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Labriola on Tunch's book, officiating arrogance

Ready or not, here it comes:

• Tunch Ilkin always joked that if he ever wrote a book, it would be titled, “Too Late for the Super Bowls; Too Early for the Money,” in a reference to a playing career that began in 1980, which was the season following the Steelers’ fourth Super Bowl win of the 1970s, and ended in 1993, which was the first year of free agency tied to a salary cap in the NFL.

• Ilkin actually did write a book, but it’s titled, “In the Locker Room: Tales of the Pittsburgh Steelers from the Playing Field to the Broadcast Booth.” It was done in conjunction with Scott Brown, once a newspaper reporter and now an author of seven books, and it’s very much a reflection of Ilkin and the things and people most important to him.

• “In the Locker Room” begins with these two sentences: “A Thursday night game between the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Tennessee Titans in 2017 reminded me why I love this game. It is because of the relationships.”

• And that’s the crux of Ilkin’s book, because the recurring theme of the next 236 pages has to do with relationships over the course of a 40-year love affair with the sport of football. Relationships with everyone from Chuck Noll to Dan Rooney to his best friend Craig Wolfley to Myron Cope. And many others in between.

• It’s fitting that the book begins with a chapter on Chuck Noll, because outside of his father, Mehmet, no man came close to influencing Ilkin’s life more than Noll.

• Early in the chapter on Noll, Ilkin relates, “My first encounter pretty much matched what it was like playing for Chuck – even after I had established myself. Noll could look at you and make you piss down your leg. You were just always uncomfortable around him because he was Chuck Noll, and you had this image of him, and you were trying to please him. Every time he looked at you, it was like he could see through you.”

• That chapter continues with a series of quick anecdotes about Noll – the time Ilkin punched him in the mouth (accidentally), the time he socialized with him over beer and pizza (briefly), and the time he and his wife ran into Noll and his wife at an Italian restaurant in the neighborhood where they both lived (uncomfortably).

• This is what the whole book is. It’s like a conversation with Ilkin in a casual social setting, even though he’s the one doing all of the talking and the bulk of the subject matter has to do with the Pittsburgh Steelers and the NFL, with a sprinkling of his personal life thrown in to complete the picture.

• There is a chapter titled, “Lessons from the 1970s Steelers,” and it includes anecdotes or remembrances of all of the main characters – among them Joe Greene, Franco Harris, Jack Ham, Mel Blount, Jack Lambert, Terry Bradshaw, John Stallworth, Lynn Swann, Rocky Bleier, Andy Russell, L.C. Greenwood, and Donnie Shell – and then the chapter concludes with some of the guys who would be remembered more as being Ilkin’s peers of the 1980s – Bryan Hinkle, Greg Lloyd, David Little, Frank Pollard, and Keith Willis.

• Some of the bits about those guys are humorous, some highlight the qualities that made them special players and people, and some simply portray them as everyday guys living normal lives. It’s a nice mixture, and it’s a reflection of how Ilkin viewed his relationship with each individual.

• There is a chapter on Mike Tomlin that shows a side of the Steelers’ current head coach few know anything about, from his practice demeanor to his off-field commitment to helping his players become better men, better fathers, better mentors, and how Mike Tomlin is very much like Chuck Noll.

• One of the fans’ often-repeated complaints about Tomlin has to do with what outsiders perceive as a lack of discipline, his penchant for preferential treatment of certain players. Ilkin relates a story about a Saturday in 1987 when Rod Woodson, then a rookie, overslept and was late for practice on the day before a regular season game. When Woodson walked out onto the field, Ilkin said a bunch of the veterans were anticipating Noll making an example of the rookie, but instead what they saw was their coach “put his arm around Rod like a father, like he was telling him it was OK.”

• “I do not understand why so many Steelers fans want to take shots at Mike Tomlin,” Ilkin writes. “He is a great coach and a great man. He loves the game, he loves the Steelers, he loves his players, and he loves this community. I mean he really loves Pittsburgh. I love the way he coaches, and in many ways, he is like Chuck Noll, a consummate teacher.”

• There are several chapters that detail the Ilkin family emigrating from Turkey and all of the challenges associated with that, and he also tells the story of a somewhat unlikely athletic career that culminated with him being the Steelers’ sixth-round pick of the 1980 NFL Draft.

• Not expecting to be picked by any NFL team, Ilkin wasn’t waiting by the telephone, and so when the Steelers called his family’s home, it was his Mom who answered, and her English and understanding of the ways of pro football weren’t great. “Chuck Noll said, ‘Congratulations, Mrs. Ilkin. We just drafted your son, Tunch, in the sixth round.’ She thought I was drafted into the Army and freaked out.”

