravens game was followed by a benching, and by his ultimately successful quest to reach the 1000 catch mark with the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Bitter, but Necessary Medicine

The Steelers decision to part ways with Hines Ward is a bitter one but ultimately a necessary one. During the latter part of the 2011 season, Ward did not look the same. He had difficulty getting open and worse yet, seemed to have even more difficulty catching the ball with any degree of consistency.

As Dejan Kovacevic of the Tribune Review noted, Ward’s final regular season carry, a 5 yard loss on a shovel pass, seemed to punctuate just how deep into decline Ward had slipped.

Yes, perhaps with an off season of rest and a finer understanding of his new role Ward could have come back and contributed in 2012.

But the Steelers are barely at or under the salary cap, and they perhaps are already mortgaging their future. They simply can’t afford to reserve precious salary cap and roster space that might allow them to secure Mike Wallace’s or Jerricho Cotchery’s future with the team.

Teams never easily “replace” leaders like Hines Ward.

Hines Ward's absence will create a void on the field, in the huddle, and in the locker room that could take season's to fill.

Following the Emperor Instead of The Bus

On the day he retired, Chuck Noll observed that it would have been great to win the Super Bowl and call it a day with a tremendous hurrah! But it didn’t happen that way.

Moments like these make you appreciate just how lucky Jerome Bettis was to go out on top.

Unfortunately for Ward, he follows the path trod by The Emperor instead of The Bus.

Hines Ward’s exit is necessary in a football sense, but nonetheless bitter medicine indeed because Hines is every bit the portrait of a prototypical Pittsburgh Steeler.

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Monday, February 27, 2012

Are the Steelers Mortgaging Their Future?

The Steelers of the ‘70s won four Super Bowls in six years largely because they out drafted the rest of the league.

One part of this success came the Steelers active scouting and drafting players from the Historically Black Colleges circuit, a talent trove that most of the rest of the league willfully ignored then.

That foresight was important, but it would not have paid off in the form of Joe Greene, L.C. Greenwood, John Stallworth, and Mel Blount had Art Rooney Jr., Dick Haley, Jack Butler, Bill Nunn Sr. and Chuck Noll not been superior talent evaluators.

  • The Steelers system delivered Hall of Famers whether they were drafting first in 1970 or 21st in 1974.

All good things come to an end, and this happened in Pittsburgh when few were noticing. In the midst of their Super Bowl runs the Steelers shifted their drafting strategy.

With a roster stocked with All Pro talent they veered away from taking the best man on the board, fearing he might not be able to justify a roster spot, and started seeking players who might have “slipped” for some reason.

The results were far from fruitful.

This neat little story is relevant today because it is a fair question to ask if something similar might be unfolding before our eyes.

Mastering the Salary Cap

Once upon a time conventional wisdom held that free agency would do to the Steelers what it did to the Pirates. Critics derided Dan Rooney as a cheap sake who had no hope of competing with free spenders like Jack Kent Cooke, who was the Daniel Snyder of his day.

  • The opposite of course happened.

The Steelers remained competitive through the 1990’s and thrived in the ‘00’s because they pioneered the principles for mastering the salary cap:

  • Avoid bidding wars
  • Focus on resigning your own, home-grown talent
  • Never over pay
  • Minimize the amount waste money (salary cap space devoted to players not on the roster)

The Steelers are not likely to get into any bidding wars anytime soon, nor are they likely to go on a shopping spree. As for over paying, if Lawrence Timmons does not play dramatically better than he did in 2011 they will have overpaid for him. But beyond that, the Steelers have been and should remain good about getting more bang for their buck.

Which brings us to our last point.

If you guessed that they all signed contracts last summer that the Steelers have turned around and renegotiated in less than a year, you guessed right.

The Steelers started the NFL off season about 15 million dollars over the NFL’s 2012 Salary cap and with Ben Roethlisberger’s recent renegotiation, have just about gotten to or perhaps slightly under the cap.

  • That is good news of course.

But how, and why this was necessary remains a different question, given that such drastic renegotiations are far from Standard Operating procedure on the South Side, to borrow the words of Neal Coolong of Behind the Steel Curtain.

The mechanics of renegotiating a contract are simple: A team converts a part of the player’s base salary for the said year (or years) into a signing bonus, which then gets paid to the player in a lump sum, and is divided among the remaining years of his contract.

