Second in an ongoing series looking back at Chuck Noll’s first season with the Steelers
Before the 1969 season, the Steelers welcomed two newbies to Pittsburgh who would go on to shape the franchise’s bright future.
Not only was that Chuck Noll’s first year as the Steelers’ head coach, but it also happened to be legendary defensive tackle “Mean” Joe Greene’s first season in Pittsburgh too. The two would eventually play major roles in four of the team’s six Super Bowl victories.
But there was a brief moment in the summer of ’69 when Greene and the Steelers were locked in a contract dispute that threatened to turn nasty.
Pittsburgh took Greene fourth overall out of North Texas in that year’s draft. That was the draft in which the Buffalo Bills used their No. 1 overall pick to take an ultra-talented running back out of USC named O.J. Simpson.
Training camp that year began on July 16. Almost two weeks into practices, Greene and the Steelers still hadn’t come to terms on his rookie deal.
Pittsburgh Press reporting from July 29, 1969, framed the standoff as a giant flex by Greene’s agent Bucky Woy.
“We are ready to go to court,” Woy told the Press’ Bob Smizik. “If we can’t beat them in court, then something is wrong. This isn’t the free-enterprise system. We don’t want to go to court, but the boys just don’t have a bargaining position anymore. Our legal counsel tells us we are solidly prepared and we can beat them.”
Dan Rooney, then the Steelers’ vice president, responded to Woy in the next issue of the Press.
“We’ve been more than liberal in our negotiations with Greene,” Rooney told the Press’ Pat Livingston. “We’ve offered him a fair figure, but we’re not going to pay him more than we’re giving our proven veterans, many of whom have spent years establishing themselves as bona fide stars.”
The exact dollar amount that Woy and Greene were asking for was never confirmed in either story, nor was the Steelers’ initial offer. Livingston did, however, bring up reports that Greene’s initial asking price was $400,000 and that there was a $130,000 difference between that figure and the team’s offer.
Rooney, for what it’s worth, denied that $130,000 chasm, telling Livingston, “It’s not $100,000.”
Come Aug. 2, Greene decided to break his silence about the ongoing negotiations. It wasn’t what the Steelers probably wanted to hear.
“I think they’ve used me,” Greene told the Associated Press in a story run by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “They should either pay me or trade me.”
That quote might send shivers down the spines of Steelers fans in 2019, but this one might be even more frightening: “I was really looking forward to playing for the Steelers. But I don’t know. It’s become personal now, you see.”
Reporting on Greene went dark in the Post-Gazette and Press for the next week. But on Aug. 8, Greene and the Steelers finally reached a contract agreement.
“We agreed on terms, and we’re both happy — and I’m very happy,” Greene told the Post-Gazette’s Marino Parascenzo for an Aug. 9 story.
He explained part of his rationale for holding out to the Press’ Livingston.
“I’ve wanted to play pro football for a long time,” Greene said. “If there was any chance of my signing a bad contract, it wouldn’t have been good for myself, or for the team. I’m very happy with the ways things turned out.”
Greene also admitted in the same Press article that he admired the Cleveland Browns and Baltimore Colts, who at the time were much more successful NFL franchises than the Steelers.
Once that drama was over, Greene proved he was worth his contract by winning the 1969 Defensive Rookie of the Year award. He would go on to play 13 seasons with the Steelers, earning two Defensive Player of the Year awards, 10 Pro Bowl bids, four First Team All-Pro honors and a spot in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1987.
It’s a good thing the Steelers were able to lock down Greene in 1969 before things got mean.