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Perspective Of An Average Steelers Fan: Walt Kiesling

The Pittsburgh Steelers inducted Walt Kiesling into the inaugural Hall of Honor last year. Many fans have no idea who he was other than being a coach of the team when they really stank. I asked some folks who enjoy Steelers history, including an octogenarian who recalls watching a skinny Johnny Unitas tossing footballs to a couple of the Rooney boys, what came to mind when hearing his name.

Replies ranged from blank looks to “he was a loser.” Other reactions included Kiesling being the guy who cut Unitas. Or Kiesling just running the ball up the middle every first down. One person mentioned Art Rooney asking him to pass on first down, it was caught for a big gain but Kiesling had ordered a lineman to go offside negating the completion as well as the Chief’s future interference with his play calling. The choice of Gary Glick with the first overall draft pick without ever seeing him play was another recollection. Also, that he got the coaching job because he was a buddy of Art Rooney’s – that’s how coaches got their jobs with the Steelers in those days.

To sum up, the impression left, is that Kiesling was a stubborn, unimaginative coach that had a poor eye for talent. He got his job because he was a pal of the Chief. His career record as a head coach: 30 wins-55 losses-5 ties does little to dispute the view of Kiesling being inept. So, why did Art Rooney keep Kiesling as head coach for nine seasons and on the club payroll for over 20 years other than being a friend?

And how in the world did Walt Kiesling end up in the NFL Hall of Fame?

NO SLOUCH ON THE FIELD

Walt Kiesling played his college ball in his native Minnesota – University of Saint Thomas from 1923-26. From there, his 13-year NFL playing career started with the Duluth Eskimos. His teammates at Duluth included future Hall of Famers Ernie Nevers and Johnny ‘Blood’ McNally. He played five seasons with Nevers at Duluth and Chicago Cardinals. More significantly; he was a teammate of Johnny Blood’s for five seasons. They played together at Duluth, the Pottsville Maroons in 1928 and the Green Bay Packers in 1935-36 before coming to Pittsburgh. Kiesling was no slouch on the field. He received his share of recognition:

Year Tm Level Voters
1929 1st Tm Collyer’s Eye Mag.
1930 1st Tm Collyer’s Eye Mag.
1930 1st Tm GB Press-Gazette
1931 2nd Tm Collyer’s Eye Mag.
1931 2nd Tm GB Press-Gazette
1931 2nd Tm UPI
1932 1st Tm NFL

From the Pro Football Reference

Roger Treat’s Official NFL Encyclopedia, published in 1952 described Kiesling as, “guard, 235, six feet, five, St. Thomas. A true work horse guard of the old school, a chronic sixty-minute man of the days of the rugged game, is the favorite choice of men who have watched the league from the beginning. Kiesling was quick and smart, equally deadly on offense and defense, the unspectacular type that gets the job done thoroughly without benefit of headlines.”

PART OF THE PACKAGE

Kiesling was on the 1934 Chicago Bears team that went 13-0 before upset by the New York Giants, who they had beaten twice in the regular season, in the championship game. Kiesling blocked for Bronko Nagurski in five starts among the 13 games he played that season. In 1935, Kiesling ended up with the Green Bay Packers reuniting with his friend and former teammate Johnny Blood who returned to Wisconsin after a one-year stint in Pittsburgh as a player. In 1936; they along with their Packers teammates went 10-1-1 and won an NFL title.

Art Rooney hired Johnny Blood to be the Steelers skipper in 1937. Blood, in turn, brought Walt Kiesling as a part of the package. As early as February 1937, the Pittsburgh Press opined that:

Should Blood take the post here, he would be a playing coach and Mike Michalske … and Kiesling, former Green Bay teammates, would be his playing aides.” In June it was official; Blood was the head coach of Pittsburgh’s professional football team and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported that, “his assistant coach, who will also play, Walter Kiesling, will be of great value to him as Kiesling, with Blood, formed a twosome that was the oldest on the professional league.”

That was not an exaggeration. When both retired as players in 1938; Blood’s 14 and Kiesling’s 13 NFL seasons were the number one and two longest playing careers up to that time. It would take the New York Giants Mel Hein to break that longevity record when he played his fifteenth season in 1945.

