White was the most outspoken and perhaps most successful of the four members of the Steel Curtain. In working on the book Tales From Behind the Steel Curtain, I called White at his office in Pittsburgh in 2004 for an interview. He gave me all the time I needed.
DW: What did you say your name was?
JW: Jim Wexell.
DW: Have you ever written a book before?
JW: No. This is my first.
DW: How are you going to write a book if you've never written one before?
JW: Got to start somewhere.
DW: Okay, Jim Wexell, I'll give you a shot. What's this about?
JW: It's about the 1979 season. I know that wasn't your greatest time with the team, but I'm hoping you can provide some insight.
DW: That's a situation that I to this day have heartburn about. But it's all about where you end up, so I'm OK.
JW: What do you remember about that championship season?
DW: We had won three and it's lonely at the top. If one could said to have been, well not anticlimactic, but I think there was a little wear and tear on everybody from the stress. I just thought that that was one that we realized the importance but didn't have quite the same bright-eyed elation over it that we did on the first one. It was kind of a different season from the previous two or three because of the wear and tear and we had been there before.
JW: Was it at least fun?
DW: Well, what is fun? It's a job and we certainly knew what was on the line. It was like working the graveyard shift and now the last few hours are the toughest. We had been out there quite awhile and everybody's shooting at you. But that was probably the strength of the team, the character and the fact we had been there before. Even though we were tired, even though we were somewhat aggravated maybe even -- you couldn't do anything, everywhere the media, media, media, media -- but we'd suck it up and do what we had to do.
JW: Was the media particularly bothersome at that point?
DW: I don't want to say bothersome but they were the necessary evil. You'd get the famous question: 'Do you guys think you can do it again?' You'd get the same questions over and over and over again and there was no place you could really hide. During the season, eight days a week it's football. And then you get to the playoffs, and I'd been there like eight previous years and three Super Bowl victories at that point. There's an old Texas saying, ‘If you eat steak and gravy every day it gets old.' I'm not saying we weren't glad to be there and weren't enthusiastic, but we maybe had too much consciousness of reality for our own good. The fun of meeting the press didn't have the same shine to it as it did the first couple. There's nothing like the first time. The second and the third and God knows by the time you get to the fourth it's, how can we make this as painless as possible?
JW: How would you define your personality?
DW: Complex. And that didn't come from me. Chuck [Noll] once described me as a complex person, so I don't know what that means, whether that's good or bad. I kind of wanted to ask Chuck what he meant, but I didn't really give a shit.
JW: Were you upset with Chuck about not being the full-time starter that season?
DW: I have this theory that it had nothing to do with performance on the field, that there were some other dynamics in play that I don't want to get into. You know, I've lived in America 55 years and I understand some things better now than I did even then. But I wasn't upset with anybody. It's just the way things shake out sometimes in America. I definitely think there were some other factors contributing to that decision, and no I wasn't upset, but I didn't agree with them.
When Dan Radakovich put that line together, and it was inherited by George Perles, who'd just been up there at Michigan State, and I think there was extra sentiment given to people from Michigan, and I think a relationship developed there that should've never gotten into the on-field performance. And I think part of the fact that people inherited the situation never gave them the legitimacy to say 'Look what I did,' especially if you were climbing through the coaching ranks. ‘Look what I created,' when it was already wrapped up and just handed to you, well then you really can't put it on your resume. Winning is one thing, but to say you had an integral part in the selection and fielding of certain players, I think that was definitely a factor. I think people had underlying objectives in doing things for themselves. Hell, I remember we had media personalities around town, and some are still around, from 1971 and 1972, and these guys were a bunch of nobodies covering what had been a team of nobodies. As we started winning, and whether they were the voice of the team or wrote a column on the team, they indirectly benefited. And some of the coaches did, too. Some people used that and manipulated that to their better interest. So I can remember back to when not only after I left, but we had guys and coaches and people in their infinite wisdom talking about 'Well, you know we've got to re-tool the team and these guys are getting old.' And a guy like Franco [Harris] ran for a thousand yards the year before and then they cut him. You need to re-tool there a whole lot, right? My point is some people got too smart for their own good. They figured it's not the players, it's my great coaching. It's my great ability to handle these guys, and that was a bunch of bullshit. You had people who wanted to get head coaching jobs and athletic director jobs and they needed to catch a rising star. Look at the direction so many of some players and some coaches went as a result of just being on that team. They were able to put down things on their resume that enhanced them.
