Mean Joe Greene was special player

PITTSBURGH – Hard as it is to believe, there was a time when the NFL draft was conducted without live TV coverage, without mock drafts and without Mel Kiper Jr.

The draft was no less important than it is now, but it didn’t draw as much attention.

Case in point was the day in 1969 when the Steelers drafted a guy whose name wasn’t recognized by many fans.

O.J. Simpson was the prize of that draft, and he went to Buffalo. The Steelers, picking fourth, changed their franchise forever with the selection of Joe Greene from North Texas State.

Chuck Noll described him as “a fort on foot,” and the Steelers scouts and Noll marveled at the way Greene pushed blockers around. He was a force at defensive tackle, and he would anchor the defense that won four Super Bowls in six years.

More importantly, Greene helped change the culture of the Steelers. The team was 1-13 in his rookie season, and Greene seethed through the losing. In one game, his frustration boiled over. He picked up the football and threw it into the stands. That got him an ejection, but he also served notice that the Steelers would not be passive about losing any more.

Truth be told, Greene probably spent more years with the Steelers than he should have. Injuries depleted his power and he wasn’t nearly as effective, but the Steelers kept a roster spot for him.

Noll, who had no problem releasing L.C. Greenwood and callously referred to Franco Harris as “Franco Who?” during a contract dispute, couldn’t bring himself to cut Greene.

The Steelers had an abundance of great players. The evidence is at the Hall of Fame. But the case can be made that Greene was the soul of those Steelers teams of the 1970s.

The Steelers are not an organization that’s big on sentiment. Dan Rooney once fired his brother. But when Greene failed in the restaurant business and broadcasting, Noll hired him as an assistant coach despite his complete lack of experience.

The Steelers chose Bill Cowher over Greene after Noll retired. Noll’s recommendation led to a job for Greene with Don Shula and the Miami Dolphins. When Greene was let go by the Arizona Cardinals, the Steelers created a front office job for him.

He retired from that job the other day. At 67, he plans to spend his days in Texas, where he’s always made his permanent home.

The Steelers have only officially retired one uniform number, Ernie Stautner’s No. 70 back in the 1960s. They’ve kept other numbers out of circulation: 12 (Terry Bradshaw), 32 (Harris), 58 (Jack Lambert) and Greene’s 75.

It wouldn’t be surprising at all to see the Steelers make an exception and officially retire No. 75.

The franchise has had a lot of great players, but Joe Greene has always been special.

Mehno can be reached at