OPPOSITE PERSONALITES

Blood and Kiesling had opposite personalities. Blood the mercurial “vagabond halfback” known for singing, drinking, partying, and disappearing acts was the optimistic extrovert. While Pittsburgh sportswriters described Kiesling as good-natured, stolid, slow to anger. As Bob Drum of the Pittsburgh Press said in a 1953 column; Kiesling “never has been known as an enthusiastic man.” He played the pessimistic introvert. They did share a love of horses; so, both could be found at the track with their boss Art Rooney. Kiesling checked in for the 1937 training camp as the heaviest player on the roster at a robust 248 pounds. He ended up playing in 12 games with one start over two seasons.

Kiesling was back in 1939 with Blood still at the helm.

Both coaches repeated their assertions from the previous season that they would not play but focus on coaching from the sidelines. This time, neither would play but for different reasons. Johnny Blood would quit after the third game of the season, a 32-0 humiliation by the Chicago Bears in front of 10,325 booing fans at Forbes Field. As he put it at the time, “You’ve got to win in this league, and I’m not winning, so I resigned to let somebody else have a try.” So, with the regular season underway; Walt Kiesling got his first chance to coach the Pittsburgh Pirates (Steelers). He was now the fifth Pittsburgh head coach in the team’s seven years existence. Here are his predecessors with their overall records with links to Steelers Depot articles about each:

  1. Forrest ‘Jap’ Douds 1933; 3-6-2
  2. Albert ‘Luby’ DiMeollo 1934; 2-10
  3. Joe Bach 1935-36 and 1952-53; 21-27
  4. Johnny ‘Blood’ McNally 1937-39; 6-19

FIRST STINT: A TEAM IN TURMOIL

Kiesling or ‘Kies’ as articles often referred to him inherited a team in turmoil. Part of the commotion left with Johnny Blood, but the confusion and uncertainty of the team remained. Only eight players remained on the roster when Walt Kiesling joined the team in 1937. They lost franchise star Whizzer White after only one season of play. After being shut out twice and just scoring one touchdown in the first three games, Kiesling committed to changes to the offense but kept most of the personnel on the roster. His debut was an exhibition charity game against the McKeesport Olympics a few days before playing the champion Giants.

Less than three weeks after Kiesling took over as head coach; after the team took its sixth straight loss and attendance was flagging; rumors surfaced that Art Rooney turned down two offers to sell or move the team. Art Rooney related that one group wanted to move the team to Boston (The Redskins had moved to Washington). Another proposition had the team moving to Los Angeles. Rooney committed to bringing the team back to Pittsburgh for the 1940 season and said he would retain Kiesling as coach. The Steelers would not be shutout again in 1939 but neither would they win a game until the last game of the season.

NEW DECADE USHERS NEW IDENTITY

1940 was the beginning of a new decade and as good as time as any to give the Pittsburgh Football Pirates a new identity and change its fortunes both on the field and in the bank account. A contest was started to rename the team with over 3,000 new names proposed. A committee the included former coach Joe Bach reviewed the submissions with ‘Pittsburgh Steelers chosen as the new moniker for the team. The Pittsburgh Press reported that 21 winners would each receive two season tickets for the 1940 season costing Rooney $200 per winner. An article credited Arnold Goldberg, sports editor of the Uniontown Daily News Standard with the first entry including the name Steelers.

Rumors of the franchise sale persisted with Rooney ‘quashing’ rumors of the team moving to Boston. Meanwhile, Kiesling described by Post-Gazette sports editor Jack Sell as “a quiet serious type,” who “has stiffened the training camp routine,” set two a day practices of two hours each followed by evening “skull sessions.” Sell wrote that the daily schedule starts at 7:30AM when, “little Danny Rooney, eight-year-old son of the Steeler prexy, goes from door-to-door, pounds with devilish glee and yells the ‘everybody up for breakfast’ order with his well-developed lungs.” Even after hours, “all elbow bending, even beer, is completely banned.” A change from the more carefree Blood.

BETTER START BUT BAD ENDING

The first three games ended up better than the previous season. A win and two ties compared to three losses including beating the Detroit Lions, who had Whizzer White, for the very first time. Injuries mounted, including Jack Sanders who was initially diagnosed with a concussion but was later found to have a fractured skull. Six straight losses with two more games left in the season. Three players who had broken ankles earlier in season were back in action. They end up splitting a home and away series with the Philadelphia Eagles. The Post-Gazette reported that 12 of the original 33 players on the roster were hospitalized during the season. On November 12, 1940, Kiesling signed another one-year contract following his first full season as head coach.