In pure dollar terms it amounts to a wash for the player because he loses no money.

For the team the issue is more complicated, because money converted to a bonus remains on the team’s books and can never be erased. In other words, if Willie Colon suffers another debilitating injury in the season opener and decides to call it a career, the Steelers are on the hook for his entire bonus.

The Road from Here

The NFL’s salary cap is expected to expand greatly when the new television deals kick in, easing the future bit of already paid bonuses. That’s fine, but that is still a few seasons away.

In the mean time, Omar Khan, Kevin Colbert, and Art Rooney II have taken a calculated risk. Their margin for injury or error is greatly reduced.

  • The flexibility that allowed the Steelers to bring in Flozell Adams when Willie Colon went down is something they’ll likely miss for the next season or two.
  • Signing Mike Wallace is also greatly complicated by their current situation.

It is far too early to say that the current Steelers brain trust is making the same types of errors with the salary cap that their brethren made with the draft in the late ‘70’s.

But it is a situation that bears watching.

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Friday, February 24, 2012

Roethlisberger Restructures Contract

Like Ike Taylor, LaMarr Woodley, Lawrence Timmons, and Willie Colon, Pittsburgh Steelers starting quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has agreed to restructure his contract to help the team gain some much-needed salary cap relief.

When the 2011 season ended, the Steelers were proportedly between 15 and 20 million dollars over the NFL's projected 2012 salary cap. The 2012 salary cap goes into effect just before the mid-March free agent signing period, and no team may be over the cap.

With the Roethlisberger restructuring the Steelers gained 8 more million dollars, and are believed to be at or very close to the salary cap.

Not Out of the Woods Yet....

The Steelers, however, are far from out of the woods. They still have several of their own free agents that they would like to resign, Mike Wallace being chief amoung them, and to do that they'll need to clear more cap space, in addition to needed space to sign their draft picks.

The Steelers have already parted ways with Arnz Battle and Bryant McFadden, and General Manager Kevin Colbert indicated that further cuts are to come.

Speaking at the NFL scouting combine, Colbert clarified that the Steelers will not make those moves until the NFL clarifies what the final cap number is to be.

Chris Kemoeatu is said to be on his way out and a strong possiblity remains that Hines Ward will also be released.

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Thursday, February 16, 2012

Uncertainty Shrouds Hines Ward Future with Steelers

Free agency is looming with the draft to follow. Yet the biggest story outside of the South Side has to do with the team’s longest-tenured veteran, Hines Ward.

Ever since his benching in mid 2011, the question has been where will Hines Ward play in 2012?

Fans trying to glimpse insights by reading the tea leaves coming out of the press have to be frustrated. NFL Network of course reported that the decision to cut Ward was already a done deal, a rumor shot down quickly by Ed Bouchette, and then by Kevin Colbert himself.

Writing on PG Plus, Gerry Dulac seemed to offers some clues and, for Ward’s backers, they were none too encouraging.

Dulac confirmed that the decision on Ward would not come down to money, but offered that: Even if Ward volunteers to play for free in 2012, there is no guarantee he will be on the Steelers roster.

Dulac makes of point of emphasizing that his observations about Ward’s skills are diminished are his own opinion, but it is hard to imagine these opinions haven’t been influenced heavily by some Steelers coach with whom he’s had a long conversation in the parking lot to coffee room.

Dulac points out that teams played tight, man-to-man converge on Ward in 2012 simply because they knew he’d be unable to get open. He also makes the point which I noticed, that Ward had a unusually high number of drops and fumbles in 2012.

The tone of Dulac’s article leaves the reader with the feeling that he’s talked with someone, a football person, whose calling for Ward to begin “Life’s Work.”

Veteran reporter Dale Lolley had a slightly different take, one that he shared on his blog “From the NFL Sidelines.” Lolley simply states that Kevin Colbert’s statement that the Steelers are unlikely to resign any of their own free agents prior to the March 13th deadline, “helps make a case for the Steelers to keep Ward.”

I am not sure why that would be the case, beyond the fact that the Steelers would need the extra money freed up by Ward’s release to make any sort of a deal.

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Sunday, February 12, 2012

Watch Tower: Range of Opnions on Todd Haley Hire as Wide as Red Sea

Todd Haley is the Pittsburgh Steelers new offensive coordinator. And if the divergent opinions in the press are any indication, Haley figures to be a far more of a polarizing figure than his predecessor, Bruce Arians.

