St. Vincent president recalls early days of Steelers training camp's 50-year run
Former Pittsburgh Steelers running back Dick Hoak remembers the team's first training camp at St. Vincent College near Latrobe in 1966 as an improvement over traveling to earlier camps at the University of Rhode Island or West Liberty College in West Virginia.
“It was great for me. I was living in Greensburg at the time,” Hoak said from his Hempfield home. A star player at Jeannette High School and then at Penn State before the Steelers drafted him in 1961, Hoak spent a lot of time at St. Vincent during his 10-year playing career and 34 years as the team's running backs coach.
The Steelers and St. Vincent College are celebrating a 50-year training camp partnership this year with events that start with a “Black and Gold” Mass at 11:30 a.m. on the first day of practice July 26 in St. Vincent Basilica on campus. Steelers players and the staff have been invited to the Mass, which is open to the public.
The Steelers Experience – it gives fans a chance to kick, pass and run — will open at noon with interactive games for children and adults.
Youth football players will lead Steelers alumni and current players onto the field at 2 p.m. Team play-by-play announcer Bill Hillgrove will host an on-field ceremony that will feature Steelers President Art Rooney II, Chairman Dan Rooney and alumni from each decade before the first public practice at 2:55 p.m. Former and current players will interact with fans and sign autographs at 5 p.m.
Training camp attracts thousands of fans who can see the team up-close and at no cost. Only the Green Bay Packers, which has held its training camp at St. Norbert College in De Pere, Wis., for 58 years, have used the same site longer.
During a news conference on campus Wednesday, Brother Norman W. Hipps, president of St. Vincent College, shared one of his early memories of training camp — Steelers founder Art Rooney Sr. attending Mass daily at St. Vincent Basilica on campus.
“The Chief,” as the cigar-chomping Art Rooney Sr. was fondly called, had a connection to St. Vincent because his son, Art Rooney Jr., had been a student there.
Hipps, who took his vows as a Benedictine the year before the Steelers started training on campus, recalled watching coach Bill Austin in the 1960s working with teams that were far less talented than the players in the 1970s, who would be molded at St. Vincent into four-time Super Bowl champions.
When legendary coach Chuck Noll retired in 1991 — he had won four Super Bowls during the team's 1970s glory years — he said one of his most cherished memories was at training camp on the fields at St. Vincent, where he taught players the finer points of the game, Hipps recalled.
“He was training them to be part of a team,” Hipps said. At St. Vincent, “we bring together the spiritual and the teaching and the training.”
The air-conditioned campus dormitories where the players stay are quite a contrast from Hoak's playing days, when he said rooms had only window fans.
While the Steelers pay St. Vincent for the use of its facilities during training camp, Hipps said the real value is “priceless” because of the nationwide publicity for the college.
Surveys have shown that 20 percent of St. Vincent's students first heard of the college through reports about Steelers training camp, said Suzanne Wilcox English, vice president of marketing and communications. A college couldn't afford to pay for that kind of positive publicity, English said.
“We do consider our relationship with the Steelers ‘priceless,' ” she said.
Training camp is a big boost to area businesses and gene-rates “a buzz in the area,” said David Martin, president of the Greater Latrobe Laurel Valley Chamber of Commerce.
“I see license plates from all over the country,” said Dino Decario, owner of Dino's Sports Lounge in Unity and Greensburg. “They (Steelers) bring in a lot of business for the area.”
Joe Napsha is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-836-5252 or email@example.com.