Greene Wasn't Always Mean Joe
Hell with the Lid Off: Inside the Fierce Rivalry between the 1970s Oakland Raiders
and Pittsburgh Steelers, Ed Gruver and Jim Campbell (2019)
He never thought he deserved to be called "Mean." The nickname came into vogue during Joe Greene's sophomore year at North Texas State. The team wore green, and because Greene and the defense was playing well they were called the Mean Green. Joe being named Greene, the moniker rubbed off on him.
When he signed autographs in his early years with the Steelers, the future Pro Football Hall of Fame DT would sign Joe Greene, leaving off the Mean.
The way Greene saw it, he did the best he could on every down and played hard on every play. "But," he would quickly add, "I'm not mean." Sometimes he talked to opposing QBs when he got to them during games, but it was never mean. "Don't bother to run the draw," Greene would tell the flustered QB, "because I'm going to be sitting right there in the hole waiting for it."
Greene respected offensive linemen but never believed any of them should ever beat a defensive lineman man on man. Some offensive linemen sought to beat their defensive counterparts with quickness, some with strength. Greene never studied the man who would be opposite him. The leader of the Steel Curtain defense would wait to see what his opponent was trying to do when the game started, and Greene would react. "I do what I have to do," he would say.
Steelers offensive linemen found this out firsthand in team scrimmages. After being the first pick in new head coach Chuck Noll's first draft in 1969, Greene held out before signing. He was considered the cornerstone for what the Steelers were trying to build, and the contract holdout angered some of the team's veterans. C Ray Mansfield and G Bruce Van Dyke looked forward to teaching the rookie a lesson or two. A couple of days of dealing with Greene in practice left Mansfield and Van Dyke wishing they'd never met Mean Joe. ...
Greene wasn't always devoted to football. Growing up in Temple, Texas, he quit the sport the first time he tried out for it in the eighth grade because they didn't give him a full uniform. Greene gained confidence in his ability as a 203-pound high school freshman. By his sophomore year he was a 235-pound MLB. He weighed 250 his senior season, and his reputation was just as outsize.
Greene had the reputation of being the dirtiest ballplayer to come out of Temple. He acknowledged that when his team was losing, he'd act the fool. He grew up with a loving mother but without a father and wondered if having a dad would have given him more stability. For a time he was more round than tall; he was timid and shy and was picked on and ridiculed.
L-R: Joe Greene at North Texas State and with the Steelers
Greene took out his aggressions on the football field. He got the reputation of being a bully. Greene knew he wasn't; he was exacting revenge for being teased. He once recalled being kicked out of every game his sophomore season and nine more his junior year. He ran over a few officials, sometimes intentionally, he said. Following a loss on his high school's home field, Greene went to a diner and encountered the team that had won. The opposing QB was enjoying an ice cream cone. Greene took the cone and smeared it all over the QB's face. Later that night he charged the front door of the opposing team's bus after being hit in the chest with a soda bottle thrown by one of the players. As Greene forced his way in through the front door, opposing players scampered out the back. ...
The same lack of discipline was evident to scouts who visited North Texas State. "Puts on weight, tendency to loaf," one scout said. Another opined that while Greene was physically gifted, he used his ability only in spurts. The final line in the Steelers' 1969 scouting file on Greene questioned taking him in the first round, "as he could turn out to be a big dog." Greene instead became the Steelers' top dog, the cornerstone of one of sports' greatest dynasties. Opponents saw him as mean, nasty, and intimidating - a big man who threw his weight around fiercely. Sometimes he could be reckless and take himself out of plays. But Greene also made tremendous plays that turned games around. He was inconsistent at times, given to playing some ordinary games. But Greene's ordinary games were better than outstanding games by other players. Mean Joe was one of the few defensive linemen who could dominate for four quarters. He was a powerful player on a powerhouse team, and he was always up for the big games. "Greene," George Allen said, "was the one who scared you the most."
Greene's coach at North Texas State called his defensive star a "fort on foot." In Pittsburgh the fort fronted what became known as the Steel Curtain.
Greene had all the physical tools to be successful in the NFL. He also had vision, a quality he considered more valuable than all the others. He could see what was happening on every play, could see where the blocks were coming from and where the ball was going. His biggest handicap was his tendency to guess. Early in his pro career Greene said that when he got into the game, he didn't always have time to think about what he ought to be doing. Monty Stickles, ... a Raiders color analyst ..., noted during a Steelers-Raiders game that while Greene was a very active tackle, his aggressive style sometimes took him out of the play.
Greene credits Noll for curing him of his tendency to play a guessing game with opposing offenses. When Greene guessed right he turned into a tornado that tore up everything in his path. Noll convinced Greene that guesswork meant he would be right only half the time. Do the job you're supposed to, Noll told him, and let his teammates do their jobs.
When they didn't Greene let them hear it. Russell recalled Greene growing angry when an opponent had success against the Steelers' defense. "Andy," Greene thundered, "what're you going to do?"
Greene got just as excited on the sidelines. He would approach Noll and say, "What's the QB doing?" and then approach WR coach Lionel Taylor and say, "What're the receivers doing?" Russell said Greene was such a great player that he thought everyone could play better if they only tried harder. Greene pulled himself from a game in '73 and stalked out of a team meeting in '74, upset with what he saw as his teammates' lack of fervor.