Coaching hires have been debated as long as mediums have existed to cover them. But as the Watch Tower sees it, the range opinons about the wisdom of the Haley Hire are as wide as the parting of the Red Sea.

Dejan Kovacevic Fails to Make His Case

The Tribune-Review’s Dejan Kovacevic was one of the first to pounce on Haley, declaring the entire affair to be nutty. He didn’t stop there, delving immediately in to specifics observing:
Let's start with Haley himself, whose behavior throughout his 15-year NFL coaching career has been outright certifiable.

To back up that claim, Kovacevic claims that last fall Haley had a room swept for bugs prior to an interview with the Kansas City Star. For good measure, Kovacevic reminded his readers that Haley made similar claims about a cellphone which he’d purchased prior to joining the Chiefs.

He doesn’t stop there, going on to cite a column by Kansas City-based columnist Jason Witlock who charged that Haley’s firings of Chan Gailey, Charlie Weis were rooted in Haley’s desire to ensure that credit for any success was to go to him.

  • Citing another writer’s work is fair game, but Kovacevic quite frankly could have and should have done some of his own reporting to verify such a charge.

Kovacevic also admonishes Haley and for suing McDonald’s over finding a dead rat in his wife’s salad, going as far to mock some of the claims made by Haley’s lawyer.

  • Kovacevic goes a little far here, Haley is not directly responsible for quotes made by his lawyer – and who wouldn’t think of suing if they found a rat in their salad?

Getting back to football fundamentals, Kovacevic asks how "how [Haley’s] pass-specialist pedigree will address Rooney's wish to bolster the run."

  • Um, er, ah, what about the fact that Haley’s had the number one rushing offense in 2010?

Delving into how Haley’s fiery personality might impact the locker room, Kovacevic wonders:

We know a few of Tomlin's players — notably Roethlisberger — pushed for quarterbacks coach Randy Fichtner to get Arians' old job, and Rooney evidently overruled that, too.
The first part of the claim is almost undoubtedly fact. Finhtner is the QB’s coach, and Tomlin very well may have promoted him to that position to groom him as a replacement for Arians.

But the final part of Kovacevic’s claim is a little more problematic. For Rooney to overrule Fichtner, Tomlin would first have to want to offer him the job. He may have wanted to, but there is no public evidence to suggest that, in fact the evidence is to the contrary, and again Kovacevic fails to support his claim with original reporting.

When Kovacevic defected from the Post-Gazette to the Tribune-Review, one of the main reasons he cited was the fact that PG sports editor Jerry Micco was reluctant to let him write a regular column.

Might we now understand why Micco was so reluctant?

The View from Cook's Kitchen

The Post-Gazette’s Ron Cook made no effort to skirt the issues surrounding Haley’s cantankerous disposition. In fact, he embraces them. After reviewing a litany of Haley’s public confrontations, Cook concludes:
He even had on-field disputes with former boss Bill Parcells. You might say he's a chip off the Parcells block.

And this is a bad thing?

I say not necessarily.
Conceeding that “every coach has enemies,” Cook goes on to argue:
I'm not naïve. I know that endorsement doesn't guarantee Haley will be successful with the Steelers. But it does tell me that Haley isn't always the monster he's portrayed as being. And even if his tough-love coaching style is tougher than most, it doesn't guarantee that his players will hate him and he will fail.
Cook largely confines his arguments to the subjective, avoiding delving in too deeply into the X’s and O’s, but he does conclude that Haley track record is that of an offensive coordinator that plays to his team’s strengths, something that was frequently, but not always true about Bruce Arians.

Blogsphere Amplifies Division on Haley

For once, the dichotomy evident on the professional press is reflected neatly in the blogsphere, and no where is this more clear than Behind the Steel Curtain (full disclosure, I also write for BTSC.)

When Haley’s name first surfaced as a candidate, Neal Coolong, BTSC’s assistant editor, wasted little time in going to town on the prospect, observing:
He's an interesting, if not obvious, candidate. Interesting in the sense he appears to be an incredibly poor fit for the job. [Emphasis added.]
Coolong attacked Haley’s coaching candidacy with zest, citing all sorts of red flags behind the coaches clashes with former players and coaches, his poor performance minus Hall of Famers like Kurt Warner and Larry Fitzgerald, and several questionable coaching decisions.

