30 years after early-season misery, ex-Steelers stress ‘don’t panic’
A 30-point loss on the road to the most bitter of rivals was a deflating way for the Pittsburgh Steelers to open their season.
Thirty years ago this week, though, topped that on the misery index.
“Fifty-one to nothing? Can you even believe it?” Craig Wolfley said this week, recalling the Steelers’ 1989 season-opening home loss to the Cleveland Browns. “It was horrible.
“That game was so bad, I was trying to start a fight in the fourth quarter just to get thrown out of it.”
Things went so badly for the Steelers that even the post-whistle skirmishes ended not in an ejection but in further shame and embarrassment.
“It was one of those games everything went wrong,” 1980s Steelers tackle Tunch Ilkin said. “It was Murphy’s Law. I remember (Cleveland defensive lineman) Michael Dean Perry got into a fight with (Steelers backup center) Chuck Lanza, so I went over there to ‘jack’ Michael Dean Perry — and he ducks, so I flipped over him. You almost had to laugh; it was funny.
“There were all sorts of fights and skirmishes toward the end of that game, and we lost 51-0. We were just walking off the field going, ‘How did we lose that badly? How does this even happen?’ ”
Things got worse the next week, too: the Steelers were blown out by another division rival, 41-10, at Cincinnati.
But this story has a happy ending – the Steelers rallied to make the playoffs and came only within a point of playing in that season’s AFC championship game. Perhaps there are lessons that can be applied to the current Steelers, who are licking wounds from a dispiriting season-opening loss of their own, 33-3, to the Patriots.
“My deal on (the 1989 team) and this year with the Steelers is don’t panic,” said Bubby Brister, the Steelers starting quarterback 30 years ago. “One game doesn’t make a season, 16 weeks is a long time, and we will see what happens when the smoke clears.”
Brister rebounded from a brutal first game (10 for 22, 84 yards, three interceptions) and became a catalyst for what was one of the hottest teams in the NFL down the stretch. Counting the postseason, the Steelers won six of seven games and had a fourth-quarter lead on the AFC No. 1 seed Denver Broncos in an AFC divisional playoff game — until, as Brister put it, John Elway and the Broncos “Elway-ed” them in a comeback 24-23 victory.
Still, getting to that point represented just how far those Steelers came from the ones that had been outscored, 92-10, over the first eight days of the season.
“Sometimes it’s not how you start, it’s how you finish,” Brister said. “Of course, we had one of the best coaches ever in Chuck Noll. When you have a good coach like Chuck was, no matter what happens at some points, it can bring out the positives.”
Noll prided himself on getting through to his players and by setting an appropriate mental approach. He emphasized the positives after the rotten start, Ilkin said.
Wolfley noted national media had descended on Pittsburgh (he remembers NBC’s O.J. Simpson in town for an interview) to chase a storyline that Wolfley and Ilkin recalled was best articulated by a USA Today headline, “Has the game passed Chuck Noll by?”
The 1989 Steelers had a rough start.
Getting stomped at home in the opener 51-0 against the #Browns then losing 41-10 to Cincinnati had people calling for Chuck Noll’s job.
And calling Pittsburgh “Paradise Lost”#HereWeGo pic.twitter.com/P9i9jRMUfA
— Tomlin Reactions (@TomlinReactions) December 24, 2018
The then-future Hall of Fame coach’s answer was to ignore the media and put on a happy face.
“I remember going into the building at Three Rivers Stadium on Tuesday,” Ilkin said. “I was a captain at that time, and Chuck said, ‘Tunch, you are always smiling, you are always upbeat — I need you upbeat this week.’
“So I said, ‘You got it, Coach. I am not panicking.’ ”
Neither was Noll, who stuck with what he knew best when it came to relating to his players: an anecdote intended to motivate.
“Chuck gathers us,” Ilkin said, “and he’s getting into it, so he goes, ‘Your mind is like a swimming pool. And what do you have in a swimming pool?’ ”
Ignoring the blank looks, Noll continued.
“You’ve got water. You’ve got muriatic acid. You’ve got chlorine. And when you’ve got too much muriatic acid, this happens; when you’ve got too much chlorine, this happens.’ So he’s giving us the chemical breakdown of pool water, and he’s losing us.”
It was clear Noll’s message wasn’t resonating.
“The story was not coming over with us,” Wolfley said, “so he got frustrated. First, he doubled down trying to get more percentages in, but that didn’t work — so he finally gave up and just says, ‘What I am trying to tell you is don’t let anybody pee in your pool.’
“And that became the battle cry for us.”
The Steelers never trailed the following week, winning 27-14 against a Vikings team that won seven of its other first nine games.
Minnesota’s defensive backs coach that year was a 38-year-old Pete Carroll.
Twenty-two years later, in 2011, he similarly ran into a vengeful, early-season Steelers buzzsaw as head coach of the Seattle Seahawks when the Steelers had lost their opener, 35-7, to the Baltimore Ravens.
The Steelers beat Seattle, 24-0, in Week 2. This year, Carroll’s Seahawks face the same scenario: traveling east to face an 0-1 Steelers team for its home opener after it got humiliated on the road by a rival.
“Not everybody starts the way they think they’re going to, and not everybody stays with the way they start,” Carroll said this week.
Mike Tomlin’s speeches this week probably didn’t involve muriatic acid or urine. But Carroll is convinced his team will be similarly as ready as Noll’s Steelers were in a similar circumstance three decades ago.
“Mike does a great job of coaching. They’ve got great leadership on their team,” Carroll said. “They’re going to come frickin’ roaring out of the shoots.”
Chris Adamski is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Chris by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .