When the Steelers almost lost Joe Greene

Chuck Noll and Joe Greene mill about during Steelers practice. This Post-Gazette file photo had no date or photographer attribution.

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.

This headline from the Pittsburgh Press on July 29, 1969, refers to Bucky Woy’s war with the Steelers to get a better deal for his client, then-rookie Joe Greene.

“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.

The Aug. 2, 1969, edition of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette featured this story about Greene’s dissatisfaction with the Steelers and his current contract situation.

“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.

Mean Joe Greene and Dan Rooney hold the long-awaited contract Greene signed on Aug. 8, 1969. This photo ran in the Aug. 9 edition of the Post-Gazette. (Bill Levis/Post-Gazette)

“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.

 

9 Comments

  1. Eric A Payne
    8/7/2019
    Reply

    That was the first year that I went to Latrobe. We sat on the hill and watched Gene Lingo kick field goals. The Steelers ran a drill with the offensive line against the defensive line. I never saw anyone that quick. Joe Greene made everyone else look like they were moving in slow motion, and we had a tough defensive line. Joe didn’t always go in the right direction, but I looked at my father and said,” if he ever figures this out, WOW “.

  2. paul lochrane
    8/7/2019
    Reply

    best steeler of all time !!!!! turned franchise into a winner with his desire, wouldn’t it have been nice to continue but guys like ben, bell and brown came along to make it disappear

  3. Madison
    8/7/2019
    Reply

    Dear Art Rooney II:
    Have the statue sculpted NOW, and put it up in front of Heinz Field, while Mr. Greene is alive and can enjoy it.

  4. Mark Rupert
    8/8/2019
    Reply

    The story I recall was from Andy Russell’s book about when Mean Joe finally signed and appeared at his first practice. The interior linemen were live blocking in some type of “hamburger drill” and Joe was having no problem showing off his speed and strength vs some other rookies the first few times thru the drill. So up stepped Steelers veteran Ray Mansfield to confront the young supposedly over-hyped/over-paid rookie Greene in the next sequence of the drill. Russell characterized Mansfield as the strongest, most talented veteran lineman on the team and a guy who other players avoided in this drill because of Ray’s nasty demeanor and his sheer natural strength/ability. Russell then described how the history of the Steelers franchise was about to change as a coach’s whistle blew and the Greene-Mansfield blocking drill commenced. Joe charged hard out of his stance into Mansfield and in the blink of an eye had practically picked up Ray and threw him aside like three strong men might have handled a railroad tie. From that moment forward there was never any doubt who the meanest, strongest and toughest Steeler was in that camp and many training camps going forward. For once the Steelers had not missed on their top rookie draft choice and “Mean Joe” would prove to be a bargain for the Rooney’s at any price.

  5. Rod Jeffries
    8/8/2019
    Reply

    Joe deserves a statue as he was the foundation for the Steelers rise to prominence. The best player in Steeler history and one of the greatest defensive players in NFL history.

  6. Rick Homistek
    8/8/2019
    Reply

    I agree.
    Mean Joe deserves a statue of himself in a prominent place in Heinz Field.

    Steelerrick Homistek
    Uniontown

  7. bfbd
    8/9/2019
    Reply

    My GOD who cares?????

  8. Atm
    8/10/2019
    Reply

    We “bfbd.”
    Why wouldn’t we. We are true Steeler nation. Don’t you understand. Look at what just happened to Cliff Branch. He just passed away a couple of days ago. Surely he should be in the NFL Hall Of Fame. He caught the ball while still being checked down the field. Way beyond the five yard rule. So yes Greene should have a statue to honor him while he is still on the earth amongst us.

  9. Answer Mann
    8/10/2019
    Reply

    If there ever should be a statue of any Steeler, it should be Mean Joe Greene.

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