By Alex Kozora
The success of the Pittsburgh Steelers wasn’t always a constant. There was a long period of time, from their inaugural 1933 season until Chuck Noll’s arrival, where the team from Pittsburgh were at worst, a laughingstock and at best, lovable losers.
Even during this gloomy era, there were still important figures. So for better or worse, the introduction of a new series looking back at players and coaches from 1933-1968. Some articles will be short briefs, others with more to tell. The one thing in common? They all made up the stories we have today.
Forrest “Jap” Douds – 1933-1934
There’s no question Chuck Noll is the face of Steelers’ coaches. But about the only title he doesn’t hold in Pittsburgh coaching lore is being the first. It wouldn’t be for another 437 games until Noll captained the ship.
Perhaps “captaining” is a more appropriate word for Forrest Douds, who led the Pittsburgh Pirates – they wouldn’t be called the the Steelers until 1940 – in their first season of the 13 year old National Football League. There were only ten teams, not 32, and franchises were stationed in places like Brooklyn and Portsmouth.
The team was just two-and-a-half months removed from its purchase date by Art Rooney Sr. for a sum of $2500, which is certainly nothing to scoff at in the midst of the Great Depression. It was up to Douds, just 28 years old, to lead the team.
Of course, this was an age where a “coach” would hardly be recognized by today’s standards. I can only imagine what today’s media would think of Blood McNally, who coached – it’s fair to use that term loosely – for three-and-half seasons in the late 30s.
Douds served as a coach and a player. The team’s media guide lists him as a tackle from 1933 to 1935. He owned the pedigree to back it up. An All-Star lineman and linebacker at nearby Rochester High School, he lead his team to two county championships, including winning a state title with a 33-0 whooping of Monessen in 1920. For his efforts, he was inducted into the Beaver County Hall of Fame in 1976. His success carried over into college, attending Washington and Jefferson and becoming a three-time All-American.
Back to the Steelers. With a 3-6-2 record, 1933 was by no means a shimmering season record, but it would tie the franchise low of losses in a season until a mark of four in1942. Four games into the season, the team was a respectable 2-2, with a thrilling inaugural victory over the Chicago Cardinals (more on that in a future article) and a convincing 17-3 defeat of the Cincinnati Reds two weeks later. Even after the Pirates first game, a 23-2 loss to the New York Giants, commissioner Joseph Carr remarked to Douds that the team had the chance to build a “fine foundation.”
But the big boys of the league ate up the fresh meat; a 47-0 dismantling by the Green Bay Packers – a margin of defeat that would not be surpassed until the 1989 season opener – and a 27-3 drubbing at the hands of the Giants in the final week of the season.
In all, the Pirates allowed 208 points in 11 games, 50 more than the next closest squad.
Douds would only last one season as coach, the first of many to be replaced in the team’s carousel of coaches until settling on Noll. Luby DiMeolo would take over in 1934, being replaced by Joe Bach in 1935, who himself would last only two years. Rinse, repeat.
Not much is known of Douds’ life after his professional career. He died in August of 1979 at the age of 74, five months before the Steelers would hoist their fourth Lombardi.
Football lived on through his family. One son briefly played college ball at Notre Dame. Another son, Buddy, coached football in Yorktown, New York for 15 seasons. A lengthy piece in New York Magazine described his 1973 team as undersized with only two returning starters. But Douds preached an old-school, moral element to the game, no doubt harkening back to the days of his father. He instructed his players to play with pride, never quit, and never fight. They would block people in practice, not practice dummies.
In a 2009 interview, Buddy says his father once told him, “If you’re going to play football, Buddy, play it with your heart and soul or don’t play it at all.”
His Yorktown team would go 5-3 in 1973.
Jap Douds never got to directly be apart of the success Noll earned, but he got to see the firsts. The first team under The Chief, the first points in franchise history – a safety by John Oehler – and the team’s first victory.
It may not have necessarily been a “fine” foundation, but it was the first one. Jap Douds is the only person who can say that.