It bothered me period. Even though it was a great period in Pittsburgh Steeler football history, there were some things from a human-resource perspective that probably could've been handled a lot better, from Franco Harris on down.
JW: Did you say this back then?
DW: There was so much winning in the '70s, that if there was something that went down that would absolutely stink, who was going to rock the boat? You couldn't get the media to give a straight story, an objective story on something because, with all respect to you, hell, the writers at that point were too busy vying for position in the little Steeler kitchenette and they've got celebrity status on the plane. They're protecting that bullshit. So if there was an objective story that needed to be done, it wouldn't have happened because Vito Stellino's worried if he's going to get his feet on the plane. That's just my opinion.
I think after a couple Super Bowls they were signing rookies just for Steeler watches. People just wanted to be on the team so bad they'd sign for a damn watch. That kind of attitude kind of manifested itself throughout the wh-o-o-o-o-le operation. People got egos bigger probably than they should've had and made decisions and judgments based on 'look at me I'm great, we're the best thing since canned peaches.' And there were a lot of people that were non-players that dealt with that and manipulated that and benefited from that.
Just because it's football doesn't mean you don't have to comply with basic human resource management. Football seems to be out of the box: We do whatever we want to do with anybody. We cut 'em, we keep 'em back, we send 'em home, we bring 'em back. They ought to be glad to play here. It goes unspoken but that's part of the mentality, at least at that time, especially with all of the winning. Things got really, really kind of crazy. Again, when you're winning, and there's an ugly situation, somebody put a turd in the punch bowl, you just sweep it under the carpet and cover it up and keep on going because you don't want to rock the boat. You're being a troublemaker; you're being disruptive. That's not what you're here for. Well, I think anybody in the NFL will tell you it's not like working at Highmark Blue Cross in terms of human resources and the way people are dealt with. It's different. It's football. Do they have a human resources department with the Steelers? I don't think so. They have a director of personnel. But I mean, you're running a multi-million dollar corporation and you don't have a human-resources department. But again, it's such a unique business some of it's inherent.
JW: Maybe the human-resources department was back in the kitchenette?
DW: Hey, I probably would've been looking for the front row seat on the plane, too, but it doesn't change the ultimate outlook from my perspective. I just saw some of the enthusiasm to go to the kitchenette and now you're hanging out in the locker room. You've got carte-blanche access and you're hanging out with the players, Super Bowl champions, Hall of Fame players. We were the hottest thing since canned peaches and these guys were just loving this. It's got to be a sportswriter's dream, right? Right? And so when there were situations, and they would deny it, but I believe it. I'm 55 years old and I think I got some of it right. You've got players who are the core of their marketing program and he can go out and have a terrible year, terrible year, but what comes out in the papers is someone treated with kid gloves. I'm not saying you should be Draconian in the way you deal with everybody and as a writer just tell it like it is and let the cards fall, because ultimately as a sportswriter, if you ain't in the huddle or on the sidelines you don't know what the hell you're talking about.
JW: Any good times?
DW: More good times than bad. I ain't got no stories. It's all just one big blur.
JW: What about the Super Bowl that season?
DW: We had a great time out in Newport Beach. That's where we were staying and working out and we had a great time. When it's not your first time going to the dance, you've got a little more wiggle room for the extracurricular activities.
JW: I'll bet there's a great story there?
DW: And you'll never hear it from me, dad. Oh, no. Oh, no. We were all sitting around playing backgammon, taking in the flora and the fauna there on the west coast. We took in flora AND fauna a couple times, too.
JW: What do you do now?
DW: Senior managing director with Mesirow Finanacing. We're a financial firm based in Chicago and I run our office here in Pittsburgh.
JW: Who was your most interesting teammate?
DW: One thing about the group of guys I played with, we all came from a different kind of period. Most of us came out of high school or college in the late '60s and that was a very interesting period in America. The things that drove people and meant a lot to people, I mean we played for something other than money. It was just different. And it was no coincidence that so many of the guys that played during that period have gone on to become viable, contributing, tax-paying citizens and family people and business people in their respective communities, many of them here in Pittsburgh. You had guys with great athletic ability and talent that won over an extended period of time and still have great friendships and camaraderie among themselves. And then many of them went ahead and continued to have successful lives and careers. So the person I think about today is Chuck Beatty. He was here the first couple years I was here and then they released him. But Chuck was a very complex person. He had a unique intellect. He's gone on to be a mayor in a small city in Texas, is a top executive in the Boy Scouts of America, which is great stuff, and is just a helluva guy. He's a person to this day I look up to and that I often kick it with, so to speak, in terms of what's going on out here and how should we, as middle age, worldly, African-American men, look at things. Yeah, it would be Chuck Beatty.