SECOND STINT: THE WAR YEARS

LOST AND FOUND IN THE SHUFFLE

Less than a month later, Art Rooney sold the Steelers to Alexis Thompson, the grandson of the founder of Republic Steel – the same company that suggested the Steelers adopt the steel industries logo as their own. But the immediate impact was that Walt Kiesling was out as the head coach of the Steelers. Art Rooney and Bert Bell ended up staying in Pittsburgh, but Bert Bell was intent on bringing in a “name” coach for the 1941 season. Kiesling remained as the line coach as he was on a “must” keep list when Rooney agreed to the original deal.

After two successive coaches went 0-7, Rooney announced that “Walter Kiesling will handle the team for the rest of the season. I can’t say what our future plans will be.” So, after losing the head coach job, Kiesling found himself back in charge. Kiesling did manage to upset the Brooklyn Dodgers led by legendary Jock Sutherland and knock them from contention for the Eastern Division title.

The Steelers managed this without throwing a single pass in the game. Ironically, the week before Kiesling announced plans to install the T-formation in 1942. The Dodgers got revenge to close the season and he finished out with 1 win two losses and a tie but beating Pitt legend Sutherland gave a buzz to the city.

DRAFTING A BULLET

Pittsburgh had the first overall draft choice. Kiesling was sold on drafting ‘Bullet’ Bill Dudley. Keisling said, “I want speed and a definite passing attack for our 1942 team, and I want the men with the definite idea of using their speed and passing abilities to institute the T-formation and some variations.

However, as the 1942 season approached a different draft was taking place. President Roosevelt requested “sports as usual” but the military needed heavy manpower. By June, Pittsburgh Press columnist Eddie Beachler estimated that 116 of 346 NFL players who played in 1941 had entered the military. Walt Kiesling turning 39 in May 1942 registered for the draft. Their first rounder Bill Dudley enlisted in the Navy but tried to get a 30-60-day furlough. Even those players not in the military found themselves working in local war plants. Co-owner Bert Bell said, “the preseason practices may be confined on a full-time basis to the rookies and then call out the veterans for only part-time sessions. The war effort is more important than football this year.” The Steelers started training camp with 27 players, the smallest preseason squad since its start in 1933.

STEELERS FIRST WINNING COACH

Walt Kiesling is the first Pittsburgh coach to record a winning record; ending up in second place in the Eastern Division with a 7-4 record. The 27 players still on the roster at the end of the season plus Kiesling, assistant coach Jim Leonard and trainer Tex Mayhew each got $108.06 as their share of the second place bonus money. Earlier after a three-game winning streak, Art Rooney happily chimed, “instead of ducking down alleys and trying to sidestep my pals, I’m walking down Main Street again.” This was Kiesling’s second stint and only his second full season as head coach. Unfortunately, circumstances would intervene again.

STEAGLES AND CARPETS

Art Rooney said the chances for playing football in 1943 were dim following the December 1942 owner’s meeting. Only 57 of 200 drafted college players played in the NFL in 1942. In response, the NFL increased the draft from 20 to 30 rounds. Then reduced rosters from 33 to 25 players during the regular season. But the NFL instituted free substitutions to deal with the player shortage. A move that would lead to platoon football. It was still not enough. The Cleveland Rams suspended operations for 1943. The Steelers initiated the idea of a merger with the Philadelphia Eagles since there was now an odd number of teams. An incentive being the Steelers team that had played so well in 1942 now gutted.

Only three players from the 1942 roster played for the Steagles in 1943. Nine of 11 starters were gone including All-Pro rookie Bill Dudley and three other pro bowlers: Chuck Cherundolo, Milt Simington and John Woudenberg. Simington tragically died after a heart attack while training for the NFL all-star game. He planned to enter military officers training school after the game. The others served in the military during WWII.

The Eagles franchise had the upper hand as they were prepared to play on their own. They agreed to the proposal after an owner vote to even out the league to eight teams. But their conditions included playing most home games in Philadelphia and not losing their identity as the Eagles. Head coaches Walt Kiesling and Greasy Neale of the Eagles named co-head coaches. Despite the title, Neale referred to Kiesling as his assistant. The team was moderately successful ending up third in the Eastern Division with a 5-4-1 record. By the end of the year both teams made plans to go their separate ways.

