Our Steelers Rivals interview series continues as Ron Lippock caught up with former Cincinnati cornerback Ken Riley, who played for the Bengals from 1969-83 and was a four-time NFL All-Pro.
First, let me know what you’ve been doing with yourself since your time in the NFL?
Well, after I retired I coached for two years in Green Bay for Forrest Gregg, then went back to my alma mater – Florida A&M – to be their head coach. I was there for eight years then I became the Athletic Director and stayed on there for nine more years.
I moved back home with my wife, but she was working and I had retired, Well she asked me what was wrong with that picture! So, I went back to work in the public school system close to home. That was an eye-opening experience.
I got involved in some community projects – helping the school system after seeing so much of what was happening in it. I formed a group called E-PAC and we hold a parent-student summit every year. We’ve been doing that now for nine years – we have motivational speakers some in and give away prizes as a hook to bring people in. We have the police come in and do skits for the kids and get support from the city and local organizations.
I also started a golf tournament with other former NFL and sports guys – like Mel Blount, Archie Griffin, Elvin Bethea, Glen Edwards, Sam Jones, Reggie Williams – those are some of the guys that come to it every year. We give away scholarships from the money we raise for trade schools.
So, I stay pretty busy!
One thing I ask a lot of players is whether they feel the rivalries were bigger for the fans than the players. What do you think?
I think it’s a combination of the two. Back then the Central Division was the toughest in football so every game was important.
Joe Greene and I were drafted the same year and the teams exchanged victories over the years. But Pittsburgh knew how to turn it on in the playoffs under Chuck Noll. It was cold and they had the Terrible Towels, we had the “Who Dey” – it was great. The rivalry was never off the field though – it was never personal like that. They were clean games – just very physical. Greene used to intimidate our offensive linemen, I do remember that!
How did the Bengals strategize against the Steelers’ offense – what did you do well?
Well, we knew we had to at least split a game with the Steelers if you wanted to make the playoffs. We at least tried to do that. As the right cornerback, I went up against Stallworth most of the time. I didn’t face Swann often.
Stallworth – we had a lot of respect for each other. He was a quiet guys like I was – he wasn’t flashy either. He would make cutch catches in big games. Swann would make those big acrobatic catches in big games, but Stallworth was consistent – every game he would make big plays.
I had four or five interceptions against the Steelers over my career. We knew the Steelers loved that deep pass over the middle to Stallworth. So. we’d try to take that away. We often knew it was coming but they were just so good at it. They just executed it so well.
How did you prepare for those games?
You can run a 4.2 but if you don’t don’t study the other players it didn’t matter. I kept a book on all the wide receivers – I knew what they did well and what they did on certain downs and distances. I knew what they liked to throw to who on certain downs and that helped me go for interceptions – to read the plays. Stallworth had that deep middle pass for example – so I need that was the pass I needed to defend most on crucial downs.
Who were the players on those Bengals teams that got the most fired up for those Steelers games?
Oh Reggie Williams. He used to get so fired up – he would un up and down the locker room yelling and kicking things. I tried to just let me work speak for me. I did it on the field. I tried to run through people – that was my form of intimidation. I was known for that – that’s why they called me “The Rattler” – because I’d hit you so hard you’re teeth would rattle!
I didn’t do a lot of talking on the field though. John Stallworth didn’t either. We both just were consistent.
Everybody had their own form of intimidation. Billie White Shoes Johnson had his dance – you never wanted to see that!
You mentioned earlier that Joe Greene intimidated your offensive linemen. What did they tell you about how he did so?
I’d watch film with the rest of the team and you could just see it. He would laugh about it on the field – you could see he had fun playing football. I watched the offensive lineman and just laughed. It wasn’t dirty – he was just so fierce. But he definitely intimidated them. You could hear them talk about him leading up to the Steelers games and how worried they were about facing him. They talked about how long of a day it was going to be trying to protect Ken Anderson!
Lastly, I know you are hoping for that Hall of Fame nod this year. Is it frustrating not getting that call?
Well it’s up to the voters. If you talk to Stallworth he’ll tell you I’m deserving. When I retired I was fourth in interceptions and led the league in interceptions the last two years. I think I’m deserving but it’s not my choice.
I know there are a lot of great players, but I think I waited long enough. If it happens I’ll be very excited, but if not, I still had a great career. Especially coming in as a quarterback – someone who hadn’t played cornerback before. I think my career matches up against most everybody.
I do think not being a flashy guy like a Deion Sanders didn’t help, or playing for an organization like Cincinnati that didn’t believe in really hyping it’s players. They just don’t believe in that. I remember Reggie Williams once was upset no one made it to the Pro Bowl and asked the PR team for help. I don’t think that stuff helped us -we probably didn’t get some of the recognition we deserved.