Greene, Joe 1946—
Joe Greene 1946—
Retired professional football player, coach
Charles Edward “Mean Joe” Greene is a living legend in the ranks of professional football stars. As anchor of the Pittsburgh Steelers’ “Steel Curtain” defense through the 1970s, Greene participated in four Super Bowl victories, intimidating his opponents at every turn as a member of one of professional football’s great dynasties. The Football Hall-of-Famer was also a pioneer in the business of commercial product endorsements, forever changing the image of on-screen athletes with his 1979 spot for Coca-Cola. As a defensive line coach for the Miami Dolphins, the former Steeler is in the process of shedding his “mean” image in favor of the cool-headed, reasonable behavior expected on the NFL sidelines. “Since I became a coach … ‘Mean’ has been replaced by ‘Coach,’” Greene told the Miami Herald. “And I like that.”
Greene’s ability as a defensive tackle is illustrated by the many awards and honors he has received since retiring from play in 1981. Inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility, he was also named to the Hall’s “Team of the 1970s,” and was selected to an “All-Time NFL Team.” Few defenders are better known than Greene, whose barely containable fury led at least one coach to call him “a fort on foot.”
Sports Illustrated contributor Roy Blount Jr. once described Greene as “a man so daringly self-defined and outrageously responsible that it is said of him, as of very few other sports figures, ‘He does what he wants to out there.’ He plays—or, sometimes, refuses to play—the conservative, regimented, technology-ridden game of football as if it were a combat poem he is writing, and gets away with it, and yet fits himself well enough into the prevailing system to be the warmly accepted spearhead and bulwark of a winning organization.”
“Shy” and “gentle” are not words often associated with Joe Greene; by his own admission, however, he was both as a child. He was born in 1946 and raised in Temple, Texas, the son of a single parent. Greene’s mother, Cleo Thomas, worked as a domestic to support her family, barely making enough to keep them afloat. “Joe,” as he was nicknamed, was physically large but
At a Glance…
Born Charles Edward Greene, September 24, 1946, in Temple, TX; son of Cleo Thomas (a domestic); married, wife’s name Agnes; children: Major, Delon, JoQuel. Education: Attended North Texas State University, 1964–68.
Pittsburgh Steelers, Pittsburgh, PA, defensive tackle, 1969–81, defensive line coach, 1987–92; Miami Dolphins, Miami, FL, defensive line coach, 1992–. Has also made commercials and films.
Selected awards: Named National Football League (NFL) defensive rookie of the year, 1969; named to NFL Pro Bowl, 1970–77,1979,1980; named NFL Defensive Player of the Year, 1972 and 1975; inducted into Pro Football Hall of Fame, 1987; named to “NFL All-Time Team,” 1994; named to Pro Football Hall of Fame’s “Team of the 1970s.”
Addresses: Office— Miami Dolphins, Joe Robbie Stadium, 2269 Northwest 199th St., Miami, FL 33056.
quiet and unsure of himself. “I never got into trouble when I was a kid, but it’s strange, I got the reputation of being a bully,” Greene recalled in Sports Illustrated. “Before I started playing football, I was getting my butt kicked constantly. It was always some old, little guy. At one point I was more round than tall. I was a bit timid, shy. Then I started playing football, and I guess that all kinda went away.”
As a young teen Greene picked cotton to help support his family. The hard work convinced him that he wanted more out of life. His mother scraped together the five-dollar insurance fee he needed to play high school football, and he made the team when he was 14. Greene told Sports Illustrated: “In the eighth grade I weighed 158. But they didn’t even give me a full uniform. I quit. The next year I weighed 203 and started getting what you might call confidence. My sophomore year I weighed 235. By my senior year I weighed 250. From my sophomore year on, I was a middle linebacker, and I love that position. If there was a tackle being made somewhere, I was on it. We didn’t win, though. I got a reputation for being the dirtiest ballplayer that ever came out of that area.… My sophomore year in high school I got kicked out of nine games. No, I got kicked out of all of ‘em. My junior year it was nine. I ran over a few officials. Sometimes intentionally.”
