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Why These 6 Days in 1969 Were So Important to Pittsburgh

Pittsburgh Magazine is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, but we're not the only ones. We take a look at six notable events from 1969.



(page 1 of 6)


 

The word “Renaissance” has become so embedded in the region’s history that its descriptive force has ebbed away. But 50 years ago, Pittsburgh was in the throes of a full-blown metamorphosis.

In the Golden Triangle, a new skyscraper was rising higher than anything outside of Manhattan and Chicago. Across the river, workers were building a modern stadium for the pennant-chasing Pirates and the hapless Steelers. Bankrolled by foundations fattened by decades of prosperity, cultural organizations and educational institutions were springing up and growing full throttle. A new children’s television program from public station WQED was quickly amassing a national following.

Yet amid the optimism, the social climate roiled. Protesters decried war in Vietnam. A new feminist movement was forming. Ghettos wracked by riots and fires in the aftermath of Martin Luther King Jr.’s murder the previous year remained flashpoints of racial tension, both restive and resolute. Across Pittsburgh and America, voices long ignored now demanded to be heard.

Read on about six of the region’s most consequential days from that year.
 

{January 27, 1969}
 


photo courtesy Cleveland Browns
 

STEELERS HIRE CHUCK NOLL

“Geography has nothing to do with winning. Winning is a product of work and attitude.” — CHUCK NOLL

At least one Baby Boomer didn’t love the 1960s. For the North Sider teenager whose family owned the Pittsburgh Steelers, every weekend ended in disappointment. “I always used to say growing up I hated Sundays, because it meant the Steelers would lose and I had school the next day,” recalls team president Art Rooney II. But in 1969, the boy’s grandfather made a fateful decision. Founder Art Rooney Sr. had picked every coach in his team’s 36-year history, yet not one had delivered the “Chief” so much as a division title. This time, he let his son decide.
 


photo courtesy pittsburgh steelers
 

Thus it was that Dan Rooney flew to Miami to meet with Baltimore Colts defensive coordinator Chuck Noll the day after Super Bowl III. Noll thoroughly impressed Rooney with his intelligence, determination and knowledge of the Steelers roster; two weeks later, he was hired. At the introductory press conference, a reporter’s question about coming to a “city of losers” was quickly swatted down by the new head coach. “Geography has nothing to do with winning,” Noll said. “Winning is a product of work and attitude.”

Journalists could be forgiven if they doubted his ability to deliver. The Steelers were coming off a two-win season, playing at Pitt Stadium and training in ramshackle quarters at the South Park fairgrounds while waiting for Three Rivers Stadium to be completed. “The general viewpoint was, here’s the next victim, the next guy who’s going to come in and say it’s going to be all better,” says Michael MacCambridge, author of “Chuck Noll: His Life’s Work.” “And he’s going to be replaced in the next year or two.”

On his first full day at work, Noll rejected Notre Dame quarterback and Butler native Terry Hanratty, considered to be the scouts’ favorite, and instead picked North Texas State defensive tackle Joe Greene. (The nonplussed Hanratty fell to the Steelers in the second round anyway.) At training camp that summer, the coach left an immediate impression on his future Steel Curtain linchpin. “This isn’t a good football team, and most of you aren’t going to be here when this is a good football team,” Noll bluntly told the players at their first team meeting. When one of them chuckled at the coach’s insistence that their ultimate goal was a Super Bowl, that player was summarily traded.

Noll’s dogged insistence on fundamentals seemed to pay off in the 1969 opener, with the Steelers upsetting the visiting Detroit Lions. Then they lost all 13 of their remaining games. “I would question what we were doing,” Greene recalls of his frustrating rookie year. “Mentally, in my own mind, I would question why we kept doing the same thing when it wasn’t working. But it never changed.”

The Rooneys, however, didn’t question. They knew Noll’s grand strategy: build up the team with talented young players such as Greene and mold them into champions. At the season’s end, Dan Rooney tried to give his coach a $10,000 bonus check. Noll resisted; he later had to be cajoled into cashing it. He insisted he hadn’t earned it yet.

As Steelers fans know, he soon would.
 

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