New Steelers books lean on rich history

Jim Wexell used the bye week to catch up on his reading, and he offers his opinion on three of the new books about the Pittsburgh Steelers.

I'm sure you've noticed my glee this past bye week, and I apologize.

I understand why fans abhor them, but bye weeks come as vacations for writers. They provide us time to shut down the laptop and open up the books we've been meaning to read, if for no other reason than to pay some bills.

Anyway, I caught up on three books this week and all three should interest fans of the Pittsburgh Steelers.

The first and probably best was The Ones Who Hit The Hardest.

Yes, it's an awful title. Who can remember it around the water cooler? It's even more difficult to figure out who wrote the thing, but the listed authors are Chad Millman and Shawn Coyne, both career editors who were hired for this project by a big New York City publishing house.

Coyne, in fact, is a Pittsburgh native, so the publishers got their requisite yinzer for the stereotypically parochial natives.

Yes, it's almost as if a computer spit out this formula for success. The authors pored through the worn-out Steelers books (About Three Bricks Shy …, and the rest) and talked to the same worn-out beat men (Vito Stellino, and the rest) and re-told the same old stories (Terrible Towel, Ernie Holmes rampage, Chuck Noll's speech before Oakland in 1974, and the rest) to come up with what surely will be a moneymaker for Gotham Books.

Let's just hope there's some cash left over for the authors in this fossilized publishing formula because they did a superb job of researching and regurgitating this re-dux of the 1970s Steelers dynasty.

It's a bit fancified, of course. I mean, how else could I so naturally compare their formula to the Dallas Cowboys of the 1970s and their spiffy computers without having this book make the same metaphorical comparisons to Pittsburgh the dying city and the Steelers' blue-collar approach.

Actually, those themes are the more interesting to me, since I, being a caveman-like purveyor of everything Steelers, knew little other than the football side of things. This book delves into the Cowboys organization and the death of big steel as threads that stand as importantly as the Steelers' march to greatness. While I found the co-plots fascinating, I failed to understand the need to detail the fight for union leadership when either contender was doomed for failure by the end of the decade anyway.

As for the telling of the Cowboys' tales, these too were regurgitated from books by Tony Dorsett, Duane Thomas and Hollywood Henderson. Fascinating, but played.

Still, the book will sweep you away, and that's why you should pay the big bucks ($26.00) for it.

If you're more interested in the blue-collar approach, the genuine Pittsburgh approach as opposed to the computerized Plastic Man of Dallas approach, try From Black to Gold by Tim Gleason, a self-described lifetime fan of the Steelers, who did an astoundingly professional job with his once-in-a-lifetime project.

Gleason also spoons up the old stories, but the difference here is that he's not so arrogant as to believe his stories are fresh. Instead, he adds to them with interviews of literary newcomers such as Browns linemen Robert Jackson, Dave Puzzuoli, and Doug Dieken, old Steelers Ray Kemp, Roy Jefferson, Jack Butler, and even Mrs. Lowell Perry, among many others.

Gleason, of course, interviewed Dick Hoak, but unlike the Gotham pair, Gleason asked Hoak about mysteries such as Big Daddy Lipscomb instead of asking him about Franco Harris, Chuck Noll, The Chief, ad nauseam.

While Hit The Hardest is probably the finer read, Black to Gold is the sentimental favorite. And Ron Jaworski's The Games That Changed The Game will appeal to the hardcore football fans on your Christmas list.

Jaworski, a film rat, also has the backing of a New York publishing house, as well as ESPN, NFL Films, and a team of specialists led by Greg Cosell, who's probably the best pure football writer on the 'Net today. He's the type of writer whom Millman, Coyne, Stellino and the rest of the elite probably don't know exists. But this book is the type of meat-filled pie that requires all of today's top resources as Jaworski tracks the most important developments of today's game.

Steelers-centric chapters in this book include Bud Carson's Stunt 4-3 defense, which was unofficially unveiled in the 1974 AFC Championship Game against Oakland, and Dick LeBeau's Zone Blitz schemes, which Jaworski illustrates by way of the Steelers' 1993 playoff game against the Buffalo Bills.

Of course, we know the zone blitz was used by LeBeau years earlier in Cincinnati. In fact, I swore I once watched Richard Dent drop into coverage for the '85 Bears, well before LeBeau's schemes came along. Jaworski, though, explained this "peel back" used by Dent in a previous chapter, setting my mind at ease about LeBeau's place at the top of the zone blitz evolution.

It's all quite fascinating and for the most part original. The parts that repeat legend – such as the neverending playbacks of the Steelers' 1970s dynasty – are quite informative.

For example, through film study and simple narration, Jaworski illustrated Mel Blount's awful performance against Oakland in the '74 semifinal game. It went a long way in explaining what had never been fully explained about why Blount was benched, why he was hacked off at Carson during the subsequent Super Bowl week, and why the Steelers drafted Dave Brown in the first round the following year, which in turn motivated Blount's ascent to greatness.

It was all good reading, but of course nothing quite matches the brilliance of my 2008 book Steeler Nation. Yeah, that's setting the bar a little high for these big-city guys, and yet it just might explain my lack of enthusiasm for unoriginal regurgitation from computer-generated yinzers and their arrogant and outdated publishing and sales methods. But that shouldn't stop you from enjoying some pretty decent reads.


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