The Pittsburgh Steelers were rebuilding once again with a new head coach as they opened the 1969 NFL season against the Detroit Lions on September 21. Since coming into the league in 1933 the Steelers had known far more losing seasons than winning ones, including 1968 when they went 2-11-1. Chuck Noll (pictured at right), a defensive assistant most recently with the Colts, replaced the departed Bill Austin as head coach. A promising defensive tackle out of North Texas State, “Mean Joe” Greene, had been drafted in the first round and the club had also drafted a quarterback, Notre Dame’s Terry Hanratty, but it would be the mediocre Dick Shiner behind center for the opener. Third-round draft pick FB Warren Bankston out of Tulane was in the game due to injuries to halfbacks Dick Hoak and Don McCall; Noll shifted Earl Gros to halfback and started Bankston at fullback.
The Lions, coached by former star linebacker Joe Schmidt, were coming off a 4-8-2 record in ’68 but seemed to be in a much better position entering the new season. The offense featured QB Bill Munson, HB Mel Farr, TE Charlie Sanders, and C Ed Flanagan and there were rising stars on defense such as CB Lem Barney and LB Paul Naumoff.
There was a crowd of 51,360 in attendance at Pitt Stadium. In the first quarter, Bankston fumbled and safety Tom Vaughn recovered for the Lions at the Pittsburgh 29. Detroit got a first down but the series stalled and Errol Mann kicked a 23-yard field goal for the first score of the game.
Later in the opening period, Detroit FB Bill Triplett fumbled the ball away with DT Chuck Hinton recovering at the Lions’ 27. Dick Shiner threw two incomplete passes and ran for seven yards before Gene Mingo booted a 27-yard field goal to tie the score.
The Steelers put together a drive in which they picked up four first downs during the second quarter. After going 58 yards to the Detroit 11, the home team could get no further and Mingo kicked another field goal, this time from 18 yards. Pittsburgh got a break a few plays later when Munson, being sacked by Hinton, fumbled and the Steelers gained possession at the Detroit 24. However, following two runs by Bankston, Earl Gros fumbled the ball back to the Lions.
The turnovers continued as LB Jerry Hillebrand intercepted a Munson pass and returned it 14 yards to the Detroit 24. It resulted in another Mingo field goal, this time from 40 yards, for a 9-3 Pittsburgh lead.
The Lions suffered yet another turnover when Mel Farr fumbled after catching a pass at the Pittsburgh 46. With only 12 seconds left in the half, Shiner went long but was picked off by Lem Barney, who returned it 32 yards to the Pittsburgh 28. The clock was now down to four seconds and Mann tried a 37-yard field goal that sailed wide to the right. The Steelers maintained their six-point lead at the intermission.
Early in the third quarter the Steelers punted and Bobby Walden’s 56-yard kick sailed to the Detroit three. The Lions had to punt it back and gave Pittsburgh good field position near midfield. However, the offense couldn’t take advantage and Mingo missed on a 45-yard field goal try. The Lions responded by moving the ball effectively but a pass to WR Earl McCullouch in the end zone was dropped and Mann kicked a 23-yard field goal to narrow Pittsburgh’s margin to 9-6.
Half way through the fourth quarter, Bankston fumbled for the second time and DT Alex Karras recovered at the Pittsburgh 27. A defensive holding penalty moved the Lions closer and finally Munson found McCullouch in the end zone, who held on for a 12-yard TD. Mann converted the PAT and the disgruntled home fans booed loudly with the score now 13-9 in favor of the visitors.
The Steelers responded by covering 68 yards in seven plays. Following the ensuing kickoff, Shiner was sacked by DE Joe Robb for a three-yard loss and he then threw an incomplete pass to make it third-and-long. A toss to TE John Hilton picked up 23 yards to keep the possession alive and moved the ball into Detroit territory at the 48.
With time running down, WR Roy Jefferson ran for 12 yards on an end-around and then caught a pass for seven more. A key play occurred when Shiner threw for Jefferson again but safety Mike Weger tipped the ball. However, Jefferson alertly grabbed it and went out of bounds at the Detroit six for a 23-yard gain. Bankston, who had the two costly fumbles, redeemed himself as he scored the go-ahead touchdown on a six-yard run around end in which he broke three tackles. There was still time, but on a fourth-and-one play the Lions failed to convert when Triplett was stopped short and the Steelers held on for a 16-13 win.
Total yards were split almost evenly, with Pittsburgh edging the Lions by a yard (237 to 236). Detroit had more first downs (14 to 12). The Lions recorded four sacks as opposed to one for Pittsburgh while both teams turned the ball over four times apiece.
Dick Shiner (pictured above) completed 10 of 26 passes for 143 yards with one intercepted. Warren Bankston ran for 52 yards and a TD on 14 carries. Roy Jefferson caught four passes for 47 yards and John Hilton gained 68 yards on his three receptions.
For the Lions, Bill Munson was successful on 19 of 34 throws for 160 yards and a TD with one interception. Mel Farr ran the ball 10 times for 35 yards and caught 10 passes for 59 more yards.
The win was the high point of a long season for the Steelers. They lost all of their remaining games to end up at 1-13. Detroit recovered to place second in the Central Division at 9-4-1.
Things would get progressively better for Chuck Noll and the Steelers, however. With the first overall pick in 1970 they took QB Terry Bradshaw and they would make other astute personnel moves that would have them in the playoffs by 1972 and produce the franchise’s first NFL title in ’74. By the end of the decade it would be four Super Bowls won. Noll lasted until 1991 and compiled a record of 193-148-1, plus another 24 wins in the postseason.