Man of Steel: Dick Hoak

Dick Hoak will end his 45-year association with the Pittsburgh Steelers today. The running backs coach bounced around the idea of retirement a few days before the last Super Bowl, when he was interviewed for this chapter from the new book, "Men of Steel."

Before Super Bowl XL, Dick Hoak worried about the mental state of Willie Parker, his inexperienced starting halfback

"He might hyperventilate," said Hoak, the Pittsburgh Steelers' running backs coach. "He hyperventilates in regular-season games sometimes. He didn't play in college and now all of the sudden you're the starter in the Super Bowl. I'm sure it has to have some kind of affect on him."

Parker didn't know what to make of the statement, because, even by the end of his second season with the Steelers, he still didn't know what to make of Hoak.

"In my first year he used to yell at me. I don't think he liked me," Parker said. "Now he yells at me to let me know stuff hasn't changed, and he laughs about it. He's a funny guy, man."

Dick Hoak looks nothing like a funny guy. Perhaps that's what's given him the edge all these years. After 44 years with the Steelers, Hoak likes to keep 'em guessing.

"I'm in this system to beat the system," he said. "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."

The Super Bowl marked the end of Hoak's 34th season as the Steelers' running backs coach. That was 12 years longer than the tenure of Cincinnati Bengals running backs coach Jim Anderson, who owned the second-longest streak by an NFL assistant with one team.

Hoak also served the Steelers as a player for 10 years. He took one year off after his playing days to coach high-school ball at Wheeling Catholic and returned to coach running backs under Chuck Noll in 1972, the year the Steelers drafted Franco Harris. The running game has been a team – no, make that a city – staple ever since.

Hoak had been with the Steelers 44 years at Super Bowl XL. Bill Cowher, the NFL's longest-tenured head coach at 14 years, was 48 years old that day.

Cowher was born six months after Hoak led his high-school team to a WPIAL championship. Hoak quarterbacked Jeannette past Myron Pottios's Charleroi team for the title. Hoak remembers the celebration like it happened yesterday.

"We got back to Jeannette about one o'clock in the morning," he said. "We drove downtown and they had an impromptu parade. It must've been two o'clock in the morning. We were driving up and down in cars, people throwing things at us, trying to pull us out of the cars, shake our hands and all that stuff. It was like it was Saturday afternoon at 12 o'clock."

Hoak and his wife Lynn live only a few miles away, in Greensburg, about 35 miles east of Pittsburgh. He was born in a football town, educated in a football town, and works in a football town. In places like Jeannette, State College and Pittsburgh, you're welcome only as long as you win, and Hoak has won.

At Penn State, Hoak played running back, defensive back and alternated at quarterback with Galen Hall. As a senior, Hoak won the 1960 Liberty Bowl MVP award after running for two touchdowns, passing for one and intercepting a pass in a rout of Oregon.

Because Steelers coach Buddy Parker had a habit of trading draft picks for veterans, the team didn't have picks in the first, third, fourth, fifth or sixth rounds in 1961, so they drafted old foes Pottios in the second and Hoak in the seventh. Both players eventually became Pro Bowlers and fit right into a 1962 team that went 9-5 and finished second in the Eastern Conference to the New York Giants (12-2). The nine wins stood as a team record until 1972 (11-3).

The Steelers followed it up with a 7-4-3 record in 1963, one of Hoak's best seasons. He rushed for 679 yards and scored a career-high seven touchdowns. He should've had eight -- and with it the Steelers would've had an 8-4-2 record -- but for a quick whistle on an apparent touchdown run during the infamous 17-17 tie with the Chicago Bears. The game was played less than 48 hours after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.

"I remember sitting in a dressing room at Forbes Field, ready to go out on the field, when Bobby Layne and Tom Tracy came in and said that Ruby had just shot Oswald," Hoak said. "It was very strange."

And the stolen touchdown?

"I remember Ernie Stautner and Red Mack were chewing out George Halas, saying, ‘You've got the officials in your pocket, George.'"

The Steelers finished the 1963 season on a quirky 3-0-3 run, but their luck would run out soon thereafter. "From there, it was all downhill until I retired," Hoak said.

The Steelers won 24 games over the next seven years, mainly because Parker had bankrupted so many drafts, but Hoak did have a few highlights. He still holds the Hall of Fame Game record for longest completion: eighty yards to Gary Ballman in 1964. As a passing halfback, Hoak completed 20 of 40 passes for a career passer rating of 90.3. The passer rating of the Steelers' starting quarterbacks during Hoak's playing days (Ed Brown, Bill Nelson, Ron Smith, Kent Nix, Dick Shiner, Terry Hanratty, Terry Bradshaw) was 55.1.

Hoak's finest season as a runner was 1968, when he made the Pro Bowl after rushing for 858 yards (4.9 average).

