It wasn't a "big deal" in Pittsburgh when the new head coach, a former NFL obscure assistant named Chuck Noll, announced his first draft choice in the spring of 1969. Only a handful of media types bothered to document the selection of a football player from tiny North Texas State.
Mean Joe Greene was his name.
"Who is Joe Greene?", long-suffering fans of the Steelers wanted to know. They wondered why the Steelers would pick a player from an obscure southern school, especially a defensive lineman? The Steelers needed help on offense, having scored less than two touchdowns in six games, going 2-11-1 in 1968.
The rest, as the cliche goes, is history. Noll kept his promise to build the Steelers through the draft. Instead of trading draft choices for mediocre talent from other teams --- a system employed, in particular, by coach Buddy Parker from '57 through 64 --- Noll turned the NFL draft into the biggest, most anticipated sports event each year in Pittsburgh.
The following were Noll's choices in the 1970s.
1970, Terry Bradshaw, a quarterback who was Super Bowl MVP twice. He's in the Hall of Fame.
1971, wide receiver Frank Lewis. Started for the Steelers through 1977, owner of two Super Bowl rings.
1972, Franco Harris, a running back who holds nearly every all-time team record for rushing and scoring, and was on the receiving end of the Immaculate Reception, one of the most famous plays in NFL history. He's in the Hall of Fame.
1973, J.T. Thomas, an outstanding defensive back who played for the Steelers from 1973 to 1977 and again from 1979 to 1981.
1974, Lynn Swann, a wide receiver whose acrobatic catches were responsible for elevating the team's pass offense to among the best in the league throughout the 1970s. He SHOULD be in the Hall of Fame.
1975, Dave Brown, a defensive back who was lost to the expansion Seattle Seahawks after his rookie year. Incidentally, he was a fantastic player for Seattle.
1976, Bennie Cunningham, one of the most productive, pass-catching tight ends in the history of the franchise.
1977, Robin Cole, an outstanding linebacker for a decade. A solid team leader.
1978, Ron Johnson, the first cornerback in the team's history to start as a rookie. A productive Steeler for six seasons.
1979, Greg (see you in the whirlpool) Hawthorne, the first flop as a No. 1 pick by the Team of the Decade. Maybe it's only a coincidence that the team's slip from the NFL mountain coincided with Hawthorne's selection. And maybe not.
The Steelers have made several outstanding picks since Hawthorne (taking Louie Lipps in 1984 and Rod Woodson in 1987), and they've made some bummers (Aaron Jones in 1988 and Huey Richardson in 1991). Richardson might have been the worst pick of all time, at a time when the Steelers spent big bucks to evaluate college talent.
Fan Interest in the draft might have abated, slightly, since the 1970s. Still, fans of the Steelers annually regard the pick like expectant fathers - waiting impatiently for the birth of another All-Pro.