His colleague, Tim Gleason, aka Mary Rose took a completely different tact, lauding the hire in glowing terms:
By bringing in Haley, the Steelers have added to the mix an experienced, lifelong, successful offensive mind rather than a starter coach. That can only be a plus in draft preparations, in-house player evaluations and every other aspects of strategies and Xs and Os of offensive football. Haley will begin immediately to be an asset in drafting options.

Gleason extols’ Haley’s varied paths to success, praising him for revitalizing Kurt Warner’s career and for leading only the fifth NFL offense to have three 1000 plus wide receivers.

How’s that for diversity of opnion on the same site?

Pick Up the Phone and Do Some Reporting, Please

Everyone knows that Art Rooney II forced Mike Tomlin to fire Bruce Arians. The fact that Arians’ “retirement” lasted all of 8 days and that the Steelers have made no attempt to refute the story establishes this as fact.

Ron Cook wants breath additional legs into this story, charging that Rooney also forced Tomlin to hire Todd Haley.

Cook suggests that Tomlin’s lack of availability to the press, refusal to answer questions at Todd Haley’s press conference all signal that Tomlin cannot be happy with the way this affair unfolded.

And he’s right. Tomlin publicly endorsed his offensive coordinator only to have Art Rooney II pull rank on him. That’s a nasty brew to swallow.

But Cook extrapolates to the extreme:

Hey, all speculation is fair until we hear from Tomlin or more from Rooney. I can't say for sure one way or the other who hired Haley. [Emphasis added.]
The key to Cook’s entire column is the word in italic above “speculation.” Webster’s on-line dictionary gives a couple of definitions of the root word “speculate.”

  • to meditate on or ponder a subject : REFLECT

  • to take to be true on the basis of insufficient evidence

In other words, Cooks is taking a wild-ass guess. Which is fine, up to a point, but Cook then extrapolates to the extreme, where after extolling the Rooney’s wisdom of hiring Tomlin, he suggests:

There aren't better owners in sports than the Rooneys, at least there weren't before this offensive coordinator mess. [Emphasis added.]
Had it been established that Rooney did in fact for the Haley hire on Tomlin, that would be one thing. But no one knows that. But Cook simply doesn’t stop there, he continues aruging:
I'm guessing Tomlin will have the chance to be here for a long time. I'm just not so sure anymore that he wants to stay.

We're not going to have to wait long to find out.

Steelers.com has reported Tomlin's contract runs through next season with an option for 2013.

So in a simple 836 words, Ron Cook takes the Steelers change at offensive coordinator from the awkward firing of Bruce Arians, to Tomlin getting forced to hire someone he didn’t want to hire, to Tomlin planning to pack his bags.

Cook might be right. If he follows past procedure, Rooney will attempt to extend Tomlin’s contract this off season when he has two years remaining. If Tomlin balks Ron Cook will have bragging rights, and the Watch Tower will be the first to say so.

  • But until then this is merely speculation.

But Cook is a professional who has been a credentialed member of the Pittsburgh sports writers for over 20 years.

If he’s going to go so far as to suggest that this is the beginning of the end of Mike Tomlin’s tenure in Pittsburgh then he owes it to his readers to make the simple effort of going out and finding some facts to back up his claim.

Sure, he’s a columnist not a reporter, but professional columnists have the obligation based their opinions on facts. Otherwise, he might as well join the ranks of the bloggers.

Thanks for visiting. To read more analysis of the media that cover the Steelers, click here to read more from Steel Curtain Rising's Watch Tower.

Omar Khan to Stay with Steelers

Free agency is still a few weeks away, but the Pittsburgh Steelers will start ahead of the curve.

First the Bulter did it. Now Omar Khan is following in his footsteps.

Linebacker's coach Keith Bulter had an offer to become the defensive coordinator of the Colts, but Art Rooney II and Mike Tomlin talked him out of even listening to what the Colts had to say. Bulter's contract had expired, but reports indicate that he's been promised the Steelers defensive coordinator slot when Dick LeBeau retires.

Now Rooney has done it again with Omar Khan. The St. Louis Rams had asked for permission to interview Omar Khan. The Steelers granted the Rams permission to interview Khan, who also interviewed with the Seattle Seahawks two years ago, but Khan has opted to stay in Pittsburgh, as reported by Ed Bouchette on PG Plus.

