By the late 80s, the Pittsburgh Steelers were a mere shell of the greatness personified by Steel City football in the previous decade. By the end of 1988, the Black and Gold were mathematically eliminated from postseason play for the fourth consecutive season.
Analysts and fans questioned if the game—now complete with 4,000-yard passers such as Marino and Fouts, in addition to dominant passing attacks such as the West Coast offense—hadn't passed by Noll.
These concerns came despite a winning record for the franchise during the decade. Yet, by comparison to the years that had just passed, the Men of Steel had clearly taken a significant step backward.
A once dominant defense couldn't get off the field in any postseason game during the early decade. On offense, the name Bradshaw gave way to forgettable talents such as Blackledge and Malone. And, despite their most valiant efforts to pull the team through some tough sledding, runners Frank Pollard and Merril Hoge were certainly not in the esteemed rank of a Franco Harris.
Louis Lipps had to feel displaced, missing his calling to dominate amongst peers by a few critical seasons.
However, despite murmurings of his lost eye for talent, antiquated style and outdated philosophies, Noll carried on with his craft with the same stoicism that patrolled the sidelines on four Super Sundays.
And, contrary to the popular belief that Noll had nothing left to offer, "Emperor 'Chaz," as he was affectionately labelled by media tycoon Myron Cope, was about to give Steelers fans one last amazing adventure during his tenure with the headset.
As in the high fantasy of classic literature, there's always a good guy and a bad guy, and for everything great that happens, somebody has to lose. It's the cyclical nature of reality—the always true philosophy of equal give and take.
Indeed, while Chuck Noll was on the horizon of one last "hurrah!," his eventual party would come at the cost of a bombastic coach in Houston, Texas, who had become the ire of many of his AFC Central coaching peers.
Nobody would ever confuse Jerry Glanville as a man lacking confidence. Taking over a struggling Oilers squad in the mid-80s, Glanville's teams had consecutive 5-11 campaigns from 1985-86. Correlating with the losing seasons, Warren Moon's performance in his first two seasons left much to be desired.
In 1987, Glanville's influence took effect on the team, and a light bulb clicked.
Warren Moon blossomed into the All-Pro passer history remembers, engineering an offense that featured receivers Drew Hill, Haywood Jeffries and Ernest Givins. Along with runners Alonzo Highsmith and Mike Rozier, the Oilers offense blended into a unit capable of making plays in every phase of the game.
Convinced that his team lacked the mental toughness to compete, the eccentric coach Glanville made it his goal to "toughen" the team. The defense, which included ends Ray Childress and William Fuller, along with cornerback Cris Dishman and safety Bubba McDowell, became a more physically imposing crew.
The Oilers would become a winner for years to come, and Glanville qualified the "new Oilers" as a team that was willing to punch back.
Unconvinced, Chuck Noll felt strongly that the Oilers' leader didn't exclusively promote physicality, going as far as to question Glanville for promoting injury and citing Houston as a physical team that was bending the rules.
The issue came to the forefront during a postgame meeting between the two coaches on December 20, 1987. The Oilers had defeated the Steelers in a key game, and both teams left the contest with identical 8-6 records. Ultimately, Houston would make the playoffs, while Pittsburgh would narrowly miss the postseason.
During the game, Noll had become incensed with Oilers players' personal affronts toward his ballclub, including trash talk, illegal hits and attempts to begin fights between the whistles.
At midfield, Noll put an emphatic finger toward Glanville's face while shaking his hand and delivered a blunt message (see video, top).
"Your (expletive) guys coming in and jumping in are gonna get your (expletive) in trouble. Just know that!"
Glanville ripped his hand away from Noll's firm grasp, and the two men separated.
In response, Jerry produced a tape that showed similar Steelers altercations in contests between the rival squads. However, the always quotable Glanville always had just "one more thing" left to say. After all, this was the guy who would later have something to say about the weight of his 300-lb. tackle Lincoln Kennedy, "He can be a great player in this league if he learns how to say two words: 'I'm full.'"
Regarding Chuck Noll, Glanville made his opinion of the matter very clear, referencing his early career losses to Noll's Steelers, specifically in 1986.
"He (Noll) was a perfect gentleman when they were beating us every year. Last year, they beat us twice and Noll said I was doing a great job coaching. When you get beat, different frustrations come into play. He's a very intense coach."
