Interview: Mark Malone Explains Why Chuck Noll Never Got Close With His Players

Bringing you another Pittsburgh Steelers’ interview courtesy of our good friend Ron Lippock of the Pittsburgh Sports Daily Bulletin. Today, Ron has a fantastic interview with former Steelers’ QB Mark Malone. He spent seven years with the team, making 46 career starts in Pittsburgh. They talk about his time in Pittsburgh, his broadcasting career, and the time they broke Chuck Noll’s desk.

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, can you tell us about your broadcasting career – how you got started any why?

When I finished with the NFL after playing for the Jets, I thought I’d find something that involved working with my hands. My dad was a NASCAR guy – he built race cars and was good with his hands. I had a friend who was a homebuilder. I figured I’d apprentice under him for a year. That was the plan.

But as I was about to do that I got a call from WPXI. They were interested in having me do their pre and post game shows for the Steelers and some preseason games. I thought about it and told them I’d be happy to do it for a year. But I demanded to do a feature story each week as well. If I did it I wanted to learn the business and do it right. I had no TV background so they were reticent but tried it for a year.

Week in and week out I got better and better at it. I asked them for unfettered access to their news reporters so I could learn the business more. They were happy to allow that – they weren’t paying me more to do the extra work. I spent four-to-five nights a week with Sam Nover seeing how they put pieces together. Mind you this was before we had the twins. I’d do mock broadcasts to practice.

One thing led to another. I ended up doing Pirates games when they went to the championship series’, Penguins games when they went to the playoffs… Finally, Derrick Gunn told me I should do national stuff. I hired an agent and got hired by ESPN and worked there for a decade, then went to Chicago and when it got too cold for me finally, too Scottsdale. Now I do national radio broadcasts. Not a bad second career! It’s paid the bills for the last thirty years.

It’s interesting how you approached your career as a broadcaster, because many players I’ve spoken to spoke of your preparation and leadership as a quarterback in Pittsburgh. What drives that meticulous preparation?

I just felt it was my responsibility. Tom Moore, the offensive coordinator then for the Steelers, is also here in Scottsdale and I spoke to him a short while ago. He told me he used to remember me with 3×5 notecards every Thursday morning with notes about the playbook and upcoming game. He told me he never saw another guy do that over his career as a coach. I just thought it was my responsibility, number one.

Also, everything I have approached in life, the way I did it has something to do with my father. He dies of a heart attack at thirty-eight years old. He love off-road racing and NASCAR. My mother and father divorced when I was young. There were never any gray areas with him. I spent a lot of time trying to win his approval. To see myself in a light that made me feel better about myself. Whether it was sports, TV…it didn’t matter. I guess at 59 years old, I’m not about to change. He would tell me that if he ever caught me getting a C in class there’d be a problem. That’s average. He didn’t care if I wanted to be a janitor – but I better be the best broom sweeper in the world. That stuck with me.

So I wanted to know every assignment of every player, not just the defense. It was probably overkill. It was tedious, stupid work at times and I probably could have spent my time better. But it’s always been the way I approached things.

I don’t stay in contact with many of those other guys unfortunately. But it’s nice to hear they had positive things to say. Tom Moore would tell me that no matter what you’ll have a reputation. Everyone has one. It’s up to you to define what that will be. And I always thought a quarterback’s job was to guide and lead.

Stepping back some, were you surprised when the Steelers drafted you in round one? How did you find out?

I thought I’d go Round One. I assumed I would but you never know. The Jets coach at the time – Walt Michaels – asked me at the Senior Bowl if I’d be willing to be a running back in the NFL. They had the fifth pick, so I figured I was set to go high. I told him I appreciated that, but I had no intention of being a running back!

I played well at the college All Star game and was the offensive player of the game in the Senior Bowl, so I figured I would go high.

Back then, the draft was different. It wasn’t on TV. I remember I got a call from Chuck Noll telling me they drafted me. I thought, ok, this is a great opportunity. This is a team that won four Super Bowls in the last six years. I thought I could ride their coattails for a couple of years and win a Super Bowl and not even have to play! But thinking back on it then, it was like a who’s who of Hall of Fame players in the locker room. But they were an older team.

The Championship game in ’84 was the closest I ever got to a Super Bowl. People ask me if I’d do it again considering the injuries, and yes, I loved every minute. But I view it as a bit of a failure. We didn’t win a Super Bowl, which was the ultimate goal.

Speaking of those injuries, for a guy who based much of his play on his athleticism, how much did those early injuries affect your play? 

Well, I hurt my knee in a preseason game versus the Giants in my second season. They told me it was just a little cartilage tear. But I lost my range of motion. That year in a Monday Night game versus the Raiders Bradshaw broke his hand and I went in and threw three touchdowns, but we lost the game. I played the rest of the season and had surgery on my knee at the end of the season. They repaired the knee but afterwards I had no PCL, which was a hindrance. I also dislocated my big toe on my right foot which was never repaired, so my right side was screwed up.

Then versus New Orleans I was tackled and my elbow was ripped open. They had to cut the bursa out of it and every week I ended up ripping the staples out when I played. Those things mounted up.