• Once Ilkin had established himself to some degree with the Steelers, he became the team’s union rep, and that led to a different kind of relationship with Dan Rooney, who always was a point man in negotiations with the NFLPA. Ilkin writes:

• “Before we went on strike (in 1987), (Rooney) said, ‘Keep them together, Tunch. Keep them together.’ That was his mandate. We always talked, and one time he said to me, ‘Look, we’ve got crazies on both sides. I’ve got crazies on my side, and you’ve got crazies on your side.’ He always said, ‘We’ve got to do what’s good for the game,’ and that’s why he got along so well with former NFL Players Association executive director Gene Upshaw, because Upshaw felt the same way.”

• Another of the highlights of “In the Locker Room” are the stories of Ilkin’s introduction as the third man on the Steelers Radio Network’s game broadcast crew, and what makes these stories so enjoyable is the fact the other two guys in the booth at the time were Bill Hillgrove and Myron Cope.

• Of Cope, Ilkin writes, “Working with Myron Cope was the best. It was like being around an old rock star. When Myron walked into a room, everyone ran to him. Women kissed him; men did imitations for him. It was a lot of fun.”

• And of Hillgrove: “Billy is the best. He can paint a picture like nobody else. When we beat the New York Jets in the 2010 AFC Championship Game, he said, ‘And the only jet that’s going to the Super Bowl is the one that’s taking the Steelers.’ We were on the air when he said that, and I was just so amazed by that statement that I said, ‘Wow, that was really good.’ I had no comeback.”

• There’s another aspect of Ilkin’s book that makes it unique: Craig Wolfley long has been Tunch’s best friend, and they have shared many life experiences with one another. Throughout the book, there will be periodic breaks in the various chapters with segments titled, “Wolf’s Words,” in which Wolfley’s perspective on a particular event or person or shared experience is presented, and it’s completely told from his point of view/remembrance. That “Wolf’s Words” don’t always line up perfectly with Ilkin’s prose makes it an accurate reflection of the dynamic between the two when they’re together, which is almost always.

• Again, “In the Locker Room “ is very much like shooting the breeze with Tunch over a beverage or two – it’s informative, funny, just a pleasant way to pass the time, and as such makes a nice gift for that Steelers fan on your holiday shopping list. The book is available on shop.steelers.com, which can be accessed via Steelers.com, and it also can be purchased at any of the team’s Official Sideline Stores.

BEATING THE DEAD HORSE
• NEWS ITEM: From a Dec. 4 story by The Associated Press:
“(Mike) Pereira and fellow former NFL head of officials Dean Blandino said on Fox Sports that the crew (working the Steelers-Chargers game) could have awarded the Chargers the points even without the ball going through the uprights because of an obscure league rule prohibiting teams from repeatedly committing deliberate fouls to prevent a score.

• “Blandino said he would have invoked the rule.

• ‘”I think the rule book is clear. You give a warning and then after the warning , you award the score,’ Blandino said.”

• The arrogance of these guys, even the retired ones, makes my head hurt. Blandino was bloviating about the final three plays of last Sunday night’s game between the Steelers and the Chargers. The basis of his analysis of the situation was that the Steelers deliberately committed penalties on three successive field goal attempts by the Chargers, even though that wasn’t the case.

• Maniacal video watcher Tunch Ilkin said he did a frame-by-frame analysis, and he swears Joe Haden was not offside on the first attempt, which was wide left, and that Artie Burns was not offside on the second attempt, which he blocked, and that the officials reacted to movement by Sean Davis but that Davis was off the line of scrimmage at the time. Also at issue is the fact the Chargers long-snapper very likely was executing illegal snaps, not only on those three field goal attempts, but on every placement kick throughout the game.

• After the Steelers’ loss, Browns linebacker Joe Schobert revealed that during Cleveland’s game vs. the Chargers, referee Brad Allen was notified of long-snapper Mike Windt illegally moving the ball before snapping it, and the response was, according to Schobert, “He’s been doing it his whole career. It’s not gonna get called.”

• On this issue, to use Blandino’s own words, the rule book is clear. It reads: “It is not necessary that the snap be between the snapper’s legs, but it must be one quick and continuous motion of the hand or hands of the snapper. The ball must leave or be taken from his hands during this motion.”

• So, Dean, if rules are to be invoked, why wasn’t this one? Asking for a friend.

• I understand the code players and coaches live by, the one that says games never are decided by officials’ calls because officials’ calls are only something that must be overcome on the way to victory. A good teaching point for young people, but this is professional football where everybody is getting paid to do a job, and there are supposed to be consequences for those who don’t/can’t.

• In pro sports, overlooking the impact of bad officiating on the outcome of a game enables it to continue without criticism and without repercussions. And when that happens, change doesn’t.

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