While numbers of fans took either side in the argument, the reality was not favorable for the losing Steelers and their beleaguered head coach. Public perception of Noll was that of a man summoning up his "loser's cry." I often wonder if Noll ever thought, during his most private moments back in those days, that he wished he had the type of team from years earlier that could assist him in silencing the zany Glanville.
Whether or not he would admit it, bitter beatings at home to those Houston Oilers surely hurt more considering the benefactor of the results. In the darker moments, such as following a 34-14 home loss to the Oilers in '88 (his team's second 20-point home loss in a row to Glanville's squad), did Noll ever hate that his team's decline had to coincide with the Oilers' newfound winning ways?
Surely, the thought crossed his mind.
In that regard, December 4, 1988, was absolutely sweet for Chuck Noll.
After getting shellacked with Mark Malone and Todd Blackledge under center, Noll tried his luck and started struggling quarterback Bubby Brister in the Astrodome. The struggling Steelers were 3-10 entering play against the 9-4 Houston Oilers on Sunday Night Football.
Warren Moon was having his finest outing to-date, Houston had won four of their last five contests (including a 41-17 pasting of the defending champion Washington Redskins), and the unit had aspirations of catching the 11-3 Cincinnati Bengals for the AFC Central Division Championship.
Conversely, paltry Pittsburgh was suffering through its worst season since Noll's first season as head coach, a type of futility that hadn't been experienced in Western Pennsylvania for nearly two decades. Their quarterback, Brister, had failed to complete half of his passes in any of the previous five games (four losses). The low point came in Cincinnati, a 42-7 loss that saw the team outgained by a yardage margin of 559-198.
After three straight losses to Glanville and the Oilers, Pittsburgh was about to stun a national football audience with a victory that would plant seeds for not only an improved finish to the 1988 season (5-11), but also the notion that with the right amount of effort and heart, they could find a way to pull off the unexpected against a solid opponent.
On the game's opening drive, Warren Moon found receiver Drew Hill for a quick gain. After a draw to Alonzo Highsmith gained four yards, the Oilers went back to the running back, who fumbled the football near midfield.
Not coincidentally, Hightower would see only one more carry on the night.
Bubby Brister's confidence was allowed to grow when the scrutinized passer found Rodney Carter for a substantial gain into Houston territory on the Steelers' first offensive play. Nevertheless, the drive ended with a rare miss by Gary Anderson, and it appeared that Pittsburgh's gift opportunity to open scoring had been wasted.
The Pittsburgh defense, which featured the All-Pro talent of linebacker Greg Lloyd and Hall of Famer Rod Woodson, along with fellow cornerback Dwayne Woodruff, forced a Houston punt. From their own end of the field, the Steelers handed off to running back Rodney Carter, who executed a timely gadget pass to Merril Hoge.
The trick play netted 40 yards, and Pittsburgh's quick burst into Houston territory resulted in a 45-yard field goal from their normally reliable kicker/cyborg, Anderson.
After Warren Moon and Drew Hill connected to drive the Oilers back into a tied football game, the subsequent kickoff saw returner Dwight Stone start up the left sideline. Sprinting past a would-be tackler before avoiding the last Oiler in his path with a timely juke, Stone sprinted into the end zone for a 92-yard touchdown that gave the heavy underdogs the lead, 10-3.
The former Canadian football star Moon showcased the same aplomb he had advertised during previous wins over Pittsburgh. A deep strike to Ernest Givins set Houston up deep in Steelers territory. Then, inside the 10-yard line, Moon scrambled to his right on an apparent sprint option, which the Steelers had to honor considering Warren's deceptively adequate mobility.
Moon threw back across his body into the middle of the field, quickly tying the game with a well-placed strike to Mike Rozier, the running back whose 1,002 rushing yards and 10 touchdowns led all Oilers skill players in '88.
The boisterous fans in the Astrodome reached a fever pitch whenever linebacker Johnny Mead's well-timed jump off the snap of the football allowed him to come unimpeded off left tackle. Mead hit Brister from behind, forcing a fumble that the Steelers were fortunate to recover. The change in field position allowed the Oilers' offense to drive minimal distance for a field goal, which gave Houston a 13-10 lead.