To be honest, we didn’t take care of ourselves then like guys do now. I remember then every locker had an ashtray attached to it. It was like a pool hall half the time. Everyone smoked and drank. Now, players spend hundreds of thousands on masseuses and taking care of themselves. But right, to your question, as an athletic quarterback, those injuries were a hindrance to me.

Give me a couple of fun stories about your time there.

I remember Matt Bahr – the kicker then. Kickers then were thought of less than they are today. He was a quirky, smart kid from Penn State. Well, we tied him up and dragged him into the shower, stripped him to his jock, and put him in a shopping cart they used then for dirty clothes. We sprayed him with shaving cream and wheeled him throughout the facility into Chuck’s office, but the cart fell over and took a chunk out of Chuck’s desk. We all ran out of there! When Chuck came back I remember him walking into the locker room and him telling us he didn’t care who did it, but to get that damn guy out of his office!

Jack Lambert and I also got close. He was a sportsman and took me to a club near his house and got me into hunting and shooting. I ended up owning dozens of guns. He introduced me to his friends who also hunted – one, Ronnie, was also a policeman. Well, one day we all went fishing in Erie. We were 27-28 miles out, near the Canadian border. It was bad weather and pretty rough, and Ronnie was sick as a dog. He told us he wanted to go back and we were laughing. We told him there was no way we were turning around this far out. So he went to his tackle box and pulled out his .44 and pointed it at us, telling us we better turn back! So we turned the boat around and took him in. It was a different time then.

Tell me about your relationship with Chuck and how you handled the quarterback competition then between you, Bubby and others?

Well, I’m a very black and white guy. I felt it was an objective thing regarding employment. If you were better you should start. No politics. That was Chuck’s standpoint. He was very cerebral. Articulate, and set in his ways. He could be difficult to communicate with.

If he overheard us talking about wine, he come over and give us a dissertation. I was like, holy crap. He was like my father, very black and white. If its not going well, let’s fix it. If you can’t do the job, he’ll find someone else. I had a tremendous amount of respect for him, and his wife Marianne. She was a sweetheart.

There was always a sense of separation between he and the players. I had a conversation with Marianne one day and she told me the reason he never got close to players was that he knew one day he’d have to call us in his office and cut us, and that being close to his players would just make that harder. I understand that. It’s a business as far as he was concerned.

How do you feel about the quarterback position and the way it’s changed since you played?

It’s a passing game now. The rules changes have affected the game – its a pass friendly game now. I know it gets the fans more excited – they can sell more tickets. The defenses are more complicated and the game is more specialized. I think it was evolving that way when I was playing.

Teams like Cincinnati were just starting with the three receiver offenses that were different then. Those were new to us then. Now every team has some West Coast offense tendencies. Quick throws that eliminate sacks, hit runners in stride so they can run with the ball. When I was playing we’d run the hell out of the ball until we got the safeties to commit then throw the deeper passes behind them. We threw less safe passes for bigger yards per attempt. Now its about high-percentage passes.

The NFL is printing money basically. They know what they are doing. I am able to stay close to the game as a broadcaster and its evolution. It seems easier now for quarterbacks. But maybe that’s just me being egocentric. Me getting older – my “get off my lawn” attitude.

What advice would you give younger players today?

Oh wow. From my experiences. A – know its a business. The first opportunity a team gets to make itself better by using you as a pawn they’ll do it.

Take care of your body and eat right. Invest in your craft. Players now spend hundreds of thousands on masseuses and nutrition to elongate their careers. That means making more money.

Also, you need to be passionate enough to sacrifice everything to win a championship. Sometimes that even means your family for a time. It’s a brutal-ass game. If you’re not willing to put in the sacrifice you should probably find another job. If it’s not important enough to you it reflects on the field. Don’t get caught up in the adulation. That drives me crazy with many of today’s players. They want to build a brand. Really? I get it with social media. It’s a different environment. But from my point of view, if you win a Super Bowl your brand builds itself. If you concentrate on that all else falls in place.

Lastly, as you see more players making social/political statements, especially as someone who went through a tough players’s strike, what are your thoughts on this?

I talk about this all of the time on my show. I defend anyone’s right to express themselves. But I don’t think you have the right to do so in our place of employment. If you come to work wearing a “Make America Great Again” hat and your boss tells you not to keep wearing it, he can fire you if you don’t stop.

I get that they are using the anthem as a platform to get the most attention. But they’ve pissed off enough people in America that people are turning away from the game. And people aren’t getting what they are protesting about. Their point is getting lost.

I had Saints player Ricky Jean-Francois who’s from Haiti on the show. He said he builds a new house for someone in Haiti for every sack he gets. But do you ever hear about that? Never. Fox has decided not to air the anthem. I wish everyone would do that. I’m from the generation that puts their hand over their heart when they hear the anthem. For me it’s about the freedoms we have here and those that fought for them. At the same time, I defend the players right to do it, I just don’t think it’s the place for it.

Thanks Mark for your time!

Thank you! Now, I’m going to enjoy a bourbon and a cigar. Have a great evening!

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