Interview: How The Steelers Nearly Passed Up Drafting Jack Lambert

Bringing you another Pittsburgh Steelers’ interview courtesy of our good friend Ron Lippock of the Pittsburgh Sports Daily Bulletin. Today, Have a fascinating interview today with former Steelers’ coach Woody Widenhofer, who served as the linebackers coach and eventually defensive coordinator from 1973 to 1983. The two discuss what made Chuck Noll such a great coach, how the team nearly passed up Jack Lambert, and a story about him you’ve never heard before.

Be sure to check out Ron’s book, Steelers’ Takeaways: Player Memories Through The Decades, featuring over 400 interviews with players and coaches, past and present. You can buy it on Amazon through the link provided here.

First, how did you find your way to Pittsburgh as their Linebackers Coach in 1973 when you started with the Steelers?

I was the Linebackers Coach at the University of Minnesota previously, but I had coached at Michigan State before that. George Perles was the coach there and he used to be the Steelers Defensive Coordinator. So when the job opened up he recommended me to Chuck and I interviewed with him and he hired me.

Why do you think he wanted you to take over? 

I had no experience as a player or coach in the NFL. But he told me he was looking for a teacher. That was his primary goal – he wanted someone to come in and teach his stuff to the players. What made you such a good teacher? My heroes were always coaches. In high school and college. I had Dan Devine as my coach at the University of Minnesota. I was influenced by my coaches and always felt attracted to football. I loved the sport, and when I wasn’t good enough to play I learned from my coaches.

Did being a local guy (Butler PA) influence your desire for the job?

That really didn’t have anything to do with it. I was a Steelers fan but I was mostly raised outside of Detroit.

What did you learn from Bud Carson and Chuck Noll and how much input as LB coach did you have then?

Bud was the defensive coordinator and secondary coach then. Chuck was a great teacher – he was a remarkable man. A really bright guy and very spiritual. A family man. I was influenced by him. Carson implemented the cover-2 – it was catching on in college and he implemented it in Pittsburgh. Chuck picked up on it and dissected it first. He dissected everything to a point that he would know everything about it.

I learned that from him – he wouldn’t get involved in anything until he knew everything about it. Bud as the secondary coach – I was able to get deeply involved in the back end of the defense from him. I was the linebackers coach so learning the techniques of the coverages and the differences of man coverage versus zone was important.

How much were you able to get involved in the strategy then?

We ran Chuck’s defense. He was in all of the defensive meetings – when we put the new defense in and created the defensive notebook, he led that. Every technique we used was in there and we implemented Noll’s plan. But he listened to me too. You had to prove that you were right though. That was the thing with Chuck. If you could do that he would add it in. I was able to add to the basic techniques of the linebackers. I watched film of them and was with them every day so I had some things to offer.

The players were great guys – I would listen to them a lot. Guys like Andy Russell were there for a while – Pro Bowl guy. I’d listen to guys like him – they had good suggestions. So I brought that to the job. Being open-minded. I implemented some of their ideas. I mean, who better than the guy playing the position to offer suggestions. There’s not just one way to do it. The more information you have, the better off you are.

How much influence on the draft did you have?

The one area the team was ahead of everyone was in the draft. Chuck and Art set up what they wanted to do and the coaches were involved in the scouting, which was unusual. We worked out the players too with the scouts. The coaches and scouts both went to see the players work out and did write-ups on them that we gave to Art. We also used the BLESTO Scouting Service then, so we had information from scouts, coaches, and BLESTO. We were ready for the draft.

Any big contributions to the process that you remember most?

I remember one situation. During the draft we had fifteen seconds left on our pick and we were still discussing it. The choice was between Lambert and another linebacker, Matt Blair from Iowa State. Finally, Chuck looked at me and asked me who I wanted since both were linebackers. I said I wanted Lambert.

Why Lambert?

I watched a lot of film on him and worked him out. I just had a good feeling about him. He had a lot of the intangibles. He was tough as you can get and was very instinctive. He was tall and very lean – he didn’t look the part. But he was always able to make plays. There isn’t as much acknowledgement of the ingenuity of that coaching staff and team.