DISMAL 1944

In 1944, Pittsburgh prepared to play the season as the Steelers but this time the league requested them to merge again. The Rams recommenced operations and the Boston Yanks were an expansion team which would create an 11-team league with the split-up of the Steagles. This time Pittsburgh merged with the Chicago Cardinals who were 0-10 in 1942. Kiesling was again relegated to co-head coach this time with the Cardinal’s skipper Phil Handler. This conglomeration finished a dismal 0-10 with few highlights.

ROONEY PAYS PLAYER’S FINES

One was a bench clearing brawl with the Washington Redskins that almost got former boxer Art Rooney into the mix. Jack Sell of the Post-Gazette described the action:

It happened just before the first half ended. Eberle Schultz tackled Wilbur Moore of the Redskins and threw him out of bounds near the Washington bench. Someone piled on and in a twinkling the Redskin squad, coaches, trainers, etc. rushed to the spot. From far across the field the Steelers subs raced to the aid of their beleaguered mates with co-coaches Walt Kiesling and Phil Handler making just as appropriate time as their younger pupils. Keeping pace with the pack was Rooney but when he reached midfield he says that it suddenly struck him that it wasn’t very dignified for a club owner to be out there swapping punches, so he just clenched his fists and watched from a distance as the struggling mass of humanity was untangled.”

NFL fined Phil Handler for criticizing the referees. “Most of the Steeler gripes were on always-debatable pass interference penalties.” A few days later the Pittsburgh Press noted that Rooney paid the $50 fine NFL assessed Gilford ‘Cactus Face’ Duggan for fighting during Skins game. Another nugget from the debacle of 1944 is an assistant coach who came with the Cardinals – Buddy Parker who would make his mark later for the Steelers.

STINT THREE: A TOUGH SITUATION

OLD RELIABLE DESPITE ILL HEALTH

Kiesling resigned from the Steelers in January 1945 to join his old team the Green Bay Packers. No surprise, as Bert Bell and Art Rooney made no secret they were searching for a big-name coach to lead the Steelers. He remained there until 1949 but continued visiting Pittsburgh and vacation with Rooney while coaching in Green Bay. When he was dropped by the Packers after a coaching shake-up, Rooney hired Kiesling back in the difficult period following Jock Sutherland’s sudden death after taking the Steelers to their first playoff game. Kiesling assisted both John Michelosen and after his resignation; Joe Bach back for his second time as Steelers head coach.

Health was a recurring theme for Walt Kiesling. The earliest report was a November 1937 article noting Kiesling’s release from an Indiana hospital after suffering “head bruises” from an auto accident while driving home to Minnesota from Pittsburgh following his first season there. In March 1952 he was hospitalized for a “heavy cold.” The reports really picked up in early 1954 when he had gall bladder surgery. There are photos and reports of Kiesling going over the draft with Joe Bach with scouting notes scattered on his hospital bed.

CAMP HOLDOUTS IN COMPLIANT ’50s?

By August of that year, 57 players were present for the start of camp. Ernie Stautner was one of the no-shows and in fact never showed up to camp before September. Stautner ran a drive-in in upstate New York that he said could not be left unmanaged during the summer season. That year’s crop of rookies was not impressive. Only three would make the 33-man roster. Kiesling said of rookies not pushing veteran players; “The old-timers know it too, as long as they’re not being pressed, they won’t work any harder than they have to.” But Kiesling did give the great Stautner a pass; “if all tackles were like Stautner, they wouldn’t have to show up until game time.”

The pressure was on the coaches even in preseason. This was a time when teams were still expected to win their preseason games. It was necessary to attract fans to these games to help the club’s finances in the days before league-wide revenue sharing.

MAKING THE MOST OF IT

As an article related, “Orders are out that the Steelers must beat the Bears … Bach is aware that three straight (preseason) games before the home folk requires top-flight football to keep the customers happy.” Three weeks after that article and it was done. “KIESLING TAKES OVER STEELER JOB. ASSISTANT SUCCEEDS BACH AS HEAD COACH AFTER FANS REBEL” the headline blared.

