Anonymous Star: Steelers Tight End Randy Grossman, Part 3
by Ivan Cole
IC: It has always seemed to me that Chuck Noll has not gotten the credit he deserves for what he has accomplished as a coach. Perhaps it is because he has never been interested in bringing attention to himself. What is your take on Chuck Noll as a coach.?
RG: I don’t know how there could be a better coach than Noll. There are guys who are just as good, but I don’t think there has been any better. He was the perfect coach for the personnel he had and the city he was in. In reference to your observation that he didn’t promote himself, that didn’t have any bearing on him at all. His satisfaction came from his job well done. Period, that’s it.
You never heard him out there endorsing a product. You never heard him doing public speaking events. His main objective in life was being the best coach. He is as good as anyone has ever been. The short change they give him is that he had great personnel to work with is ludicrous. There’s great personnel on every team. Plus he was a significant factor in actually selecting that personnel. At that point in time it was not just coaching, it was player selection as well. And player development. So, he was tremendous.
Now there are other coaches that do it differently and are as good, but I don’t think there is anybody who is any better. A tremendous focus. A tremendous commitment to instruction and teaching. Two things I take away with my experience with Noll is one relative to the comment I made on distractions and how they just bleed off efficiency. And the other is simplicity. Another mantra of his was that when things were going bad he would show you on film, and he would be very focused about it, is that we weren’t executing correctly. And that if we continue to execute poorly, and if we had to go down to one play, we would only run one play, but we would execute it perfectly.
Now obviously we weren’t going down to one play, but the point was that success was simple. Its so amazingly simple, that’s why its hard. Distractions and the absence of execution derailed the train. That’s it. But if you’re focused and you execute no matter how limited you do it, you’ll be successful. And he proved it. So you had Dallas and supposedly all these exotic formations and moving around and doing this and that. Well they could do all that but at one point when the ball is snapped, they’re standing in a position. And if you execute accordingly you’ll be successful. He was tremendous.
IC: Why did you decide to settle in Pittsburgh?
RG: A couple of reasons. One is financial. Back then, you flip back to Noll, one of his classic comments was once you finish with football you got on with your life’s work. Well financially you had to get on with your life’s work because you didn’t make enough money back then to live off the interest of your tax free municipal bonds.
So, my reputation was established here. I grew up in Philadelphia, but I was a child in Philadelphia. I was an adult here. It was also relatively convenient. Its only 300 miles down the road. And Pittsburgh is just a tremendous place. It’s a real gem of a place. It was easy to stay here and work for a living. I retired so I could work for a living.”
IC: One of the reasons I asked the question is because you did the opposite of what I did, growing up in Pittsburgh and settling in Philly.
RG: You experienced the flip side of the equation. Philadelphia is a fine city, but I would have a hard time trying to establish myself. Western Pennsylvania has a Midwestern atmosphere, nowhere near as crowded, all the amenities that you could ever take advantage of.
IC: It seems you were a generation too early for the really big salaries. Comment on how the change in salaries has changed the game and who gets into the game.
RG: I don’t think it’s changed the game at all. The team that beats up the other team wins. All these innovations, innovative formations, throwing the ball more; the winner doesn’t end up tricking the other team. As far as the game itself on the field – that hasn’t changed.
Little things have. Guys are bigger now. But we were bigger than the guys before us. Guys are faster now, but we were faster than guys before us. That kind of stuff changes in every sport. The financial side, the business side of the game has changed significantly. The salaries are a big part of it, but what came first? Free agency was an even bigger part of it. There was no free agency when I was there. Free agency kicked in in 1982.
IC: Right about the time you got out.
RG: I retired in 1981. The free agency side has had a major impact on personnel on a team. As far as being a generation short, you’re there when you’re there. Maybe if I came up now I wouldn’t make a team. I’m sure I would have, but…[laughter] You have to be mentally ill from a competitive standpoint. You have to be so amazingly competitive to never doubt yourself to make it at an elite level. So I’m sure I would have made it. So that part’s different.
But the players are the same players. You have the same knuckleheads playing. You still have the same good guys playing. I don’t think the problems are any more now than they were then. I don’t think that the good stuff is any less now than it was then. The majority of players are good guys. There are a few that are knuckleheads.
It’s reported on a lot more now. That’s why you hear a lot more about the knuckleheads. It’s skilled physical labor. You don’t need a degree to play professional athletics. You need the physical package and the mindset to do it. That’s it. So when they’re scanning through potential people to draft they’re not looking for Rhodes Scholars. As a matter of fact, Rhodes Scholars are potentially frowned upon. This kid this year, which is a total aside, but I’ll throw it in anyway.”
IC: Myron Rolle
RG: This kid, a Rhodes Scholar, he leaves the team to take advantage of the Rhodes Scholarship. And then these teams ask the ludicrous question of ‘How do you think the team felt about you abandoning them, you not being there for them?’ I’m listening to this question and I’m thinking, you’re going to take a kid out of college when he’s a sophomore or a junior. He’s going to abandon the team.
What do you think the team is going to think about you coming out of college early? How bizarre is that question? You left the team to do this Rhodes Scholarship stuff. What’s your commitment to the game?”
IC: Probably why he wasn’t drafted as high.
RG: He was too smart. We want a functioning Neanderthal. That’s what we’re looking for, a functioning Neanderthal. Un-caged on Sunday. So I don’t think the game has changed all that much. 99 percent of the guys are good guys who are real credits to their communities and their families. Some guys are…
Randy paused for several beats before completing the sentence, “trouble.”
We talk a half an hour longer than we had agreed to, the later moments being more personal, mostly about players and coaches that we knew from our days together in Temple. When I leave his office upbeat, smiling, and feeling pleased about how things went, I’m dismayed to see that it’s raining even harder than when I arrived. And it’s colder too, more reminiscent of March or late February than mid May.
As I get back in my car, I pause to think about how returning to Pittsburgh has become an increasingly bitter sweet and painful exercise for me. Worse than feeling alone in a ghost town, I in a way feel irrelevant and invisible at this stage in my life back in my hometown that is very much alive and advancing. I stop staring at faces with the thought that I might recognize an old acquaintance or familiar stranger. I may know the culture and be fluent in the native language, but it saddens me to feel like a tourist in my hometown.
I know this as I turn the keys in the ignition and finally leave Randy’s office, but I’m reluctant to leave just yet. I bypass the most direct route out of town and instead cross the Highland Park Bridge into the heart of Pittsburgh.
As I drive up Washington Boulevard, I remember how my friends and I would cross the road as young men on our way to the Highland Park swimming pool each summer growing up. I pass the DMV where I took my driver’s test over 40 years ago and think about my first taste of real freedom as a kid before leaving home for college. I turn right onto Penn Avenue and drive into the heart of East Liberty, past the buildings that once housed Western Electric and Nabisco.
Feeling better and enjoying myself at this point, I swing north and east with the intention of cruising down Frankstown Avenue. There in the midst of rubble and construction, next to the sign advertising the site of a new Target store, is the Original Station Street Hot Dogs.
I stop for lunch at one of my favorite joints growing up. As I take my first bite and reflect upon my day, I suddenly don’t feel like such a stranger anymore.