The Steel Curtain is part of the Pittsburgh Steelers legend from the glorious ‘70s, the decade that transformed the team from the Same Old Steelers into winners. The Steelers defense played a major part in that transformation.
Coach Chuck Noll made many important decisions in selecting the players he built his Super Bowl winning teams around. Perhaps an even more decisive choice he made was the hiring of Bud Carson as his defensive backs coach. Carson was recognized as an outstanding collegiate defensive coach, but the question before his arrival in Pittsburgh – could he his transfer those skills to the pro ranks?
Carson was fired from his position as the Georgia Tech head coach at the beginning of 1972 under controversial circumstances. It was the first dismissal of a head coach in Tech’s 80-year football history, and it came after he had coached his team in successive years to the Sun and Peach Bowls.
Asked by a reporter what reasons were given for his dismissal, Carson replied, “There were none. I guess I don’t part my hair right or have the right image.”
Carson was interviewed for the coaching vacancy at Memphis State, but for football fans in Pittsburgh he went unnoticed until the Steelers announced his hiring. After just one meeting with Coach Noll, when the two talked football for eight hours into the night, he became the Steelers defensive backs coach.
“I’m really looking forward to joining Coach Noll and his staff,” Carson enthused. “I’ve been in college coaching for many years so moving on to the professional level is a challenge. The Steelers have a young football team. Their program is on the upswing. They’ve got an exceptional young quarterback in Terry Bradshaw and several fine young defensive players.”
As the Steelers went into the 1972 regular season, there was an air of confidence about the defense with praise for Carson’s influence. Second-year veteran Dwight White acknowledged the group were now blending as a well-knit unit and he commended Carson for helping them immensely.
The Steelers defense began to improve during Carson’s first season. Points conceded to their opponents decreased from 292 to 175. The developing defense complemented by the 343 points scored by the offense, saw the Steelers finish 11-3 for its first winning season in a decade. That same season saw the defense improve from being ranked last in the AFC to fifth while interceptions increased from 17 to 28.
Only one team in the AFC gave up fewer rushing yards, points, overall yardage and sacks. No team in the NFL had more takeaways or interceptions or allowed fewer touchdowns.
Carson Promoted to Defensive Coordinator
Before the following season, Carson was rewarded for his contribution to the team with a promotion to defensive coordinator which effectively made him the number two coach.
Carson is credited with forging a defense that saw the Steelers record five shutouts in 1976 when they allowed just two touchdowns in a nine-game streak to close out the regular season. In 1975 the defense conceded 162 points and in 1976 it was just 138.
Carson was brought in to seal a leaky defense. While succeeding with that, he established a defense that earned a reputation which is still acknowledged forty years later. Carson took the raw talent that Coach Noll drafted and transformed the athletes into a defense that intimidated and controlled its opponents.
He erected a “Steel Curtain” that played a major part in bringing the four Lombardi’s to a city where championships were previously confined to the collegiate ranks.
The Best Defense Ever
In 1978, Carson resigned to take the secondary coach position with the Los Angeles Rams. He felt it was time to move on and face a different challenge. On leaving Pittsburgh, Carson acknowledged, “I owe my right arm to Chuck Noll. I leave with no animosity. It’s just that I needed a fresh start. I need to impress some people someplace else.”
Of his head coach, Carson acknowledged, “I’m convinced he probably knows more football than anyone in the game.” Together with Coach Noll, Carson molded the Steelers into the dynamic team that dominated the ‘70s.
Carson went on to coach with several NFL teams and would face the Steelers in Super Bowl XIV where the Rams would lose 31-19. He eventually fulfilled his ambition of being a head coach when given the Cleveland job in 1989.
After Carson passed away in 2008, Dan Rooney paid him the ultimate compliment. “He was a great, great coach here,” said Mr. Rooney. “In fact, I might say he coached the best defense that ever played in the National Football League.”