Hombre de Acero Interviews Ed Bouchette: Man Bites Dog
Last week Hombre told me that he had interviewed Ed Bouchette as part of a book review article on Steel Curtain Rising. (Click the linked text to read the review.) Hombre begins the article thusly:
What is it like to witness the end of one era and the beginning of another? Every journalist dreams of the opportunity. Fate afforded the Pissburgh Post-Gazette’s Ed Bouchette the chance to do just that in 1992 when Pittsburgh STeelers transitioned from Chuck Noll to Bill Cowher.
It’s a great article, and I highly recommend reading it. It made me want to dig up the book, of which I was only vaguely aware.
While Hombre used some of the material in his article, he thought our readers might be interested in reading the whole interview. I thought so too, and Ed Bouchette kindly agreed to have us publish it. Here it is, and many thanks to Hombre!
Ed Bouchette: Thanks, Keith, [that would be Hombre…] for taking the time to do this. I was very proud of that book and even more so as time has gone on and some of the things I “predicted” for the future of the Steelers happened. So let’s get to the questions:
Hombre de Acero: In your introduction to the “Dawn of a New Steel Age,” you mentioned that the book was in large part a product of the 1992 newspaper strike. How did your role of book author as opposed to beat writer impact your approach to covering the team in 1992?
EB: The PG laid off most of their people after the Pressman and drivers went on strike, but they kept a skeleton crew on and I was one of them. We wrote for a Fax newsletter and they put together a radio network that we worked for too. So I had little to write, and spliced some interviews into radio reports. I covered [the Steelers,] though, as I normally would and traveled to all the games. It really wasn’t much of a conflict.
I did some more lengthy interviews and observed maybe more keenly some of the goings-on that fit more into a book than any story, especially a Fax story that would be only several inches.
HdA: One of the things that strikes me in re-reading the book here in 2018 is the breadth of access you had to on-the-record sources, both from the end of the Noll era and the beginning of the Cowher era. Were you to try to write a similar book today, do you think you’d get that access?
EB: No, I would not get nearly the access now. We all had open access to all the assistant coaches and could sit down with them in their offices and chat. Same with guys like Tom Donahoe. Dan Rooney always was great. Today, I might be limited to the players and a few interviews with Art Rooney and Mike Tomlin, perhaps Kevin Colbert.
HdA: In re-reading the chapter “The Emperor Hath No Players” I’m again struck at your diagnosis of the decline in the Steelers drafting from mid-70’s onward. I’ve read other writers, including Art Rooney Jr., discuss some of the things you describe, but not as comprehensively as you did. Would it be fair to say that your reporting there is ground breaking?
EB: I’m not sure about ground-breaking, but you made me go back and re-read that chapter, and I did put together a good synopsis of why Noll and the Steelers failed in the 1980s. It was a combination of things, as I wrote — losing good coaches and not replacing them with good coaches, bad luck, bad drafts, etc. I will say that maybe some of Noll’s best coaching jobs were during the strike of 1987 and the 1989 season.
HdA: Speaking of Noll, did anything surprise you in Michael Macambridge’s account of Noll’s near resignation at Christmas 1933?
EB: I think you mean 1988. I can’t remember what Michael wrote about that, but I knew he was coming close at the time, and I remember some people thinking Noll betrayed some coaches because he did not resign rather than fire them (or in Tony Dungy’s case, demote him before he himself quit instead). However, if he had resigned, they ALL would have lost their jobs.
HdA: In “Tuesdays with Morrie,” Mitch Albom wrote about the feelings of isolation he experienced during a newspaper strike in the pre-internet era. Did you experience similar feelings, and did writing the book compensate for that?
EB: As I mentioned, they kept me working, kept paying me, and it actually was fun in a way, although I did feel badly for my laid-off colleagues. I had more time to work on the book, and all those interviews I did because of it I believe helped me with sources after the strike.
HdA: Is it fair to assume that you were one of the reporters rolling his eyes when Cowher referred to the Steelers’ “Wealth of talent” at his opening press conference?
EB: I cannot honestly remember my reaction to that one. The Steelers of 1990 and 1991 were not terrible and I believe we all recognized the disconnect between the coaching staff and players during that period.
HdA: Assuming your answer to the above is yes, then what was the critical difference that allowed essentially the same group of players that finished 9-7 in ’91 to finish 11-5 in 1992?
EB: Remember that many of those players were young and developing in the 1980s, and they not only made the playoffs in 1989 but were a dropped pass from possibly beating John Elway and facing Cleveland for the AFC championship game. Barry Foster was a big difference in 1992 and, as I said, players like Woodson, Lloyd, Lake, etc. were coming of age on defense.
HdA: One of the things that impresses me as a fellow writer in re-reading the book is the way you balance the immediate events of the Steelers’ 1992 season with their historical context and then seamlessly incorporate that in an approach that highlights the season’s key characters. Any thoughts on how you pulled that off?
EB: Here’s how the book came about. Dave Molinari had written one on the Penguins for Sagamore Publishing and they told him they wanted someone to write one on the Steelers. He recommended me. I asked them what they had in mind, and they told me to come up with the idea.
I thought it would be good to sum up what happened to lead to t
he change in coaches from Noll to Cowher and to wrap that around Cowher’s first season. I also wanted to look into the crystal ball to see what might become of the Steelers franchise, because Dan Rooney and I had talked about it previously. He once told me he wished the franchise was still worth $2,500, the inference being it would be easier to pass it along to the owners’ heirs.
HdA: During his time in Pittsburgh Bill Cowher was not known for his good relations with the local press. Yet none of that comes through in the book. Did the 1992 season sort of represent a “honeymoon” between Cowher and the press?
EB: Yes, it did, and the newspaper strike helped, as Cowher so often points out. We had our moments, especially in 1993. Bill was an interesting coach to cover. He had a range of emotions and did not hide them.
HdA: The ‘”Dawn of a New Steel Age” provided, in many ways, Steeler Nation’s introduction to Art Rooney II and previewed the plans to keep the team in the family. How did what transpired in 2008 square with your reporting in the book?
EB: As I mentioned, Dan Rooney was concerned about how the whole thing would play out and so were his brothers, whom I interviewed for the book. They were all open about it. They all cited Art II as the future but as the worth of the franchise continued to rise, were concerned about how it would work as the brothers got older. They did not want to see ownership splinter among all their kids and grandkids. As Dan’s brother Pat told me for the book, “From a realistic standpoint, it’s as far as it goes as a family. The next jump it goes as being almost a publicly held stock, you have so many people involved.”
I then quoted Pat as saying “Art’s going to have to buy out the partners” and I wrote that sources said Dan is preparing to do just that. So, I would say I came damn close to predicting what would happen 15 years later.
HdA: When you look back at Dawn of a New Steel Age so many years later, what are you most proud of, and what might you change if you were doing it all over again?
EB: I’m not sure I would change anything. I’m proud of what I just said above, and that I connected the dots with Art Rooney II—both in running the Steelers and of his passing up what might have been a political rise to the top. It also was my one and only real book and I’m happy with how it turned out. I guess one thing I would change is for it to make more money than it did, long before the rise of the Internet and such.
HdA: In your view, what can a Steelers fan in 2018 expect to gain from reading “Dawn of a New Steel Age?”
EB: A perspective, because it is now a history book. I thought I detailed pretty well the end of Noll’s coaching career and why it came to an end, and the start of Cowher’s career as a head coach, the culture of the Steelers and how they were to survive into the future.
Thanks again to Hombre and to Ed Bouchette for his permission. And to Hombre for the photo.