In 1964 Greene entered North Texas State University on a football scholarship. There, in the more disciplined ranks of a college team, he blossomed into a pro prospect. After his senior season he was a unanimous choice as the nation’s top defensive lineman, and he was scouted seriously by almost every National Football League (NFL) team. Some questions remained about him, however. Some pro scouts felt his work habits were lax, others noted his tendency toward unsportsmanlike conduct, and a few raised doubts about—of all things—his size, which was considered too small for an NFL defender. Nevertheless, Greene was one of the first four players chosen in the 1969 NFL draft. He was picked by the Pittsburgh Steelers and their new coach, Chuck Noll.
Blount wrote: “When the Steelers made Greene their top pick in ‘69 they laid the first and biggest building block of a six-year program that brought them up from perennial failure.” Greene joined a dismal, failing team in 1969, but within years he was surrounded by some of the best talent the NFL has ever seen on one team at one time: quarterback Terry Bradshaw, fullback Franco Harris, receiver Lynn Swann, and a defensive corps that included L. C Greenwood, Mel Blount, Jack Ham, and Jack Lambert. These defenders—with Greene as their unofficial leader—were known as the “Steel Curtain.” Pittsburgh, which had never won a national championship before, took four Super Bowl titles between 1975 and 1980. Ever since then, the Steelers of the 1970s have been considered one of the greatest football dynasties of all time.
The nickname “Mean Joe” had followed Greene from North Texas State, and he did nothing to contradict it. During football games he was a barely containable volcano, venting his frenzied fury on anyone who dared try to carry a football past him. As Blount put it, Greene “took on the offensive linemen one by one, quickly learned to deal with a couple of moves he hadn’t seen, and then proved too strong to be overpowered, too elusive to be hobbled and too smart to be fooled. Nobody had seen a player so quick and strong at once. He was something new, like aluminum when it first came out.” Realizing the added factor of intimidation his big tackle brought to the game, Chuck Noll began to position Greene at a slant on the line of scrimmage, believing that Greene thus got a quicker thrust when the ball was snapped. Opposing coaches believed it too and spent long nights agonizing over how to avoid the intimidating tackle.
With four Super Bowl rings to his credit, Greene might be expected to have many rich memories of his playing days. Instead he sounds like a weary soldier when describing those years. “For me, the celebration only happened in the off-seasons,” he told Sports Illustrated. “Winning, it was tough. Every game was difficult, even the preseason games. There was an expectation before the championships—those expectations that you put on yourself, and those the fans and the sports world put on you.… It was nowhere near as easy as history has placed it.”
Amidst the pressure and high expectations of a string of winning seasons, Greene somehow also found time to make sports history in another way. In 1978 he was asked to star in a commercial for Coca-Cola. He was reluctant to do it at first, because the commercial was not the usual one-dimensional pitch for a product—it was in fact a mini-drama in which Greene was expected to act. The commercial was deceptively simple: a young boy slips past stadium security and encounters an exhausted “Mean Joe” in a corridor. The boy offers Greene a Coke. Glowering, Greene takes the bottle and swallows its contents in a series of huge gulps. Then, as the boy turns to leave, Greene calls, smiles, and throws his game jersey to him.
The Coke commercial changed Joe Greene’s life. Overnight he became a media darling as fans perceived the gentle side of the intimidating tackle. The spot won a prestigious Clio award, and Greene appeared in a made-for-television movie based on the incident. In retrospect, however, observers noted that Greene’s Coke commercial proved to be a watershed moment in the product endorsement business. According to S. L. Price in the Miami Herald, “Greene’s commercial for Coca-Cola didn’t merely transform him from a great football player into a folk hero. It also opened the door to a new form of celebrity endorsement—altering a once-static exercise into something approaching art, further blurring the line between sports and commerce, even changing the nature of the games themselves.”
