Marky Billson Interviews Tunch Ilkin...for Real

Marky Billson@@MarkyBillsonContributor IJune 3, 2009

HONOLULU, HI - FEBRUARY 4:  Buffalo Bills offensive tackle Tunch Ilkin #62 of the AFC squad laughs during the 1990 NFL Pro Bowl at Aloha Stadium on February 4, 1990 in Honolulu, Hawaii.  The NFC won 27-21.  (Photo by George Rose/Getty Images)

Bleacher Report has many fantasy interviews: "The 20 Questions I'd Like to Ask Hines Ward" and whatnot.

Here's a real interview, with former Steelers All-Pro offensive lineman and current radio color commentator Tunch Ilkin.

Here he discusses the demise, but not dismissal, of the charity event fellow broadcaster and ex-Steeler Craig Wolfley held each year for the homeless of Pittsburgh at Heinz Field, how much an offensive line can improve from one year to the next, and how he actually is paid to help the Baltimore Ravens!

Marky: I was going to ask if there was going to be a “Tunch and Wolf Walk for the Homeless” this year, but I now understand there won’t be. Why?

Tunch: There won’t be a Walk because our director of development at the Light of Life Mission, Tom Lazar, had a massive heart attack and died Super Bowl week. That put our fundraising in a jam and we decided to focus on mailers. The executive director decided to hold it off a year.

We’re looking at doing it again next year in May.

Marky: How did you get involved with the Light of Life Mission?

Tunch: In 1987 I was downtown at a play and I remember seeing all these homeless. My heart broke through to them and I thought “What could I do?”

Through [former Steelers executive] Joe Gordon I was put in touch with Light of Life.

My involvement started in 1987 and I was blown away. People were giving their lives to the poor. I started volunteering and getting to know the staff and the disadvantaged...They made me a board member, but I’m a much better volunteer than a board member.

Marky:You mentioned to me in your reply to this interview request you’d be a part of Steelers fantasy camp this weekend in Latrobe. Explain what goes on in a Steelers fantasy camp.


Tunch: Guys come in. A bunch of Steelers come in. Craig Wolfley and I have been co-hosting for five or six years. The players include Dermotti Dawson, Mike Tomczak, Mike Logan, and Jason Gildon and a couple of coaches come in for chalk talk seasons.

Friday night is a picture night and guys tell stories. On Saturday it’s a banquet. It’s just a time go through two practices and go through the same drills the Steelers do only minus the equipment.

On Sunday morning we have a punt, pass and kick competition.

The participants stay in the dorms and get a jersey. Try to get as close to training camp as possible.

There’s no game [at the end of camp], but you work on pass rushing and blocking, pass coverage; every aspect. I think there are six or eight stations. You learn how to do everything, throw, catch, punt, cover, run routes. You get a bird’s eye view of playing the game.

Marky: Now to the serious football talk. How do you think it was possible for a team to win the Super Bowl while allowing 49 sacks, the second-worst total in the AFC and the third-worst in franchise history?

Tunch: When you look at sacks given up it’s easy to assume all of them belong to the offensive line. But if we believed that our true assessment of the line is incorrect. Tight ends and running backs are also responsible, hot reads are sometimes missed, and the Steelers have a quarterback who likes to hold on to the ball. That will produce sacks.

The offensive line early on was shuffled and teams were blitzing. As the year went on it got better. The key is not how many sacks, but when the offensive line absolutely had to make plays, [in the post season] they kept Ben [Roethlisberger] upright.

Marky: You were known for not allowing sacks. Every year it seemed we’d hear “Tunch Ilkin only allowed one sack last season!” What’s the key to protecting the quarterback?

Tunch: You have to be good with your hands. They’re everything . . . We used to punch block, so the key to being a good pass blocker is to jam your hands into the defensive lineman, stop his pass rush move, and make him start all over. Then you have to shuffle your feet and be aggressive with your hands but under control so you don’t whiff.

