In the Trenches
NFL Hall of Famer Mean Joe Greene dreams of another Super Bowl ring, but this time with the Miami Dolphins.
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"Pittsburgh was also the best possible place I could've gone on to, for I found a coach who allowed me to grow. I was bumping against all the boundaries; the rules I went by were my own rules. There was a lot of foolishness; I'd do anything to win. I was uncontrollable," Greene says.
"Coach Noll finally asked me, 'What kind of leader do you want to be--a negative or positive one?' That did it. I began to play smarter, I wasn't always looking for the sack. Without any ultimatums, so I wouldn't rebel, Coach Noll helped me realize I could put everything on the line, to keep pushing it, without going for the knockout blow all the time."
Greene's anchoring of the defense prompted teammate Ray Mansfield to say, "Joe was like having a big brother around when the bullies were coming....He tossed them away like rag dolls." But Greene's leadership failed to lift the Steelers in 1969, '70, or '71. They went 12-30 over that span, never coming close to the playoffs, let alone a Super Bowl.
Then Terry Bradshaw, who was picked up in 1970, came into his own as quarterback. With Bradshaw passing to Lynn Swann, and the Greene-led Steel Curtain defense strangling offenses, the Steelers won four Super Bowls in six seasons.
"I'm exhilarated by coaching, but those Super Bowls, the beauty, the artistry...," says Greene with a sigh. "Enough said. Maybe I'd bitch if I hadn't been named to the Hall of Fame, but what I did, what the Steelers accomplished, all that speaks for itself."
Noll is not reluctant to talk about Greene's value. Praising No. 75 for his countless goal-line tackles during those championship years, Noll says of Greene, "I never ran into anyone who wanted to play more, and be better, than Joe did."
Game-saving plays in the final minutes still enthrall Greene. "That's when a question mark hangs over you, the thrill of the unknown," says Greene, who would "shade" the center--lining up at sharp angles between the guard and center-- to disrupt opposing teams. "Backed up on the goal line, the sense of success or failure is right there. You don't know if you'll fall off the edge or stay on it. [Sometimes] you fall off. But that's how you get to be good, by relentlessly testing the limits."
Greene was admittedly less the assassin and more the wily coyote once he sustained his first serious injuries--to his neck and back--in 1975. Unable to cover all areas of the field, he was compelled to play more conservatively. "After I got hurt, I just couldn't flow into someone else's spot," he says. "I was limited physically, so I had to become a wiser player. I didn't do things to get myself into trouble. That gave me my worth."
The adjustment allowed Greene to extend his string of Pro Bowl selections to eight seasons, and he earned two more nods in 1978 and 1979. But no longer able to single-handedly dominate defensive schemes and disgusted with rule changes that limited defenders ("Forget the dirty stuff. Now if you just hit someone hard you get fined $25,000."), Greene retired in 1981.
He stumbled around awhile, briefly working as a CBS announcer, opening a Tex-Mex restaurant in Dallas, and starting a firm that distributes frozen fruit bars.
Struggling in the business world and daydreaming about the game in his Froz Fruit office, Greene eagerly accepted Chuck Noll's offer in 1987 to become the Steelers' defensive line coach. Now becoming a "storyteller," illustrating different defensive tactics with references to Pittsburgh's glory days, Greene created one of the top-ranked defenses in the NFL (in 1990, the Steelers led the league in total defense and pass defense). And he began smoking cigars.
"When I came back to the Steelers, Mr. Rooney would always say 'Joe, come on, join me, have a cigar,'" Greene recalls affectionately. "I'd put them in my drawer or give them to the Steelers trainer. I didn't know what they were, what brands, nothing. But I finally smoked one, and it was pretty good, so I started to smoke those things."
Predictably, few members of the Steelers family ever chided Greene for smoking during his five-year coaching stint. "The boss smoked, and besides, I'm too big for anyone to mess with me."
Yet Greene was more than sheer brawn. The "thinking man's defender," able to adapt to sophisticated offenses in the late 1970s, he consistently found new ways to stifle an attack, no matter what master strategist was charging into his territory.
