Mean Joe changed Steelers perception of draft

By Dave Ailes

Nobody in Pittsburgh paid much attention to the National Football League draft in the early to late 1960s. Including the Steelers.

It wasn't until Chuck Noll made Joe Greene his first choice that the draft became a cause celeb in the 'Burgh.

Before Noll's arrival, after the 1968 season, the franchise had a long ritual of either trading away draft choices or picking a bunch of stiffs. Or both.

Their scouts had a virtually unblemished record, missing nearly 100 percent of the time. Scouting, of course, wasn't a science in the old days. The Steelers used to make their mid to late-round picks from articles in magazines.

If the pool of collegiate talent had been reduced to Johnny Unitas and Joe Namath, they'd have drafted Jim Finks or Gene Mingo.

Here's how bad it got:

From 1960 through 1968, only one of their first round draft choices made the starting lineup for the Steelers. The lone exception was Paul Martha, a defensive back from the school across town, Pitt.

Martha's playing career lasted from 1964-69. As pro hockey executives go, he was a good football player. Martha wound up in the front office of the Penguins. He was a good DB, never a great one.

Compared to the other No. 1 picks by the Steelers, again from 1960 through 1968, Martha was the second coming of Jim Thorpe.

Check these lesser luminaries:

1960, Jack Spikes of TCU. He never made the Steelers.
1961, choice to San Francisco.
1962, Bob Ferguson. He was glorified as an All-America running back who never lost a yard during a great career at Ohio State. He never gained a yard for the Steelers. He was waived his second year.
1963, choice to Chicago.
1964, Martha.
1965, choice to Chicago.
1966, Dick Leftridge. Like Ferguson, Leftridge ran like a bull at West Virginia. He looked like a bull with the Steelers, but ran like a lamb. They could have sold his hind quarters to feed the masses in China. He was cut after his rookie season.
1967, choice to Green Bay.
1968, Mike Taylor. An offensive tackle from Southern Cal, Taylor had one problem in the pros. He wasn't crazy about contact. He was waived his second year.

That's why it wasn't a revelation in Pittsburgh when the new head coach, a former NFL obscure assistant named Chuck Noll, announced his first draft choice in the spring of 1969. Only a handful of media types bothered to document the selection of a football player from tiny North Texas State.

Mean Joe Greene was his name.

Who is Joe Greene?, long-suffering fans of the Steelers wanted to know. They wondered why the Steelers would pick a player from an obscure southern school, especially a defensive lineman? The Steelers needed help on offense, having scored less than two touchdowns in six games, going 2-11-1 in 1968.

The rest, as the cliche goes, is history.

Noll kept his promise to build the Steelers through the draft. Instead of trading draft choices for mediocre talent from other teams - a system employed, in particular, by coach Buddy Parker from 1957-64 - Noll turned the NFL draft into the biggest, most anticipated sports event each year in Pittsburgh.

The following were Noll's choices in the 1970s.
1970, Terry Bradshaw, a quarterback who was Super Bowl MVP twice. He's in the Hall of Fame.
1971, wide receiver Frank Lewis. Started for the Steelers through 1977, owner of two Super Bowl rings.
1972, Franco Harris, a running back who holds nearly every all-time team record for rushing and scoring, and was on the receiving end of the Immaculate Reception, one of the most famous plays in NFL history. He's in the Hall of Fame.
1973, J.T. Thomas, an outstanding defensive back who played for the Steelers from 1973 to 1977 and again from 1979 to 1981.
1974, Lynn Swann, a wide receiver whose acrobatic catches were responsible for elevating the team's pass offense to among the best in the league through the 1970s.
1975, Dave Brown, a defensive back who was lost to the expansion Seattle Seahawks after his rookie year.
1976, Bennie Cunningham, one of the most productive, pass-catching tight ends in the history of the franchise.
1977, Robin Cole, an outstanding linebacker for a decade. A solid team leader.
1978, Ron Johnson, the first cornerback in the team's history to start as a rookie. A productive Steeler for six seasons.
1979, Greg (see you in the whirlpool) Hawthorne, the first flop as a No. 1 pick by the Team of the Decade. Maybe it's only a coincidence that the team's slip from the NFL mountain coincided with Hawthorne's selection. And maybe not.

The Steelers have made several outstanding picks since Hawthorne (taking Louie Lipps in 1984 and Rod Woodson in 1987), and they've made some bummers (Aaron Jones in 1988 and Huey Richardson in 1991). Richardson might have been the worst pick of all time, at a time when the Steelers spent big bucks to evaluate college talent.

Fan Interest in the draft might have abated, slightly, since the 1970s. Still, fans of the Steelers annually regard the pick like expectant fathers - waiting impatiently for the birth of another All-Pro.

For thousands of district fans, there are only three seasons:
Steelers season, draft season and the off-season.