By the third preseason loss in Pittsburgh, fans gave head coach Joe Bach, quarterback Jim Finks and star fullback Fran Rogel a full dose of Pittsburghers feelings about losing. “A stream of jeers and catcalls rained on all three all night.” Bach endured enough and resigned. The next day, Kiesling said, “everything happened so suddenly, that I haven’t had time to make any concrete plans as yet. However, there will be some changes, personnel and otherwise … Every man here in camp has a chance on this ball club and I’m willing to let the past fade away.”

At the first team meeting, Kiesling told the team that the same rules that Bach had would remain but made it clear that, “he is ready and able to substitute the iron fist for the velvet glove.”

Rooney and players refused to discuss coaching switch with reporters other than Jim Finks who said they lied when reporting an argument between him and Bach during Packers game (fake news even back then). Kiesling’s view of his third stint as Steelers head coach: “This isn’t the best spot in the world to be in, you know. It’s a tough situation, but I guess we just have to make the most of it.”

WINNING SPIRIT GONE

Kiesling upped the tempo of practices to prepare for the opening game on September 26; – camp opened August 3 – eight weeks of training before first game of regular season! Kiesling also switched personnel assignments – moving Jack Butler back to defensive back from offensive end and Johnny Lattner from safety to fullback. Fairly good moves. Lattner made the pro bowl in 1954 and we all know what Butler contributed as a defensive back.

However, the media was skeptical. Pat Livingston of the Pittsburgh Press questioned whether the Steelers ‘winning spirit’ was gone. In the days running up to the first game he wrote, “That the Steelers are going nowhere in the National Football League race is apparent in the player’s actions in practices, on the street and in games. There’s none of the grimness, determination or singleness of purpose that marks a team that is out to win.” He continued on Kiesling, “whose major fault as a coach may lie in his loyalty to players who show little of that same loyalty to him scoffs at the defeatist stories. ‘Let’s wait until the season starts before analyzing what’s wrong with the Steelers’”

Another challenge was the military draft. 14 players had been drafted by Uncle Sam by September, but the show must go on. The Steelers continued to lose preseason games but Kiesling wanted to see the rookies play rather than go for wins. Kiesling’s adjustments seemed to pay off. In the regular season opener Jim Finks set personal bests up to that time by completing 27 of 40 passes for 327 yards. The Steelers set a then team record 455 yards of offense in a victory over Green Bay.

HIGHLIGHT OF 1954 SEASON

The highlight of the season was a 55-27 thumping of the champion Cleveland Browns with Finks throwing four touchdown passes. The Steelers reached 4-1 by besting the Eagles before a then record crowd of 39,075 at Forbes Field.

The big play was in the third quarter with the Steelers almost getting a first down. As the officials were taking out the sticks for a measurement, Jim Finks and Elbie Nickel consulted with Walt Kiesling at the sideline. Finks was calling for a plunge up the middle. Nickel wanted a pass saying he could get open. Kiesling sided with Nickel and sent in ‘Popcorn’ Brandt, a short yardage back. Both Brandt and Fran Rogel “rammed” into the line with Finks faking a handoff and lofting a pass to wide-open Elbie Nickel who scored a 52-yard touchdown with nine Eagles defenders massed at the line of scrimmage. A beautiful play action pass that would be awesome to see if there is any existing film left.

The capacity of Forbes Field was about 33,100 for football. Rooney had fans standing down around the field to increase his gate receipts. His former co-owner but now NFL commissioner Bert Bell banned the standing room crowds due to concerns that unrestrained Burghers might mix it up with players. So, Rooney installed temporary bleachers in left field making room for 38,000. Three straight sell outs.

HOT START FIZZLES

Unfortunately, the bubble burst and the Steelers hot start fizzled into a 5-7 season.

By early November with five games to play, injuries to stars like Lynn Chandnois and Ernie Stautner forced them to come out of games early. The defense was in shambles with multiple injuries. The offense underperformed with only Chandnois hurt. Some reports placed blame on Jim Finks play calling. Fans regularly booing his play calling. Sports reporter Pat Livingston talked to a coach from another team that said Finks was too conservative and concluded that Kiesling should get a coach to call the plays instead of the quarterback. Kiesling later experimented briefly with a radio helmet which the Cleveland Browns pioneered. But he quickly discarded the radio as being too difficult to communicate with the quarterback on the field.

