- Scott Brown, ESPN Pittsburgh Steelers reporter
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The Pittsburgh Steelers were in need of a running back right before the 1996 NFL draft but coach Bill Cowher did not have his eye on a college player when he went to offensive coordinator Chan Gailey and running backs coach Dick Hoak with an assignment.
Cowher asked the two to analyze game tape of a young running back named Jerome Bettis, whose production for the Rams had precipitously dropped after he burst onto the NFL scene in 1993.
"We watched about a half [of a game] and we went into Bill and said, 'Get him,' " Hoak recalled Sunday. "They just didn't use him right. They had quit using him. He started out great and for some reason he just fell out of favor. You could still see the skills that he had and we were happy to take him."
The Steelers, taking advantage of the Rams selling low after a shift in organization philosophy, pulled off one of the greatest trades in franchise history.
They packaged a second-round pick in 1996 with a fourth-rounder in 1997 and received Bettis and a 1996 third-round pick in return.
Bettis immediately became a fan favorite in Pittsburgh and rushed for at least 1,000 yards in his first six seasons with the Steelers. "The Bus" embodied the physical style of play that has long been a hallmark of the Steelers, and he finally pulled into Canton, Ohio, Saturday night when Bettis got voted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame on his fifth try.
"I don't know why he had to wait this long," Hoak said of Bettis, whose 13,662 rushing yards are still the sixth-most in NFL history. "I don't understand it. I thought he was a first-ballot Hall of Famer. I'm very happy for him. As well as being a player, he was a great leader. A lot of the younger players looked up to him."
Hoak spent 44 seasons with the Steelers' organization, 10 as a running back and 34 as a running backs coach. He is the only assistant in franchise history to have coached under Chuck Noll and Cowher.
Hoak, who retired after the 2006 season, said Bettis' footwork jumped out the first time he saw him at an offseason practice. That and his sheer size -- the 5-11 Bettis played at or around 260 pounds for most of his 13-year NFL career -- allowed him to become one of the greatest players in franchise history as well as the soul of the Steelers.
As punishing as Bettis was, what also stands out to Hoak about him is the kind of play he made in a game at Cincinnati. Bettis took a handoff and ran right up the middle, Hoak recalled, where a Bengals safety was waiting for him.
Bettis made the kind of jump cut that belied his size and Hoak said, "[The safety] fell flat on his face."
"A lot of people thought he was just a big, strong, run-over-people back but he had great feet, even for a 200-pounder," Hoak said. "There were plays he made that you didn't think a guy that big could make."
Yet the Steelers also relied heavily on Bettis' bulk and power late in games, which is why Hoak said he was one of the best closers of his generation.
"If we were ahead by seven to 10 points with five or six minutes to go the game was usually over," Hoak said, "because we would just put him in and he would control the football."