The commercial also altered Greene’s life on a personal level. He told the Miami Herald: “It was really a godsend. It loosened me up. People began to approach me with a smile—instead of trying to figure how to approach me—if they did at all.” Even though the spot is no longer shown on the air, it remains fixed in the minds of American sports fans. Greene told the Miami Herald: “When I was inducted into the Hall of Fame [in 1987], there was a parade. And I’m sitting in the car. By the time that parade was over, I had a bunch of bottles and cans of Coke. They came in and gave them to me. From the street. It was something special.” Greene added that he still receives about two cans of Coke from fans every month with requests that he autograph them. In 1991 he was reunited with the boy who co-starred in the commercial as part of an Oprah Winfrey Show episode. The boy is now a grown man with a college degree.
Hobbled by injuries and slowed by age, Greene retired from the Steelers in 1981. He was hired by CBS to do football commentary but was released after only one season. For a time he retired to Texas and engaged in various business activities, from owning restaurants to real estate speculation, but these projects proved unsuccessful. In 1987, the year he was named to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, he returned to the NFL as a defensive line coach—appropriately with the Steelers.
Retirement had done little to curb Greene’s aggressiveness. He simply channeled it into coaching. Gerald Williams, a Steelers nose tackle during Greene’s coaching tenure there, told the Miami Herald: “[Joe] used to absolutely terrify us. He would throw his headphones into the turf, he would lose his cool on the sidelines. And he wouldn’t have anything to do with the players for a series or two. We’d just be left to fend for ourselves sometimes. This was before he realized that we weren’t all Joe Greene.” With Greene in charge of the defensive line, the Steelers led the NFL in both total defense and pass defense in 1990 and were the American Football Conference’s top-rated team in terms of giveaway/takeaway ratio between 1987 and 1991.
As Greene grew more comfortable with his new role, he began to soften his style. “What good was I if I couldn’t deliver my message?” he asked in the Miami Herald. “I had to penetrate, and sometimes I wasn’t getting through. So I toned it down. I still have my temper tantrums—I don’t think I’ll ever outgrow those completely—but I’m maturing on the field. There’s more teaching, more softness, more supportiveness, more gentleness.”
Greene had hoped that he would eventually be considered for the head coaching job in Pittsburgh. When Noll retired in 1991, and Greene was not offered the Steelers’ head coaching position, Greene accepted a job with the Miami Dolphins. “A small window opened for me, and then it closed,” Greene told the Miami Herald of his last days in Pittsburgh. “That’s yesterday. That’s gone. Pittsburgh’s loss is Miami’s gain.” For the Dolphins, Greene has played a key role in the development of Marco Coleman, who was Sports Illustrated s 1993 defensive rookie of the year.
Reflecting on his notoriety as a punishing member of the famed Steel Curtain, Joe Greene told the Miami Herald: “’Mean’ Joe Greene wasn’t a guy I wanted to be.” He is very glad to have put the “mean” portion of his career behind him and is looking forward to the future and the possibility of a head coaching job with some NFL team. Still, the new, kinder and gentler Joe Greene can sometimes sound just like the former Steeler tackle. Greene told the Miami Herald: “If I’m having a bad day and you meet me—tough. If you meet me on a good day—great. I’ll always try to be polite. But I’ve also refused to sign a lot of autographs. I’ve also signed a lot. I’ve given of my time to charities, and I’ve also been very selfish of my time. That’s just me.” He concluded: “Sometimes you enjoy the fame, sometimes you don’t.”
Jet, March, 1987, p. 51.
Miami Herald, February 4, 1992, p. Dl; February 16, 1992, p. D1, D6; October 25, 1992, p. 20; January 16, 1993, p. D1; December 12, 1993, p. C11.
Newsweek, January 21, 1980, p. 61.
People, January 21, 1990, p. 33–34.
Sports Illustrated, January 20,1992, p. 33–40; February 17, 1992, p. 97; September 5, 1994, p. 38–46.