Rooney credited Kiesling for taking over a hopeless situation and creating a competitive team. The chief thought they would perform better if not for the substantial number of injuries. The 33-man rosters prevented building depth to compensate for attrition during the season. Rooney blasted the team for lack of effort and in a vote of confidence gave Kiesling a two-year contract. However, health was a looming issue. Newspaper accounts report Kiesling missing practice during the season due to the flu.

ROCKY START IN 1955

1955 had a rocky start as the Steelers lost rookie pro bowler Johnny Lattner who was inducted into the Air Force. In addition to the military, the Steelers competed with the Canadian football league who signed away Pete Ladygo who started all 12 games at right guard in 1954. Walt Kiesling committed to building the team through the draft. He announced a plan to become a regular contender by scouting all college players and keeping a card file on each college player after their sophomore year.

He said it would take three years to put into place as up to this time coaches scouted as a collateral duty to their regular responsibilities. There were no fulltime scouts employed by the team. Kiesling pointed out that the coaches really did not know who they drafted after the fourth round but had to rely on recommendations from others – this would have included Johnny Unitas.

Kiesling was committed to a passing attack and had four quarterbacks in camp. Starter Jim Finks, 1953 first round draft choice Ted Marchibroda who was back from the army and two rookies. Johnny Unitas drafted in the ninth and Vic Eaton drafted in the eleventh round of the 1955 draft. It was no mystery that Unitas had a strong arm; plenty of contemporary articles noted it. With regular season rosters limited to 33 players; Eaton’s versatility was why he was kept over Unitas. Eaton could play defensive back, return kicks and punt. Indeed, he became a Steelers specialist in 1955 with 66 punts (after star punter Pat Brady hurt) and 23 punt returns. The mystery is Kiesling cutting Unitas early with two exhibition games yet to be played and never getting any snaps in any of the four earlier preseason games.

QUARTERBACK SPAT

The quarterback position should have been settled but there was more controversy at the top of the chart. During a west coast preseason jaunt; Kiesling fined Jim Finks $100 for “missing a meeting and skylarking on the practice field.” Finks joked about needing to focus on his insurance business when Marchibroda had been a high draft pick a few years before and now he was back. The press was all over this as Fink’s threatened to pack his bags and go home.

Kiesling made light of the spat telling reporters, “Nobody makes a public issue of it every time you catch hell from your boss, do they?” Almost sounds like this could take place in 2018. Finks did not quit but years later in 1964 said he regretted returning to play after quitting in the “flare-up” with Kiesling. “That season is still a nightmare to me. Things were strained all season. I always liked Kiesling, but after a flare-up like that, a coolness developed that never warmed up the rest of the year.” Just think if Finks had quit; then Johnny Unitas could have been kept.

Finks would complete 165 passes in 344 attempts for 2270 yards in 1955 – all three marks leading the NFL that season. The team started out hot with a gaudy 4-1 record. It was almost 5-0 except for controversial loss on the west coast to the Los Angeles Rams. Former Steelers ball boy Richie McCabe returned a fumble 50 yards to give the Steelers a 26-24 lead with less than a minute to go (Art Michalik missed two PAT’s which would have made the field goal moot).

NFL OFFICIALS “JOB” STEELERS BACK IN THE DAY

Two controversial calls gave the Rams the opportunity to kick the game winning field goal.

First was a pass that was fumbled and recovered by Pittsburgh. The referees ruled a complete pass giving the Rams the yards gained but inexplicably stopped the clock. The Steelers argued that if the pass was completed the clock should have kept running which would have won the day. Alternatively, if clock stopped it should be an incomplete pass and go back to the original line of scrimmage. The referees stopped both the clock and awarded the yardage gained.

On the next play, a 15-yard unnecessary roughness call for piling on gave the Rams another 15 yards, stopping the clock and allowing them to win the game on a field goal. The normally placid Kiesling had to be physically restrained after going after a referee. NFL commissioner Bert Bell fined Kiesling a then record $500. The penalty could have been as high as $2000 or a lifetime ban according to the rules at the time, but Bell was lenient due to Kiesling’s “sparkling record.”

Bell never did collect the fine and later instituted a rule to mix referees to avoid homer calls leading many to believe he agreed that the Steelers had been “jobbed” as Kiesling and the rest of the Steelers claimed.

