Hoak final word on Steelers' history

DETROIT – Dick Hoak remembers when the Pittsburgh Steelers trained at Slippery Rock University. That was before they trained at West Liberty State College, and before they trained at the University of Rhode Island.

Rhode Island?

"Nobody up there knew who the Pittsburgh Steelers were," Hoak said, "let alone who you were."

Hoak has been with the Steelers 44 years, so he just missed, by a few years, the days when the team trained at St. Bonaventure in Olean, N.Y.

"Unitas was cut up at St. Bonaventure," said Hoak, who knows a little bit about Steelers history.

Hoak's still the running backs coach; has been for 34 years. So Hoak had a legitimate reference point when he was asked how someone goes about coaching Jerome Bettis.

"My first year of coaching was Franco's rookie year," Hoak said. "After we saw what Franco could do, after a preseason game, coach Noll came over to me and said ‘Hey, don't overcoach him.' So that's what I do with Jerome: I don't overcoach him."

And Willie Parker?

"I try not to overcoach Willie, either," he said.

From Franco Harris to Willie Parker, Hoak has seen them all. Before that, he was the Steelers' feature back. Hoak was drafted out of Penn State in 1961. He broke in when Ernie Stautner and "Big Daddy" Lipscomb were the foundation of one of the hardest-hitting teams in the NFL.

"We were pretty good my first two or three years and then it was all downhill until I retired," said Hoak, who retired after the 1970 season. At the time, his 3,965 rushing yards trailed only John Henry Johnson on the team's all-time list.

Hoak coached high school football for a year and returned to the Steelers in 1972 to coach under Chuck Noll. Hoak was the only assistant from Noll's staff to join Bill Cowher's staff in 1992.

The fact the Steelers have had only two coaches since 1969 is amazing. But what does that make Hoak? He's not only been with both coaches for all but one year, he's been with Bill Austin, Mike Nixon and Buddy Parker. Anyone up for Walt Kiesling?

"I don't go back quite that far," Hoak said with a chuckle. "When I came out of college, I didn't even think of playing pro football. I think I saw two or three games on television before I ever went to the Pittsburgh Steelers. Over the years it just grew and grew and grew. Now this is what it is."

Hoak says the only real difference in the game is the extensive media coverage. The play of the teams is circular. Hoak likens this current version to the Steelers of 1989.

"The Super Bowl teams of the seventies, we knew most of the time we were going to the Super Bowl," Hoak said. "One of the great coaching jobs coach Noll did that a lot of people don't realize and think about – and this team is something like it – is 1989. We got beat 51-0 in the first game and 41-10 in the second game. Somehow we ended up making the playoffs, and we knocked Houston off in the first playoff game and we had Denver beat in the next one."

The Broncos rallied to beat the Steelers and went on to the Super Bowl. These Steelers have already topped those Steelers, and these Steelers could give Hoak one for the thumb.

Hoak scoffs at the phrase that's become a rallying cry for Steelers fans since a fan raised a banner at Cleveland Municipal Stadium in 1981.

"I've never thought of one for the thumb" he said. "I'd like to see these guys win it because most of them are here for the first time and a lot of these coaches have never won one. I want them to win it. I don't want to win one for the thumb. I want these guys to experience the victory. Some of these guys, some of these coaches, were on that losing Super Bowl team (1995). I want them to see what it's like to win one."

Hoak's the final word on Steelers history, and he's the one that calls B.S. on a lot of it. He laughs about how the stories have been embellished, but he understands. He's seen them come and go: people, players, even team presidents.

How long will this 66-year-old symbol of Steelers football continue coaching?

"My health's still good. I still enjoy it. I still get along with the players. I still think I can handle the players. I'll keep doing it until I just decide I don't want to -- unless they fire me," he said.

"But I'm in this system to beat the system: If they fire me, I'll say I quit. They say that when you're hired in pro football as a coach, you're hired to be fired. Well I beat the system. I was hired but I've never been fired. I may get fired but that's the day I'll retire."

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