With Glanville's group ahead, a normal occurrence of the times in the series, Noll surely hoped his inconsistent quarterback could avoid a critical mistake, especially considering the raucous state of the prime-time crowd who had watched their team rally quickly from an early deficit. At the realistic best, Chuck probably wished for Brister to make a few good throws and get enough yardage to allow Gary Anderson an attempt at tying the score before halftime.
However, Brister needed only one play to find a resurgent Steelers great.
After two injury-plagued seasons from 1986-87, Louis Lipps rebounded magnificently in 1988, averaging 19.5 yards per catch for 973 yards and five touchdowns. Two of those scores would shock the faithful contingent of Texas fans just delirious enough not to root for Dallas.
From the 20-yard line, Brister's picture-perfect arc hit Lipps in stride deep down the middle of the field, victimizing No. 24, corner Steve Brown. Adding insult to injury, Brown injured his hand on the play (on a missed tackle!), and the combination of health and bad results caused Glanville and the coaching staff to hand the Lipps' coverage assignment over to Patrick Allen.
With time remaining, a Tony Zendejas missed field-goal attempt kept Pittsburgh's four-point halftime lead intact.
Ahead 17-13, Louis Lipps went right back to work against his newly assigned cover corner. Brister dropped back, gave a single pump and fired a deep missile down the right sideline. The pass hit Lipps perfectly in stride as he sprinted behind Patrick Allen for a 24-13 lead.
Lipps finished the night with 166 yards, including two touchdowns of 65 yards or greater.
The adrenaline surge along the Pittsburgh sideline was short-lived. The ensuing kickoff truly proved that turnabout is fair play, and Lorenzo White did his best Dwight Stone impression, heading down the left sideline to pay dirt on a return eerily similar to the kickoff touchdown from the first half.
Houston's defense returned the ball to Warren Moon and the offense, who now only trailed by four points, 24-20. A rocket pass to Ernest Givins was only bettered by the receiver's gutty effort to hold onto the ball after a violent hit from the secondary. Next, set up near the goal line, Warren Moon scrambled to his right, this time circling around rushing linebacker Darin Jordan and beating him to the pylon.
Oilers fans roared as their team rallied from a double-digit deficit in little time, leading 27-24. If the outmanned Steelers had visions of an upset, the huge plays that allowed that possibility would have to be replaced with a gutty fourth quarter effort.
It seemed as though this would be the case whenever Merril Hoge's two-yard touchdown run reclaimed Pittsburgh's four-point edge.
Following the score, a batted pass from Warren Moon found the arms of corner Darren Woodruff, who had one of his team-leading four interceptions on the season. Penalties and bad play-calling forced a Steelers punt from the shadow of their own goal line, allowing Warren Moon a shot at redemption from midfield.
Could he take advantage?
The answer was an emphatic "NO!" as Larry Griffith intercepted a pass over the middle and returned it deep into Houston territory. Sadly, no Steelers points resulted. Houston got the ball back...AGAIN! with over seven minutes remaining. Fans knew it was only a matter of time before the team would be burned, like playing with fire.
The Oilers, surprisingly, were forced to punt, but the offense did nothing with the pigskin. Again, Moon and company had a chance to retake the lead, but a diving interception by Woodruff, his second of the game, was Warren's third turnover of the fourth quarter. Pittsburgh had excellent field position....again! Penalties negated that edge, forcing another punt.
And, I can't imagine how many radios and television sets were present for an angry barrage of scathing remarks from the Steel City. Pittsburgh refused to put the game away, and with 1:30 left to play, they nearly paid a dear price for their lack of killer instinct.
One of the few men able to get away with wearing No. 1 about his chest FINALLY...did the burning mentioned above. Warren Moon burrowed his way into the end zone on an option play, and I can only imagine the burning ire of Steelers fans, especially Chuck Noll, with what appeared to be another imminent loss to Houston.
Despite three fourth-quarter turnovers and a number of defensive stands, the offense had completely shut down, missing out on an array of opportunities to put the game away. Now, Glanville roamed the sidelines in position for a fourth straight win over his division rivals—a harsh reality for a soon-to-be seething Noll, to be sure.
