Labriola on Rod Rust's impact on the Steelers

Ready or not, here it comes:

• On Tuesday, Oct. 23, Rod Rust died. He was 90. And even though he might be unfamiliar to many Steelers fans, understandable because the time he spent with the Steelers was very brief, he certainly had an impact on the franchise.

• Born in 1928, Rust won two letters while playing football for Iowa State in 1947-48, and following graduation he embarked on a coaching career that spanned 43 years. Twenty-two of those were spent coaching in the NFL, 14 more in college, and then seven years in the CFL.

• The first instance of Rust’s career intersecting with the Steelers came in the late 1960s. He was the head coach at North Texas State, and he was visited by an assistant coach from the Baltimore Colts, who was showing a lot of interest in one of Rust’s defensive lineman.

• The Colts assistant coach was Chuck Noll, and the defensive lineman was Joe Greene, and come January 1969, Rust still was the head coach for the Mean Green, but Noll had been hired as the coach of the Pittsburgh Steelers and he was about to make Greene his first No. 1 draft choice in a rebuilding project that would take an NFL franchise that previously had won nothing and turn it into one of the premier dynasties in NFL history.

• For the next 20-odd years, Noll, Greene, and Rust would continue their respective careers with no interaction. But then came the 1988 NFL season.

• In 1988, the Steelers were a bad team that also had the look of a football operation in disarray. The team won its opener, but come Thanksgiving the Steelers were 2-10. In typical Noll fashion, he rallied the team to three wins in its last four games to finish 5-11, but Dan Rooney’s patience had run out with several members of Noll’s staff of assistants.

• Shortly after that season ended, Noll had his regular end-of-season meeting with Rooney, but this one would turn out to be more contentious than most. Rooney had decided there were going to be changes to Noll’s staff, or else. And Rooney was hoping against hope that he wasn’t going to have to enforce the “or else” part, but he had decided he was not going to back down on this issue.

• In 1988, Noll’s offensive staff included Tom Moore as the coordinator; Ron Blackledge and Hal Hunter coached the offensive line; Dick Hoak coached the running backs; and Dwain Painter coached the wide receivers. The defensive staff included Tony Dungy as the coordinator; Joe Greene as the defensive line coach; and Jed Hughes as the linebackers coach. Dennis Fitzgerald was a defensive assistant, and he also helped Jon Kolb with special teams. Walt Evans was the strength coach.

• When Noll and Rooney finished their meeting(s), Hughes, Hunter, Fitzgerald, and Evans were gone. Dungy left for the Kansas City Chiefs rather than accept a demotion to defensive backs coach. And Kolb was relieved of his special teams responsibilities and became the new strength coach.

• Come late March, Noll’s new staff included John Fox as the defensive backs coach, George Stewart as the special teams coach, Dave Brazil as the linebackers coach. And Rod Rust was the defensive coordinator.

• The 1989 season got off to a rocky start, with the Steelers opening with a 51-0 loss to the Browns at Three Rivers Stadium and then followed that with a 41-10 spanking from the Cincinnati Bengals at Riverfront Stadium. It was during the walk through the tunnel from the field to the visitor’s locker room in Cincinnati when Noll famously said to Director of Pro Personnel and Development Tom Donahoe, “We either just played the two best teams in the AFC, or we’re in for a long season.”

• Noll never lost the players, and there was gradual, consistent improvement. Over the final 14 games of the regular season, Rust’s defense allowed an average of 16.7 points per game, and then during the final six games the Steelers allowed an average of 14.3 points per game and won five of those to squeeze into the AFC Playoffs as a Wild Card with a 9-7 record.

• Back in those days, there were five teams from each conference that made the playoffs, and in the first round the two wild card teams from each conference played while the three division champions from each conference had a bye. Those Steelers would open the playoffs against the Oilers in the Astrodome, because the Browns won the AFC Central Division title with a 9-6-1 record, while the Oilers and Steelers both finished 9-7.