"Coach Noll taught me my craft; that's why I'm a coach today. But he did like to talk, a lot. If I was busy, or wanted to avoid him for some reason, I learned what to do. I'd light a cigar. Never saying a word, he'd smell that Hoyo de Monterrey and just keep on walking."
Echoing through Joe Robbie Stadium on Sundays, it's a strange new cry in Miami. In the past, crowds only thrilled to Dan Marino lighting up the sky with long bombs.
The Dolphins had to throw often and long because the defensive line was awful. In 1991, the year before Greene joined the team, Miami was ranked 27th against the run in the NFL, allowing 2,301 yards--a whopping 144 yards rushing per game.
All that's changed with Greene's attacking style of line play. Abandoning the read and react approach that allowed opponents to play ball control, the linemen now have "attitude," a new quickness off the ball that produces turnovers and game-winning defensive stands. In dramatic contrast to their past vulnerability, the Dolphins in 1994 ranked sixth against the run, giving up only 89 yards per game on the ground.
To turn Miami into Super Bowl contenders, Greene has been in players' faces. "Coach is emotional," Dolphins defensive end Jeff Cross says. "Usually you just think of this big old monster of a guy." Yet Cross, praising Greene for his transformation from a mere sack-minded pass rusher to a clever run defender, also says, "The coach is very down to earth, a teacher patiently explaining things, a master technician."
It's compliments like these that put added pressure on Greene. After three-plus seasons of standing in Shula's shadows, does he want the glories--and headaches--of a head coaching job?
"I've never set goals, I've always allowed my ambitions to evolve naturally," says Greene. "Yet now I want to be a head coach, 'cause if some of these players are doing something I don't like, I want to be in charge. There are those times that I want to get things done and I can't. As a head coach you're in position to get them done."
Minnesota Vikings defensive coordinator Tony Dungy, Greene's former teammate who's also a leading head coach candidate, says, "Joe would be an outstanding leader. He has a presence and he knows how to win."
Greene has heard all the praise. But he and Dungy are black, both bypassed for assorted coaching slots, and that prompts him to explain, "It's definitely far more difficult for blacks to land that top job. Much tougher! Why? There are no black owners around. I'm not saying anything racist or prejudiced. It's just reality, the economics. White owners feel more comfortable with whites. They're the guys who've networked with owners, so whites trust and have more confidence in white coaches."
Greene says this without the slightest trace of anger. Easygoing off the field, he seems to be enjoying the coaching life, even though scouting players during the off-season leaves little time to play golf ("I'm terrible at it") and visit ex-Steelers teammates at card show signings.
The old-boy network in sports doesn't worry him, at least for now, mainly because he's been able to live again for Sunday. Trotting onto the field, feeling the tensions and excitement anew, he's replaced old visions of "playing the perfect game, making every tackle," with a different idea of perfection. He craves that next Super Bowl.
"The joy of being in a Super Bowl, leaving my imprint there, seeing the excitement on players' faces--that's what gears me up every Sunday," says Greene, visualizing this return to the "Holy Land" with a wave of his corona.
"The 40 plays in the morning, the 40 in the afternoon here [in camp], the fronts, the defense, the bitching, all this is to get to the big one. And sure, there are guys who fear me, guys who don't like me and tell me I'm pushing them too hard, that I'm always in their face.
"But I'm from an era when it was basics and fundamentals. I knew who was in charge, and now some of these guys have to be whipped into shape. I'll be damned if I don't keep pushing it. I haven't been to a Super Bowl in a real long time, and if I could pick any one description of how I approach the game, it's 'refusing to be denied.'"
One bad dude, tough and relentless. Still an icon of big D, the type that meant gouged-out eyes, twisted limbs and moaning quarterbacks, Mean Joe is in rarefied company: with LT, Huff and Butkus in the trenches, where the man's name says it all.
Yet he's also the softie, still hoping to honor Mr. Rooney. Once his Super Bowl is realized, expect Greene to wink at his mentor while he passes out "smokes to the boys." Worthy of the Rooney ritual, it'll be "the fancy stuff," as Greene promises to celebrate that day by "lighting the biggest, sweetest cigar I've ever had."
Edward Kiersh is a writer living in Florida who is looking forward to seeing the Dolphins in the Super Bowl.