Taking the field with just over a minute left in the game, the suddenly anemic Pittsburgh offense was the only difference between fans in the Steel City engaging in riotous emotions. Their first play was huge, an underneath pass to Rodney Carter from the 20-yard line that seemed like a safe throw. However, the running back burst toward the sideline and ran upfield for an additional 30 yards to set the Steelers up near midfield.
Following a series of plays, which included a 3rd-and-2 conversion in Houston territory by Merril Hoge, Brister dropped back with 27 seconds to play, firing a pass over the middle to Hoge. Hoge gathered in the football, rumbled toward the end zone and plowed though a group of four Houston defenders into the end zone.
The Steelers' sideline erupted as the final score of the game secured a zany, wild and utterly unpredictable 37-34 win. And, naturally, on a night where nothing felt certain, the Steelers missed the extra point, which hit the upright, leaving the Oilers within a field goal. Houston never got the chance to tie.
For the first time following their media war, Noll had gotten the better of Glanville.
Nevertheless, the Oilers had "only lost by three" despite a rash of late turnovers and a pair of huge plays from a receiver who was nowhere to be found for two years prior to the Sunday night classic.
Indeed, the public labelled the game as a fluke. Certainly, this wouldn't matter to Noll and the Steelers. For professional athletes, a win is a win.
Still, the fire to take down that "giggling Glanville" and his clan of cocky soldiers still burned in the Steelers, and the 1989 installment of the Black and Gold would do more damage to Glanville's coaching career than any other team could dream.
After the key late-season loss prevented "Big Blue" from winning the AFC Central in 1988, a more difficult road to the playoffs resulted in a 17-10 Houston loss in Buffalo on divisional playoff weekend.
Ownership felt the talent in place correlated with certain improvement in 1989, and the writing on the wall, while not outwardly spoken, seemed simple: a deep playoff run, bare minimum. After a pair of six-loss seasons got the Oilers into the playoffs, it was time to take the next step.
Oddly, hopes were higher in Pittsburgh than would seem logical for a previously 5-11 squad entering '89. After all, the team had won three of its final four games, including a huge win over the playoff-bound Oilers. Why not dream, right?
At first, the dream turned into a nightmare.
Losing 51-0 on opening day at Three Rivers Stadium...to the Browns (ugh!)...was bad enough, and a 41-10 loss in Cincinnati the following week culminated in one of the worst starts to a season in NFL history, if not the absolute worst.
A gutty rally back to .500 ended with a brutal 27-0 loss in Houston. The Oilers outgained the Steelers in first downs (22-10) and yardage (361-132) in an emphatic revenge win.
Pittsburgh would fall to 4-6 before showing resurgence once more. Then, after rallying to a .500 record for a second time, Houston put its collective cleats on the team's throat once more, rallying from a 10-0 deficit to win on a late Lorenzo White touchdown in Pittsburgh, 23-16. Bubby Brister had fewer yards passing in the loss than he had gained on one touchdown pass to Lipps in the '88 victory.
In one of his finest coaching jobs ever, Chuck Noll never allowed his team to surrender. In a showing of great pride, the admirable Steelers fought back, finishing 9-7 and qualifying for the playoffs after a nearly miraculous and certainly far-fetched series of events all fell into place.
Sure, this wasn't a unit that would be confused with any of Noll's champions. Yet, their pride and perseverance was a message that many people can still learn from.
Quite fittingly, in arguably his greatest coaching job ever, the 1989 season had one more victory in store for the 9-7 Steelers. And, with a huge win, it would be Noll who would get the last laugh over the wise-cracking, cocky head coach in Houston, Texas, who had caught the ire of so many of his peers.
Wild Card Weekend pitted the Pittsburgh Steelers against the Houston Oilers in a rematch of an October shutout. For most fans and analysts, the apparent mismatch seemed sure to result in the lackluster contest of the soon-to-be 1990 playoffs.
This time, the Steelers wouldn't get pushed around. And, whether either coach wanted to admit it, a win over the other was going to add to the satisfaction 10-fold, while a loss was going to be the invitation to a very depressing offseason.
It was fitting that this would be the final game of the 80s, taking place on December 31st, 1989, in the acclaimed "House of Pain."
With the stoic Noll and flamboyant Glanville staring across the field from opposing sidelines, the only thing that seemed missing were the brass knuckles and pavement. It was a game where neither team would pull away from the other...a contest that would end in sudden death.