• The Steelers were 0-2 against the Oilers during the regular season, having been outscored by a combined 53-17, and Houston was expected to make it a clean sweep in the Wild Card Round thanks to their run-and-shoot offense that averaged 22.8 points per game during the regular season, which was good enough to be ranked eighth in the 28-team NFL.

• The game turned out to be a much closer contest than anyone expected, but it always felt as though the Steelers were just holding on by their fingernails, especially on defense.

• The Oilers finished with 22 first downs, converted 44 percent on third down, outgained the Steelers in total net yards, 380-289, had 315 passing yards with Warren Moon completing 60.4 percent of his attempts, and they had 35 minutes worth of time of possession in 60 minutes of game time. And this was during an era where it was still possible to play defense in the NFL, an era when there was no such thing as a defenseless receiver, and landing on a quarterback with your full body weight during a sack was just another way to get that guy on the ground.

• A 7-0 Steelers lead gradually became a 23-16 fourth quarter deficit, but the Steelers tied it with an 11-play, 82-yard touchdown drive capped by a 1-yard run from Merril Hoge with 46 seconds left to send the game into overtime.

• In overtime, the Steelers won the toss, took the ball but went three-and-out, and a 26-yard punt by Harry Newsome set the Oilers up at the Pittsburgh 45-yard line. With defeat seemingly imminent, Rod Woodson saved the season when he made a spectacular play on the Oilers’ first and only offensive snap of overtime.

• Lorenzo White took a handoff from Moon and swept around the left side, where Woodson came up from his cornerback position as if shot from a rifle, forced and recovered a fumble that returned the ball to the Steelers at the Houston 46-yard line. Three running plays netted 11, 2, and zero yards, and the Steelers offense was in the huddle facing a third-and-8 from the Houston 33-yard line.

• Noll switched his headset to be able to talk to his defensive assistants and said, “If we don’t convert this third down, I’m going to punt and pin them deep.” Rust stepped up for the group, and in a courageous bit of candor, replied, “I don’t know if we can stop them again.”

• When an incomplete pass brought up fourth-and-8, Noll heeded Rust’s words and sent placekicker Gary Anderson onto the field instead of the punter, and Anderson’s 50-yard field goal sent the Steelers home a 26-23 winner.

• The final chapter of the Rust-Steelers relationship didn’t have such a happy ending. As the following offseason began, the Steelers’ immediate future looked very bright, because they had come within a dropped pass of upsetting the eventual AFC Champion Denver Broncos in the Divisional Round of the 1989 playoffs, and their roster was filled with a number of up-and-coming defensive players who only figured to get better under Rust’s tutelage.

• But then a dysfunctional New England Patriots team then owned by Victor Kiam made a late coaching change. The Patriots fired Raymond Berry in late February after he lost a power struggle with General Manager Patrick Sullivan, and Kiam immediately offered the job to Rust. Because Noll never would stand in the way of one of his assistants getting a head coaching job in the NFL, Rust was hired by New England and the Steelers entered March 1990 without the defensive coordinator who had been in the process of turning that unit around.

• Trying to maintain some semblance of continuity, especially since the players had learned a new defensive system less than 12 months earlier, Noll responded by promoting Brazil to defensive coordinator, and then Joe Walton was hired to replace Moore as offensive coordinator when Moore left for the same job with the Minnesota Vikings. Neither Brazil nor Walton were effective at their new jobs, and the Steelers ended up wasting 1990 and 1991 wallowing in mediocrity despite having a talented team, and then Noll retired on Dec. 26, 1991.

• That the Steelers had a talented team was proven by Bill Cowher in 1992 when he took the same roster to an AFC Central Division championship and an 11-5 record that was good for the No. 1 seed in the AFC Playoffs that season.

• And Rust’s departure wasn’t good for him or his career, either. The Patriots finished 1-15 in 1990, and Rust was fired after his one season as an NFL head coach.

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