American football player
At six-feet-four-inches and 260 pounds, Mean Joe Greene was the backbone of the famed "Steel Curtain" defense for the Pittsburgh Steelers in the National Football League (NFL), during the team's dynasty of the 1970s. In 1975 sportswriter Roy Blount, Jr. profiled Greene in Sports Illustrated, writing, "He plays—or, sometimes, refuses to play—the conservative, regimented, technology-ridden game of football as if it were a combat poem he is writing, and gets away with it." Inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1987, Greene was the most respected and feared defensive back of his time, or it could be argued, of all time.
Biggest in the Class
Joe Greene was born Charles Edward Greene on September 24, 1946 in Temple, Texas. He was the oldest of three children, and after his father walked out on the family when Greene was ten years old, he helped his mother, Cleo Thomas, by taking care of his younger siblings after school. Later, Greene picked cotton to supplement his mother's modest earnings as a domestic.
Always the biggest kid in his class, Greene, who early in his life was nicknamed Joe by an aunt, assumed
the reputation as a bully even though he was quite shy and reserved, but his size coupled with his quiet, serious personality proved intimidating. Determined to make a better life for himself and his family, Greene dreamed of a college education; however, football soon came calling. In junior high coaches began urging the youngster to try sports. Greene quickly discovered he had little natural talent for catching baseballs and decided basketball involved too much running. As an eighth-grader he played on the junior varsity football team and fell in love with the game. Later, he also threw the discus and shotput in track, winning a state championship.
As a sophomore at Dunbar, an all-black high school in Temple, Greene became the starting middle linebacker. In eighth grade, Greene had weighed 158 pounds; by his senior year, he weighed 250 pounds. Although he was considered big for a linebacker, Greene loved the position. As he improved, his confidence both on and off the field blossomed. His sometimes overly aggressive personality earned him a reputation as a dirty player, and he was ejected from numerous games. But, to Greene, football was war, and he was determined to fight to the death.
"Mean Joe" Greene
Despite Greene's individual talents on the field, the Dunbar Panthers had only a mediocre record, and he was not heavily recruited by colleges. His options were further limited because the Southwest Conference was still segregated. Greene contacted North Texas State (now the University of North Texas) and was eventually offered a football scholarship.
During his first year at North Texas, Greene played middle linebacker, offensive guard, and defensive tackle on the freshman team before settling permanently into the defensive tackle position. In 1966, as a sophomore, in the first game as a starting tackle on the varsity squad, Greene and the North Texas defense held Texas Western University (now University of Texas at El Paso), a team that had tromped the Eagles the previous year, to minus-forty yards rushing. Sidney Sue Graham, the wife of the North Texas sports information director, thought her husband should come up with a catchy name for the overpowering defense. Given that the school colors were bright green and white, she suggested "mean green." The next week the name began appearing in North Texas press releases and it stuck, soon replacing Eagles as the team's official nickname. It was a natural step to apply the label to the team's All-American, and Joe Greene became "Mean Joe" Greene.
Greene, who remained a gentle giant off the field, insisted the nickname didn't fit him, but those who watched his hard-hitting, no-holds-barred play on the field couldn't agree. During his junior year Greene married Agnes Craft. Also a student at North Texas, she was the daughter of a Dallas businessman, and together they had three children. For the three years that Greene played varsity football at North Texas, the team record stood at 23-5-1. As a senior, he was the unanimous choice as the top defensive lineman in the nation and was attracting the attention of nearly every team in the NFL.
Football is War
In the 1969 NFL draft, the Pittsburgh Steelers took Greene as the fourth overall pick by the team's new coach, Chuck Knoll. Steelers fans, already soured by years of losing, bemoaned the selection of an unheard-of player from an unheard-of school. The local newspaper headline read: "Joe Who?" For his part, Greene was about as excited to go to Pittsburgh as Pittsburgh was to have him, and Greene didn't endear himself to the Steelers organization immediately, either. He held out for a larger contract, and when he finally showed up at training camp, he was out of shape and overweight.