Explain how that affected team/defensive strategy?

As an example, our two cornerbacks – Mel Blount and J.T. Thomas – were strong, fast corners. Bump and run guys. When they passed the new Blount rule that didn’t let corners hit guys after five yards, it was because in 1977 we went sixteen straight quarters without letting up a point. But that rule was supposed to hurt us and it didn’t. It just opened up the door for Swann and Stallworth. The passing game opened up. It helped us. We had a great front four – we didn’t need to get pressure form blitzing. After the rule we adjusted and played more cover 2 – more zone.

Why was the team able to be so much more creative?

Noll was the leader of that. We didn’t sit around in the offseason. We took all of the film and broke it down. We sat down together and studied it. As we lost some of our front people, we had to get pressure from other means. So we ended up blitzing more then. We even used a bit of the zone fires they use nowadays.

Who were some of the more under-rated players that you feel deserve more attention on those defenses?

That’s a good question. Mike Wagner made a lot of the decisions on the field – he was the leader there. He was instrumental in everyone being in the right positions to make plays. Robin Cole played when Jack Ham retired and did a great job. A lot of the backup players like Banaszak, Dunn, Ron Johnson and Dwayne Woodruff – when they had chances they played well. Winston was another. There was a lot of pressure on them from the other players. There was such great player leadership. It was never a problem for players to give 110%. If they didn’t guys like Joe Greene would take them to the woodshed!

What were some of the more memorable moments during your time in Pittsburgh?

I was sent to sign Mike Webster after he was drafted by Pittsburgh. That was at the time the World Football League launched. Mike was drafted in the fifth round – he was a short, smaller guy coming out of Wisconsin. Emery Hirsch was his agent then.

Back then Art sent coaches to go and sign players, so he sent me to Wisconsin to sign Mike. I called him and he came to the airport and picked me up in his red Volkswagen. He was with his then girlfriend Pam – who he later married. He took me to his apartment and offered me some chocolate cookies his girlfriend baked for me – he had asked what my favorite kinds were when I called him before. During our discussion he told me that Hirsch would meet us tomorrow and that he wanted to talk to me about the new World Football League. Webster said that he didn’t want to sign with them but Hirsch was pushing it so we just had get through it together. He said that he wanted to play for the best against the best.

Another one that I’m not sure anyone’s ever heard.

I think it was in 1977 –we were talking three-peat that season. Well we had lost two in a row and lost to Cleveland at home (Ed Note: It was 1976 after a loss at Cleveland). They hadn’t beaten us in a long time before that. After the game, there is a lobby in the stadium where the players and coaches were able to sit while they waited for the crowds and traffic to clear. I came out of the locker room into that area and Jack Hart (Steelers Equipment Manager) came up to me and said that Jack Lambert hadn’t turned in his uniform yet. Well, it was 45 minutes after the game. I looked at him and said “Really?”

I went looking for him and went into the Pirates’ locker room, which was further down the hall from ours. I looked inside and saw Jack sitting in the sauna, in tears, with his uniform still on. He was upset about the team maybe not making the playoffs. I talked to him – told him we needed to get his uniform off… But that’s how hard he and the rest of those guys took it. Here he was 45 minutes after the game – he didn’t take a shower – didn’t even take his uniform off.

After that, the team went seventeen straight quarters without giving up a point. I think Jack and Joe Greene held a team meeting after the loss. That’s the thing with those guys. They were great leaders. You never had any problem with loafers on those teams. With Ham, Russell and Lambert – we had the best three linebackers playing at the same time of all time. Many teams used five or six defensive backs often – but we never had to do that. Those guys played in all situations – they had that ability. In long or short yardage, they could play on any down. That was a real advantage for us.

I look back on it all now and remember the coaches and players and owners. It was the best ownership and best players. And we had one of the best head coaches ever. It was a good opportunity and a very good time in my life.

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