The 1969 Pittsburgh Steelers season constitutes what many consider to be the turning point of this once-moribund franchise. 1969 was the first season for Hall of Fame head coach Chuck Noll, the first season for defensive lineman "Mean Joe" Greene and L. C. Greenwood, the first season for longtime Steelers public relations director Joe Gordon, and the team's last season in Pitt Stadium before moving into then-state-of-the-art Three Rivers Stadium the following season.
Although considered a turning point in the team’s history, the results were not immediate; after winning the season opener against the Detroit Lions, the Steelers would go on to lose every game afterwards to finish 1–13. The Steelers would become the first team in NFL history since the 1936 Philadelphia Eagles to win its season opener and go on to lose every game remaining afterwards, a feat not matched until 2001 when the Carolina Panthers won its season opener against Minnesota before losing every game en route to a 1–15 finish. The Steelers finished 1969 as 4th in the NFL Century Division and tied with the Chicago Bears for last in the NFL. With the Steelers finishing 1–6 at Pitt Stadium, it would also mark the last time the Steelers would finish the season with a losing record at home until 1999.
As a result of their 1–13 records, Art Rooney of the Steelers would win a coin toss with George Halas of the Bears to determine who would select Louisiana TechquarterbackTerry Bradshaw (the consensus number 1 selection among league teams) with the number one pick in the 1970 draft. By modern NFL tiebreaking rules, the Steelers would have automatically been given the first pick anyway, as the Bears' one win came against the Steelers in week 8.
In the 1969 offseason, the Steelers hired former defensive coordinatorChuck Noll from the Baltimore Colts days after his loss to the New York Jets in Super Bowl III. Noll became the team's 14th head coach in the franchise's history up to that point. But while it took 36 seasons to go through the first 13, Noll would stay through 1991 and would set the ground for coaching stability for the Steelers not seen in other NFL franchises today. Since Noll's retirement, only Bill Cowher and current head coach Mike Tomlin have been head coach of the Steelers.
In camp, one of Chuck Noll's first tasks was to rid the team of all the "dead wood", or the players who couldn't perform well enough for him. He wanted only players willing to give their best effort to the team. Only a handful of players were carried over from the 1968 squad to the 1974 Super Bowl Squad, most notably veterans Ben McGee, Andy Russell, Ray Mansfield, and Dick Hoak, the latter of which would become the team's running backs coach a few years later and would remain with the team in that capacity through the 2006 season. Rocky Bleier, who played his rookie season the year before and would later be a major contributor to the Super Bowl championship teams, was fighting in Vietnam during this time and would actually be wounded in combat just before the start of the season. This method of going through the "dead wood" of the team was similar to what Marvin Lewis would do decades later when he took over as the Cincinnati Bengals' head coach in 2003.
Although the Pittsburgh Steelers missed out on Heisman Trophy winner O.J. Simpson, Chuck Noll absorbed the 1st Round pick wisely by drafting North Texas StateDefensive Tackle, Joe Greene. Noll would say years later that Greene would've been selected even if they had the top overall pick, passing over Simpson. Although Simpson himself would also go on to a Hall of Fame career before legal troubles overshadowed his NFL accomplishments, this would set the groundwork of the Steelers excellent scouting in the draft, a practice that carries today.
Greene’s selection would not be met without controversy, however. The front page of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette the next morning had a headline posted Who’s Joe Greene?, owing to his relative obscurity despite being named a consensus All-American selection his senior year. The team would also go on to draft Greene's defensive line mate, Arkansas AM&Ndefensive endL. C. Greenwood, in the tenth round. Greene and Greenwood would form the core of the famed Steel Curtain defensive line and would play their entire career as teammates, with both retiring at the end of the 1981 season. The following year, Noll would switch the team to a 3–4 defense, partially as a result of the retirement of two of his best defensive players.
Joe Gordon was also hired as the team’s public relations director this season. Though his role was more behind-the-scenes, he would remain with the team in that capacity through the 1998 season, second only to Dick Hoak in terms of tenure with the team outside of the Rooney family, third counting Steelers radio commentator Myron Cope, who was not employed by the team but through WTAE Radio and later WDVE on the official Steelers radio network.
The 1969 Season started off well in Week 1 for the Steelers. After defeating the Detroit Lions 16-13, much of the roster believed they were on a Super Bowl run. However, after losing three straight times, first at Philadelphia 41-27, then at home against the Cardinals 27-14, and at New York against the Giants 10-7, the team then stopped believing that theory. The Steelers then lost the next 10 games and became the first team in league history since the 1936 Philadelphia Eagles to win their season opener but then lose every other game until the 2001 Carolina Panthers. Though after these losses, Art Rooney Sr. still had faith in Chuck Noll, and kept him going for 1970. With the 1-13 record, the Steelers would win a coin toss against the Chicago Bears (who were also 1-13) and for the first time since 1956, the Steelers would get the 1st Pick in the NFL Draft. With the pick, the team's fortunes would continue to turn to the better when they drafted Louisiana TechquarterbackTerry Bradshaw.