He retired in 1970 with 3,965 rushing yards. Hoak was the Steelers' No. 2 all-time leading rusher behind John Henry Johnson, and as of 2006 was fifth on the list behind Franco Harris. Hoak became Harris' rookie mentor when both joined the Steelers in 1972. Harris was the team's No. 1 draft pick and Hoak replaced Max Coley as running backs coach. The team improved from 13th in the NFL in rushing to second that season. The Steelers, of course, went on to win four championships by the end of the decade and Harris ended up in the Hall of Fame.

The Steelers' running game reached its peak in 1976 when both Harris and Rocky Bleier rushed for over 1,000 yards, the only such achievement in team history. Both backs were injured in the divisional playoff win over the Baltimore Colts and couldn't play the following week when the Steelers lost to the Oakland Raiders in the AFC title game.

Harris was released before the 1984 season and Hoak coached team rushing leaders Frank Pollard, Earnest Jackson, Merril Hoge and Tim Worley through the rest of the decade.

Noll retired in 1991 and Hoak wondered whether he was done as well, but Cowher was hired and he asked Hoak to become the only assistant holdover from Noll's staff.

It was a wise decision. With Hoak as his first lieutenant, Cowher's Steelers rushed for more yardage than any other NFL team the next 14 years. From 1992 to 2005, the Steelers rushed for 30,311 yards (4.1 avg.) and led the NFL in rushing three times (1994, 1997, 2001) behind team rushing leaders Barry Foster, Leroy Thompson, Erric Pegram, Jerome Bettis, Amos Zereoue and Parker. The Steelers finished in the top five in rushing seven times and in the top 10 12 times. Bettis retired as the NFL's fifth all-time leading rusher with 13,662 yards, 10,571 of which were gained under Hoak and the Steelers.

Hoak was asked at Super Bowl XL how he coaches a player such as Bettis.

"My first year, after we saw what Franco could do in a preseason game, Coach Noll came over to me and said ‘Hey, don't overcoach him.' So that's what I do with Jerome. All I do is make sure we get the game plan. He knows the pass protections, knows the fronts, knows what he's supposed to do. I don't tell him where he should've cut or things like that. He knows. That's the other thing: I played the game and I could sit there as a coach and run that machine back and forth about four times and say, well you screwed up, you should've cut here or cut there. But that kid has that much time to make that decision. If you start second-guessing the running back, now you turn him into a robot and you have a mechanical player who's not worth a crap. He's thinking so much he doesn't know where to run. So I never do it with Jerome and I try not to do it with Willie."

Hoak had opportunities to coach elsewhere. When the USFL sprung up in 1982, he prepared to take a job, but "I talked to Mr. Rooney and said I can't do this. I couldn't go across town and be in that other league and do this to Mr. Rooney. When Tony Dungy got hired at Tampa, Tony called me and wanted me to come there as a coordinator. I didn't do that. There was a time when the Philadelphia Eagles were looking for a coordinator and they asked for permission to talk to me and I don't think they ever gave them permission. When George Perles left, he actually had the Indianapolis job and changed his mind and turned it down. He had wanted me to go there with him. I seriously thought about that one for a little while – about two hours.

"Yeah, I've had opportunities to leave. I couldn't think of leaving Mr. Rooney. When I was a player, he treated me very well. Some things happened when I was a player and he took care of me."

One example came about two-thirds of the way through Hoak's Pro Bowl 1968 season. He went to the Roosevelt Hotel to pick up his check and the Chief gave him a bonus.

"It was a check for a good bit of money," Hoak remembered. "He said, ‘We stink but you're having a great year and you deserve this.' So I left. And then in the last game of the year I dislocated my shoulder and I was going to the Pro Bowl. So I had to go to the doctors in Pittsburgh, which was right across the street from the Steeler office. I went in to say hello and Dan called me into his office. I went in there and he handed me another check. I told Dan his father had given me a check four or five weeks ago and he said, ‘Yeah, I know.' They never had to do that, so I felt that they were loyal to me and that was one of the reasons, but it's not the only reason. My last year I got a concussion with two games left and I spent a week or so in the hospital, and every morning and every evening Mr. Rooney would show up at that hospital. He'd bring me a paper in the morning and he'd come by in the evening to see if I needed anything. And he did that with all of us. He didn't just do that with me."

From Buddy Parker to Willie Parker, Hoak is the Steelers. He did some math one day and calculated that "I spent five years of my life in college dormitories just for damn training camps." But it's paid off with one of the greatest collections of jewelry in coaching history. Hoak has five Super Bowl rings. The late Bobb McKittrick also earned five as the offensive line coach of the San Francisco 49ers. The only person with six is New England Patriots (and former Dallas Cowboys) strength coach Mike Woicik.

Hoak wondered if he could end up on top in the end.

"I might try to go until I'm 80," the 66-year-old said in 2006. "You're only as old as you feel."

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