When you ask me about interesting, I don't think of football at all. Football is low-level thinking, okay? I don't care how you dress it up, how you package it, it's mindless. It's entertainment and there's not a lot of deep conversation in the locker room or in the front office for that matter. It's the Golden Goose theory. I mean, they've got the Golden Goose. So guys like us, people might find us to be interesting because, oh, he's a great player, a funny guy, a crazy guy, but that's run-of-the-mill. Those are a dime a dozen. But the person who's sort of out-of-character to even be playing here is the type I found interesting and Chuck Beatty represented that. He was a good football player but a greater person and a more interesting person than football player.
JW: Your whole team had a lot of character. Didn't that contribute to quality?
DW: Absolutely. You've got that right. It was a very unique group of guys coming out of a very unique period. You cannot separate the period and the backgrounds that most of the players came from in coming to Pittsburgh, being the doormat of the NFL; this whole losing scenario and these guys coming out of this period where the range went from the black movement to the this-is-America-and-you-can-do-anything dream, it was just a different time with Vietnam, civil rights, going to the moon, the war on poverty, fast cars, the sexual revolution. There was a wide range of things going on, and that was part of what was in the heart and soul of each of those guys. They came out of that period and most guys came from a nuclear family. It was a much different environment. We were more traditional in the way we looked at things, anything was conceivable. So that's why when we came to Pittsburgh in 1970 and this whole thing about 'Well, the Steelers would find a way to lose, they're a terrible team,' these guys refuted that. They'd say, 'You can't be talking about me. You must be talking about those bums from the previous decades.' We were a whole different breed. I think that had as much to do with the mental toughness and perseverance. We were just having fun and the first two, three years we didn't know how good we could be. We just went on a roll. Let's see how far this thing can go. I think I can take it all the way. I think I can, but I haven't been there and I don't know.
But I'm just emphasizing I think the time and period which most of us came out of had a lot do with the internal character that it took to win so much. I played 10 years and for nine of those 10 I was in the playoffs and in four Super Bowls. That's more than talent. That's why when I think about how players were handled and manipulated and how people benefited from that, I mean, you could've gotten Elmer Fudd to coach that football team. And I'm not suggesting Chuck Noll was Elmer Fudd or something less. He's a very bright man. I've got a lot of respect for Chuck. But I'm telling you, from a talent standpoint, the only thing you had to do -- and hear me clearly -- that was real important was to keep everybody focused, keep everyone from tearing one another apart because you had very high-strung people, very, very strong personalities in there. Focus and sense of purpose, as Chuck said, that was the task. Put the muzzles on and take 'em off and say, ‘Okay guys go get 'em.' But between Monday and Saturday was the problem. Like having 45 Rottweilers or Pit Bulls you have to keep focused and organized and walking the same pace all week long. We did have our characters, the Joe Gilliams and the Ernie Holmes, but still we had enough of the good stuff and focus to stay on top for 10 years.
JW: Ever wonder what it would be like to play in this big-money era?
DW: When I played, the first year I made $16,000. Football was a stepping stone, an excellent push-off. I worked in the offseasons. You knew you had to work after the game. You knew that. Today, a guy plays six years and he's made $13 million. There's no reason to plan for your life's work. I think it's foolhardy. It's a big negative today. Football back then gave you a way of meeting people, experiencing a few things, making a few dollars, going a few places. You'd just come off the farm. You ain't been nowhere and football provided all those types of things. Today, football provides a lot more but the person has no reason to really tap into those things because he stops growing. He's made so much money he really doesn't have to learn how to spell Pennsylvania because he isn't going to be here anyway. That would be a good question in the locker room. Pass a piece of paper around, have them put their number on it and ask them to spell Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and see how many of 'em get it right. It's scary to think about the outcome. The human resource department would be asking you what you think you were doing. Yeah, after four games or so when they're going on about how much they love Pittsburgh and the fans and blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, ask them how to spell their city and put the mayor's name on that piece of paper.
JW: Well, you've given me 45 minutes of your time and I appreciate it. Thank you.
DW: I've given you exactly 43 minutes. And you're welcome.