Another Look - Robin Cole: Talented linebacker of the 1970s and '80s overshadowed by Hall-of-Fame teammates
Bob Barrickman, Beaver County Times Sports Correspondent
Even though the Pittsburgh Steelers featured a couple of legendary linebackers in Jack Ham and Jack Lambert, they were left a void when another famous linebacker retired following the 1976 season. "That's why I was a first-round (NFL draft) pick," said Robin Cole. "(The Steelers) were looking for someone to replace (Andy) Russell."
Cole was the first outside linebacker chosen in the 1977 draft as the Steelers selected him out of the University of New Mexico with their initial pick. A first-team All-American as a senior at New Mexico, Cole went on to play 11 seasons with the Steelers from 1977-87 and played his final year in 1988 with the New York Jets.Now a motivational and inspirational speaker, Cole and his wife, Linda, make their home in Eighty-Four, Pa., near Washington.
"I speak at schools and corporations," said Cole, 49, who has sons, Robin Jr., 26 and Jeremy, 23, and daughters, Lacie, 16, and Logan, 14. Robin Jr. played football at Robert Morris University, where his father was an assistant football coach."
I (also) work in the fitness business," said Robin Cole Sr. "I design fitness centers for schools and some health clubs."Cole's career with the Steelers got off to a rocky start in his rookie season."I broke my arm in the first game and missed the next eight games," he recalled. Cole returned and started the remaining games of the regular season and against Denver in a first-round playoff loss.
In Cole's second year, the Steelers reached Super Bowl XIII. Though Cole started most of that season, the Steelers decided to start veteran linebacker Loren Toews against the Dallas Cowboys."After a (few) series, I came in and played the rest of the game," remembered Cole, as the Steelers won, 35-31.
Coming into his own in 1979, Cole helped lead the Steelers to Super Bowl XIV. A native of Compton, Calif., near Los Angeles, Cole was excited for the Steelers to be going up against his hometown Los Angeles Rams. What added to Cole's excitement was that the Super Bowl was to be played in Pasadena, Calif.
"It was huge," said Cole of returning to his roots to play in the biggest game of the year. "I consider it my most memorable game."
It wasn't just "memorable" because of the opponent and the game's location. Cole's performance spoke volumes in the Steelers' 31-19 victory.
"I was told that I was the MVP going into the fourth quarter," Cole said. "I wound up second to (Steelers quarterback) Terry (Bradshaw). For a linebacker to be MVP, you have to play (well) the whole game. A defensive back can return a couple interceptions for touchdowns or a quarterback can throw a couple of bombs."
Cole didn't hesitate when he reflected on why the Steelers built a dynasty in the 1970s. "It started from the top with (coach) Chuck Noll," he said. "He knew how to build a team and he built it with men of character. A man with character is going to work hard. It's very easy to train and teach a willing person to get better."
It was difficult for Cole to receive his due recognition having played alongside Ham and Lambert. "I didn't get enough publicity," Cole admitted. "How could I when you have two Hall of Famers? There was no room for me. When they left, I started receiving accolades."
Cole was named to the Pro Bowl in 1984 when the Steelers reached the AFC championship game and was an alternate in 1985 and 1986. He left the Steelers a year later before wrapping up his career with the Jets.
"Our presence was phenomenal," Cole said about how the Steelers of the '70s were perceived by opposing fans and players. Nine players from those clubs are in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, and a 10th could be added if former Steelers defensive lineman L.C. Greenwood is named to the next class this weekend.
"I don't know why Russell keeps getting skipped over for the Hall of Fame, and Donnie Shell should be in," Cole said.
He said that in today's era of free agency and the salary cap, it would be very hard for a team to put together such a collection of talent like the Steelers did over two decades ago. "They'd all leave because of dollars," Cole said.
Cole said he never predicts Super Bowls but did analyze Sunday's game between New England and Philadelphia."These are the two best teams in the National Football League," Cole noted.
"New England is like us. When they take the field, they're saying, 'We're going to beat you.'"People say that it's hard to stay on top. But, you fight harder when you're at the top. You don't want it taken away from you."Cole said similar things 25 years ago when he collected two Super Bowl rings.
©Beaver County Times Allegheny Times 2005