Early, it appeared that the Oilers would draw first blood. Warren Moon found both Drew Hill and Ernest Givins, his two leading receivers, in a drive that stalled at the Pittsburgh 40-yard line.
A Tony Zendejas 55-yard field-goal attempt fell painfully short, and Jerry Glanville looked foolish for not pinning a Pittsburgh offense led by quarterbacks who would have probably made Kordell Stewart seem "franchise label-worthy."
This was proven further when the Steelers offense went nowhere, forced to punt almost immediately back to Moon and company. The Houston offense likewise stalled.
Jerry Olsavsky blasted through the line and finished with a clean block of the Oilers punt attempt. Pittsburgh recovered at the 23-yard line and faced a 4th-and-1 shortly thereafter from the Houston nine-yard line.
After years of talking back-and-forth, both directly and through the media, to each other, Chuck Noll sent Glanville an unmistakable early message right there in the "House of Pain." The message was clear: not only were the Steelers going to be a "House of Pain in the Oilers' (expletive) all game long...but the proud Black and Gold were playing to win, baby!
Going for the first down instead of the field goal, Brister pitched to running back Tim Worley. Worley evaded would-be tackler around the end and managed to get to the 1-yard line. Still unsatisfied, the runner blasted through safety Bubba McDowell, who had led the Oilers with 97 tackles in '89, and fell into the end zone.
The Steelers led 7-0. Game on.
The Oilers were certainly no pushovers, and they responded with a few punches of their own. Driving over 90 yards, Moon led Houston to the Pittsburgh 3-yard line. This time, instead of a frustrating quarterback scramble for the score, the Oilers offense failed to execute. Penalties and dropped passes prevented a tie, and a field goal made the score 7-3.
Tim Worley, who had heroically scored in the first quarter, was stripped of the football. With great field position, the Oilers drove forward but faced 4th-and-1 from the Pittsburgh 17-yard line. Opposed to taking a chance, Glanville opted for the kick.
The Steelers still led 7-6. The field-goal festival continued.
With moments left in the first half, Pittsburgh extended to a 10-6 lead.
The defenses played "bend, but don't break" for most of the game, stiffening with their backs along the goal line. The Steelers followed suit as an Oilers chip shot narrowed the gap to 10-9.
With the Steelers defense holding up against Houston's high-powered offense, which featured the league's second-highest rated quarterback of '89 in Warren Moon, the Pittsburgh offense had to scratch and claw for important yardage against the Oilers' physical defenders.
A seven-play, 30-yard march ended with an Anderson boot, making the lead 13-9.
Then, Pittsburgh followed up with a long drive, but the number of plays were misleading. Needing every inch of the nine plays they ran, the offense only conjured up 33 more yards, but it was just enough. Gary Anderson's booming 48-yard field goal gave the Steelers a 16-9 lead at the start of the fourth quarter.
After spending much of the afternoon in control, the Pittsburgh defense finally sprung a leak under the pressure of Warren Moon and his Pro Bowl receiving corp.
Ernest Givins single-handedly attempted to rip the Steelers' hearts from their proverbial chest. Moon ended an 80-yard response drive with a 16-yard laser strike to Givins to tie the score.
Then, after Pittsburgh's offense melted under relentless pressure from Childress, Fuller and the Oilers defensive front, a poor punt made it easy for Moon and company to maintain their momentum. Again, Ernest Givins found space in the end zone, and Houston, ever so quickly and shockingly, led 23-16.
Like the '88 game, the momentum from early in the game seemed like a mere mirage. The offense was sputtering, and Warren Moon and company were heating up.
Only 5:16 remained, and the '89 NFL season remained on the line in a contest between two teams—and a pair of coaches—playing for far more than the next week.
Having not scored a touchdown since the first quarter and struggling to pick up any yardage in bulk, the Steelers knew their offense would have to take advantage of every precious hard-earned yard and each second on the clock to have any chance of tying the score.
Perhaps, the only true standout of the contest, Merril Hoge began a stellar playoffs with a 17-carry, 100-yard effort in the Astrodome. The tying drive saw the most important moments of his yeoman's effort.
Going against their habit, Pittsburgh passed on first down, finding Louis Lipps for 10 yards.
Hoge gained a pair of first downs while Tim Worley picked up 20 key rushing yards on a pair of runs. The play of the game came when an overaggressive Houston defensive front keyed in on the downhill running of Hoge.