Khan might perhaps be biding his time, as Bouchette reports that Khan would rejoin Bill Cowher were Cowher ever to don the coach's headset again.

Omar Khan has been with the Steelers for 12 years, and serves as their director of bueinss operations and as their lead contract negotiator.

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Saturday, February 11, 2012

No Steelers Decision on Hines Ward, Yet

The NFL Network reported ealier today that the Steelers had decided to cut franchise leading wide reciver Hines Ward.

The news was picked up by many outlets, and the rumors gained enough currency that Ward himself took to Facebook to announce that he'd heard nothing from the team.

Veteran Post-Gazette scribe Ed Bouchette went into action, knocked down the rumors, at least for the moment. Writing on PG Plus Bouchette informed:
Indeed, the Steelers and Ward may ultimately part ways, but the people I talked to have intimate knowledge of such things and they've assured me there has been no decision.

This is a clear case of Ed Bouchette doing exactly what he is supposed to: Going right to the source and getting the story.

Moreover, the decision to deliver it, at least first via PG Plus highlights the value that subscribers are paying to get. AND, PG Plus is rarely if ever updated on the weekends, but Bouchette posted it at 6:00 pm on a Saturday evening, earning him double Kudos from the Watch Tower

Thanks for visiting. To read more analysis of the media that cover the Steelers, click here to read more from Steel Curtain Rising's Watch Tower.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Steelers Say Hello to Haley, Good Bye to Battle, Bryant McFadden

The Pittsburgh Steelers named Todd Haley their new offensive coordiantor this week, ending a lengthy search process to replace Bruce Arians.

As they said hello to a familiar face, Haley is in fact the son of Dick Haley who stood shoulder-to-shoulder with Art Rooney Jr. and Bill Nunn as the team's director of player personnel during the drafts of the 1970's, they also began what will likely be a lengthy, and at times painful series of good byes.

The Steelers are projected to be 10 to 15 million dollars over the NFL's salary cap for 2012. To get under the team will need to clear a lot of space, and the only way to do that is to part ways with veterans, many of whom will walk out the door past two Super Bowl trophies that they had a hand in winning.

The process began today as the Steelers waived Bryant McFadden and Arnz Battle. McFadden was a rookie in Super Bowl XL and a starter in Super Bowl XLIII. He departed to Arizona after 2008, but returned via trade during the 2010 NFL Draft. McFadden was often injured during his second stint with the Steelers, although he did remain a consistent special teams contributor during the 2011 season.

Battle was one of the members brought in by the Steelers suprise 2010 free agent signing spree, and contributed heavily to the improvement on special teams that year. His contributions were missed when he fell injured during the 2011 season, but ultimately salary cap needs made him expendable.

These two cuts were both anticipated and fairly easy.

The next ones promise to be more difficult.

Stay Steel Curtain Rising will be commenting on those as they happen, as well as offering commentary on both Todd Haley and Bruce Arians' departure.

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Sunday, February 5, 2012

Dermontti Dawson and Jack Bulter Headed to the Hall of Fame

The Road to Canton runs through Pittsburgh. Or at least it does in 2012.
The NFL Hall of Fame selection committee has met, and four of the six selectees strong boast ties to Pittsburgh, if not the Steelers.

After several years of close calls, the Hall of Fame selection committee voted to induct Dermontti Dawson. Drafted out of Eastern Kentucky in 1988, Dawson did a rookie apprenticeship at right guard playing along side fellow Hall of Famer Mike Webster.

Then Dawson did the unthinkable, he make Iron Mike Webster expendable (Webster would go on to play to more seasons as a starter in Kansas City) taking over the starting role and holding it down until injuries forced him from the line up in 1999 and 2000.

Dawson was an anchor on some of the NFL's best offensive lines of the 1990's, and the Steelers relied on his versatility and athleticism to make trapping and pulling plays that few other offensive lineman have been capable of.

Jack Bulter played for the Steelers during the 1950's, and when knee injuries forced him from the starting line up, he was the second all time leader in interceptions, in the NFL Today, a distinction he still holds for the Steelers. Following that Hall of Fame playing career, Bulter served as the Steelers BLESTO scout for 44 years until retiring in 2007.

The two other members of the 2012 Class with ties to Pittsburgh are Curtis Martin, who is both a native of Pittsburgh and an alum of the University of Pittsburgh, and Chris Doleman who also played at Pitt.

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