ANOTHER SEASONAL SWOON

Whether 4-1 or 5-0; what happened next was a complete disaster as the team dropped seven straight games to finish 4-8. Kiesling tried coaching from the “crows’ nest” during the first half of games to get a better view, calling in plays and substitutions via telephone. He tried moving players around even playing Ernie Stautner at guard to bolster a porous offensive line. He tried midseason trades. Nothing worked, and Al Abrams of the Post-Gazette opined that:

Somewhere along the line in recent weeks, the Steelers lost the desire to win. They had only a fair club to be sure, but no one can convince me or the long-suffering faithful who supported them that they could not have done much better in the last half of the campaign.” Abrams added, “There’s talk of Walt Kiesling being replaced as coach. This will happen when Walt decides he’s had enough and all indications point to this. The big, good-natured mentor was openly critical of the way some of his men performed in the past month. The Steelers need more than just coaching changes to give the city a winner.”

NEW DRAFTING SYSTEM IN 1956

WHO IS GARY GLICK?

Kiesling would be back for the 1956 season and was already recruiting players. In response to the Canadian league poaching players, the NFL pushed the first part of the 1956 draft back to November 1956. Pittsburgh won the coin flip for the bonus pick and made the controversial choice of Gary Glick.

Who is Gary Glick?” Al Abrams’ Sidelights on Sports column asked. Art Rooney, “All I can tell you is that our coaching staff has been high on Glick for some time. They got the tip from scouts we have in that section. These scouts and his coach …rate him one of the best pro quarterback prospects in years…. Why didn’t we pick a more glamorous name than a sleeper? You’ll have to ask the coaches that.” Abrams, “Only time will tell if the Steeler scouting system is right on Glick. If he can do half the things they claim he’ll be a whiz.

THE RATIONALE

Kiesling explained that he didn’t choose an offensive back since Lattner and Paul Cameron were due to return from military duty. Kiesling also said Glick needed in defensive secondary which is where he would start out. Another factor was Jim Finks in his prime and expected back in 1956 when Pittsburgh drafted Glick. Finks would retire from play early in the new year. Kiesling was drafting by need to plug holes in his line-up.

Both the Pittsburgh Press and Post-Gazette reported in January that Kiesling used his new drafting system for the first time. Perhaps explaining why Kiesling picked Glick sight unseen back in November with three other players in the first three rounds. The system did not start out to well as only three players out of the 25 selected that January in the fourth to 29th rounds ever played in the NFL – all three playing a single season. It worked better the next year with nine of 27 selectees making it to the NFL including Hall of Famer Len Dawson who Kiesling had planned to make his franchise quarterback.

COACHING FROM HOSPITAL BED

Kiesling had multiple hospital stays in 1956 but continued to meet with his staff from his hospital bed. The entire caching staff were former Steelers: Bill McPeak, Bill Dudley, Nick Skorich and, Chuck Cherundolo. Expectations were low coming into the season. A Post-Gazette article named Elbie Nickel as the most popular Steeler ever next to Bullet Bill Dudley, noting that “both men are unique in that they have never been booed here.”

An infected kidney hospitalized Kiesling in Minnesota. He directed practice via telephone during a 1956 preseason trip. The team continued to Oregon without their head coach. Articles noted Kiesling limiting his infrequent criticisms of specific players to naming weaknesses at positions. He did imply the team was pampered too much.

The season went up and down one of the few bright spots was rookie Lowell Perry returning punts with a gaudy 13.6 yards return average. Unfortunately, he would go down with a devastating injury breaking his hip and having some dislocated bones. Out for the season, he would return as an assistant coach under Kiesling – the first African-American NFL coach since Fritz Pollard was coached the Hammond Pros in 1925.

The end of the season saw the team scrambling to replace injured players. However, Kiesling was optimistic for 1957 despite the 5-7 record. Kiesling said he saw no glaring holes on the roster so that they could now afford to draft the best players available rather than drafting by position need. All part of the plan.

UNFULFILLED PLANS

As early as December 1956 rumors of Buddy Parker coming to Pittsburgh with Bobby Lane surfaced. Parker would eventually re-sign with the Lions tamping down the rumors. Walt Kiesling started 1957 like the previous year, recovering from another stay in the hospital.