Marky: You also were on those two teams that allowed more sacks than the 2008 squad, the 1983 team that allowed 52 sacks, and the 1989 Steelers that allowed 51. Can you tell us what adjustments were made the next season to reduce that number (in ’84 the Steelers allowed 35 sacks, in ’90 they allowed 33)?

Tunch: We were just better. We played better. In 1983 we rotated guys around and had a lot of guys hurt.

The thing about it is, if everyone got a little better, the cumulative effect of everyone getting just a little bit better will have a profound effect on how much time the quarterback has.

Marky: Are you still tutoring the Chicago Bears offensive linemen?

Tunch: Yes. I was just in Chicago last weekend. Last year I worked with the Chicago Bears, Baltimore Ravens and Minnesota Vikings. We’ll see what happens. Sometimes they’ll call that weekend and ask “Can you help us out?”

Marky: Would you like to tutor the Steelers?

Tunch: With the exception of being offered a job by Bill Cowher, I’ve never been offered. I have worked with 12 teams.

In 2000, he offered me the opportunity to be the assistant to offensive line coach Kent Stephenson and take over because his health was not going to allow him to continue. But it would have taken too much time from my family. I was coaching my two sons in football and my daughter was playing soccer. I was tempted and honored, but the cost was too high.

The Buffalo Bills and Detroit Lions have also offered me coaching jobs, and Mike Holmgren was interested [following my final season in the NFL with the Green Bay Packers]. But the only one I was serious about was the Steelers job.

Marky: The best reason the Steelers will repeat is-

Tunch- Because of their consistency. And because I think Mike Tomlin is great at knowing when to push and when to back off.

Marky: The best reason they won’t is-

Tunch: I think because everyone will be gunning for them and it is a short offseason when you win the Super Bowl. Sometimes you can be tired. But that’s why I think they have a good shot— Mike will have them where they need to be.

Marky: You majored in broadcasting at Indiana State. Do you feel this legitimizes you from what Howard Cosell described as “The Jockocracy?”

Tunch: Oh, I don’t know. I love what I do. I’m thankful I do what I do. I enjoy the business because I love football. I think it’s a fabulous game. I have the greatest job in the world; for 14 years I get to talk about it.

Marky: What was the better preparation to become the Steelers’ color commentator: your degree or playing career?

Tunch: I think really my playing career. You don’t do a game as a broadcast student. You can produce a TV show or do a show—work everything from floor manager to director to sound, but experience is the key.

The thing that helped me learn was when I first got into the business before I started doing Steelers games I worked for a year for NBC. The guys who really helped me were Matt Millen, a good friend of mine, and Bob Trumpy.

When Matt heard they hired me the Steelers pregame on WPXI, he invited me to watch him work and show you how to prepare for games. He told me to prepare just like a player—watch film.

Bob Trumpy also gave me a great bit of advice—take people where they can’t go— in the huddle, on the field.

Marky: How has your role on the Steelers’ broadcasts changed without the late, great Myron Cope?

Tunch: Myron was fantastic. He was just a blast. You know that, Marky. His sense of humor and timing, his “Myronisms,” his passion for the game. It was great to work with a true legend.

When Myron was in the booth, my role was really to respond to what he would say as opposed to what [longtime Steelers play-by-play announcer Bill Hillgrove] would say. Without Myron there, the game is the focal point. In that way it has changed.

I miss him, the fun we’d have. He’d have me in stitches. He was always busting on me and I’d bust back. We had a lot of fun.

Marky: When you came to Pittsburgh in 1980 the town was alive as “The City of Champions” as both the Steelers and Pirates had won World Championships the season before. What’s different about the vibe you get with the Steelers winning the Super Bowl and the Penguins in the Stanley Cup finals?

Tunch: You know, I don’t know if I do have a different vibe. What’s great about this city is the way Pittsburghers embrace their athletes. If you play for this city you become part of the fabric of the city. It’s just very cool. Pittsburghers are great about embracing you as their own.


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