It wasn't long, however, before Greene had proved his worth on the field and became a favorite of Steelers fans, who loved his passionate, aggressive play. On the field Greene's emotions often got out of control, and he was ejected from two games during his rookie year. Stories of Greene's antics became legend. Once he threw his helmet at the goalpost so hard it broke into pieces. During one game he came off the sidelines to spit full in the face of hall of fame linebacker Dick Butkus , because the Chicago Bears' defense was humiliating the Steelers' offense. Greene got particularly upset if he felt he was being held by offensive linemen and would explode with punches, kicks, and late hits. In a game against the Philadelphia Eagles, Greene became so frustrated that the officials weren't calling any holding penalties against the Eagles that he grabbed the ball before the Eagles' center could snap it, threw it into the stands, and stomped off the field. After a moment the stunned crowd erupted into cheers.
The Steel Curtain
Greene became one of the most dominating defensive players in the history of the NFL. Despite the Steelers' abysmal 1-13 record, he was named the NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year. He was voted the league's Most Valuable Player in 1972 and again in 1974, the year he began lining up at an angle between the center and the guard. He earned All-Pro recognition from 1970 to 1977 and received invitations to play in ten Pro Bowls. Lining up alongside Greene were teammates Dwight White, Ernie Holmes, and L.C. Greenwood. The four became known as the Steel Curtain. After Knoll added talent to the offensive squad that included Terry Bradshaw , Franco Harris, and Lynn Swann , the Steelers were well on their way to creating a football dynasty. The Steelers won Super Bowls IX, X, XIII, and XIV, a record four wins in a six-year span.
A serious shoulder injury caused Greene to miss part of the 1975 season, and chronic back pain led him to retire after the 1981 season. After taking several stabs at business ventures, he became the defensive line coach for the Steelers in 1987. Greene hoped to replace Knoll as head coach in 1992, but when the Steelers bypassed him to hire Bill Cowher, Greene left Pittsburgh to become an assistant coach for the Miami Dolphins. In 1995 Greene became the defensive line coach for the Arizona Cardinals, where he currently remains.
As a player Greene combined strength, speed, and sheer determination to become one of the most celebrated, if sometimes controversial, defensive players in the game. He simply refused to be denied. Respected and feared by his opponents, he became the building block that created the Steel Curtain defense of the Pittsburgh Steelers during the 1970s.
|1946||Born September 24 in Temple, Texas|
|1965||Enrolls at North Texas State University; plays on freshman football team|
|1966-68||Plays defensive tackle for North Texas; acquires "Mean Joe" Greene as his nickname|
|1967||Marries Agnes Craft|
|1969||Selected as the fourth overall pick of the National Football League (NFL) draft by the Pittsburgh Steelers|
|1969-80||Plays defensive tackle for the Steelers|
|1987||Defensive line coach for the Steelers|
|1992||Defensive line coach for the Miami Dolphins|
|1995||Hired as defensive line coach for the Arizona Cardinals|
Awards and Accomplishments
|1968||Selected as the nation's top college defensive lineman|
|1969||Named National Football League (NFL) Defensive Rookie of the Year|
|1970-77, 1979-80||Pro Bowl|
|1972, 1974||Named NFL Defensive Player of the Year|
|1977||Received Dapper Dan Award as Pittsburgh's Outstanding Sports Figure|
|1980||Received advertising industry's Clio award for Coca-Cola commercial|
|1981||Received Vince Lombardi award for dedication|
|1987||Inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame|
|1994||Named to the NFL All-Time Team Greene earned four Super Bowl rings (1975, 1976, 1979, 1980).|
Address: Arizona Cardinals, 8701 S. Hardy Dr., Tempe, Arizona 85284. Phone: (602)379-0101.
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"Hired: Hall of Fame Tackle Joe Greene, As Defensive Line Coach of the Miami Dolphins." Sports Illustrated (February 17, 1992): 97.
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"Joe Greene." The Pittsburgh Steelers. http://www.steelers.com (December 30, 2002)
Sketch by Kari Bethel