By early June, he brought in the quarterbacks – Len Dawson, Ted Marchibroda and Jack Scarbath to discuss offensive plans for the upcoming season. Training camp began July 30. With the home opener against the Redskins not until September 29 -nearly two full months of preseason training. Kiesling appeared intent to have Len Dawson as his number one quarterback. He said that he did not want to rush using Dawson since “he’s too valuable a grid property.” He wanted to use Dawson in roll-out plays, so Dawson had the option of passing or running the ball instead of using the protective pocket he had in college according to newspaper accounts of the time.

Everything changed several weeks into training camp. Buddy Parker finally followed through on his threat to quit the Detroit Lions which he did on August 12. Reportedly, Walt Kiesling suggested Rooney contact Parker prior to the first exhibition game versus the Bears. As late as August 27, Buddy Parker denied he was in line for the job, but believed Kiesling would welcome him “with open arms” as they are good friends. The next day it was made official. Kiesling remained as assistant coach and his last game as head coach was a September 2 preseason win over the Eagles.

REMAINING YEARS

In his remaining years, Kiesling remained on the Steelers staff as an assistant coach; scout and advisor. In 1961 he and Jack Butler were scouting together. Rooney visited Kiesling hours before he passed away on March 3, 1962 at just 58 years old:

“Kies was one of the finest men I have ever met. We have been close friends since he first came here in 1937 and I am deeply grieved. Walt was respected throughout the NFL not only for his coaching knowledge but for his wonderful personality.”

So, ended the career of Walt Kiesling.

IRISH BLARNEY

I found the 1964 article where Art Rooney first told a story after Buddy Parker said Rooney never interfered by suggesting plays; “The Prez said that once before he had ordered the late Walt Kiesling to use a pass play on first down. ‘The fans here used to say, Hey, diddle, diddle, Fran Rogel up the middle,’ Rooney recalled. ‘So, I told Kies, to have our quarterback, Jack Scarbath, pass on the first scrimmage. He hit Goose McClairen for a TD, but referees called it back because a lineman went offside. Later I learned that the coaches had decided that if the play worked I might send in more. So, they had ordered the lineman to foul.’’’

Jack Scarbath only started one game for the Steelers; a 30-13 victory over the Rams where both he and Marchibroda played. The Post-Gazette did report Scarbath completing a long pass to Jack McClairen to the Rams 40, but the play negated by a five-yard illegal motion in backfield penalty. The offside occurred on the opening kickoff when Pittsburgh kicked to the Rams. The returner tried a lateral that was fumbled and recovered by Jack Butler and taken in for a touchdown. That play negated by offside on the kickoff.

I could not find any contemporary references to Kiesling ordering the penalty which I would find unusual since they had just lost a touchdown due to an offside penalty. This was the last home game of the season. The Steelers celebrated a tribute to Elbie Nickel who planned to retire – he would catch two touchdowns in this game. It may have happened as Art Rooney described or he could have just been spinning a yarn using his excellent Irish blarney to add some color to a story.

HIS LEGACY

Despite recurring bouts of illness over the years; he stayed a “60-minute” man much like his playing career. Always ready to pitch in wherever and whenever needed, he was never the first choice as head coach but came in three times to replace coaches after a season was underway. He withstood great upheaval;  first the sale of the team; then a World War with combined teams and finally his own health forcing him out as the head coach. He missed on Johnny Unitas but appeared to have a good eye for talent despite that big miss. Kiesling drafted Hall of Famers Bill Dudley and Len Dawson. Walt Kiesling had more imagination than given credit for; looking to install the T-Formation a decade before the team finally broke away from the single wing. He envisioned the value of building through the draft and the importance of setting up a scouting system.

I’m not sure if I answered the question of why Art Rooney kept Walt Kiesling on the payroll for 20 plus years. Or why he’s inducted into the Hall of Fame. But, you could not find a more loyal guy. He stuck with the club through thick and thin. Even when the ownership made it plain they were searching for his replacement. As for the Hall of Fame, no less than a Supreme Court Justice, Whizzer White, presented the award with legendary Johnny Blood accepting it on Kiesling’s behalf. That’s good enough for me.

YOUR MUSIC SELECTION

In the 2018 Memorial Day Weekend: Steelers Friday Night Five Questions, I committed to play songs that Steelers Depot respondents had suggested might be the new Steelers anthem if Renegade by Styx was ever replaced. Here is entry seven of 45 from Steelers D: Unforgiven by Metallica.

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