Hoge took the football into his chest and lowered his shoulders aggressively as he started to his right... before pitching the football back to Dwight Stone for 22 yards into Houston territory.
Hoge picked up another first down, then he lumbered to the 1-yard line as the Steelers achieved a goal-to-go situation with mere seconds left.
Not going against the obvious (and smart) play-call, Tom Moore sent in another run up the gut, and Hoge plowed through the Oilers to tie the score, 23-23!
With momentum fully on their side, Houston's effort to take advantage of the final seconds of regulation nearly backfired as Greg Lloyd, a future star in the making, nearly scored the winning points with no time left on the clock on a turnover return before being pushed out of bounds.
Somehow, some way...the Steelers were even with the Oilers at the end of regulation! And, they headed toward the sudden death session filled with a surge of momentum!
Still, it wouldn't matter if Warren Moon and his dangerous offense went right down the field—a capability they had demonstrated with frightening ease in the fourth quarter.
With that in mind, images of a heartbreak seemed imminent when the Pittsburgh offense did nothing at the start of overtime, resulting in a terrible punt that gave the Oilers possession near midfield.
Rod Woodson and the defense lined up, staring across at a great offense that needed only 15 yards for a game-winning, field-goal attempt. Earlier in the week, Woodson had made a prophetic statement—one that was about to translate into reality for the future Hall of Famer:
"This is a sell-out game. If you don't sell out your body now and go flying in at somebody, you'll never do it."
Moon and the offense opened up the drive with a handoff to Lorenzo White. Greg Lloyd's gap containment forced White to the outside in search of a positive gain. Instead of a few yards, White found a battering ram.
Rod Woodson rocketed into the runner like a torpedo, jarring the ball loose on a violent, premeditated collision that, ironically, embodied every notion of physicality that Jerry Glanville had ever preached to his Oilers squad.
Woodson recovered the forced fumble, and the Steelers took over at the Houston 46-yard line.
After gaining 13 yards, Gary Anderson was called upon to do what Tony Zendejas could not accomplish in the first quarter—connect on a 50-plus yard field-goal attempt.
When Anderson's foot contacted the ball, the kicker stood 55 yards away from the goal posts. Immediately, the trajectory of the football made it clear that the attempt had the necessary accuracy. As the ball traveled, finally clearing the crossbar and landing behind the post and between those two precious uprights, a city desperate for renewed football success exalted when both officials raised their hands in agreement—the kick was good!
Instead of moving forward, the Oilers regressed from former divisional playoff losers to wild-card losers. And, opposed to giving into the speculation and grim prognostications all season long, the Steelers fought back once again and pulled off an improbably upset.
It was a victory that cost Jerry Glanville his job. Houston fired the coach after the loss to Pittsburgh—his final game on the sideline. It was the blackest day for the "Man in Black." Well, the other "Man in Black," with all respect to Johnny Cash.
The gutty '89 Steelers are widely regarded as one of Chuck Noll's finest coaching accomplishments. Despite a roster lacking talent in many key areas and irregardless of a disastrous start, the team never felt sorry for itself, resisting temptations into apathy that would have certainly prevented one of the more satisfying wins in team history.
One week later, the Steelers led in Denver, 23-17. The top-seeded Broncos rallied as John Elway led a touchdown drive in the final minutes. Pittsburgh attempted to drive toward a winning field goal once more, again sending Anderson off the field as the week's hero. However, the Black and Gold never did get a chance to attempt that final kick—an effort that would have only been aided by the thin air at Mile High Stadium.
Despite the season-ending loss, Chuck Noll's '89 Steelers exceeded everyone's wildest expectations, and that, especially, includes those of Jerry Glanville.
The Pittsburgh Steelers have blessed their fans with an abundance of exhilarating games. The "Catalog of the Classics" runs deeper for the Black and Gold than most other NFL teams, especially in the modern era. For that reason, many of the team's greatest games are easily lost within its rich history, a lengthy volume that spans six Lombardi Trophies and an absurdity of spoils!
Every week of the team's 2012 offseason, we will look back at one of the great Steelers games that many fans may not remember. In this way, the epic bouts will no longer be...
The Forgotten Classics!
Please enjoy these previous installments: