With the right to the
first overall choice in the 1970 draft riding on a coin flip, Dan Rooney
deferred to Chicago's Ed McCaskey to make the call while NFL commissioner
Pete Rozelle readied his thumb beneath a 1921 silver dollar.
The Bears called heads. The coin spun about a
foot in the air and thunked down on a table in a New Orleans hotel. Lady
Liberty's image was face down. The eagle side was up. The Steelers had won the
toss between the two worst teams in football.
So hardened to losing was the city that the
Post-Gazette headline to the top story in the sports section was: "Honest to
Goodness -- Steelers Win."
In hindsight, winning the toss was an omen. By
the end of the decade, the headlines spoke of triumph after triumph. The team
with the NFL's all-time inferiority complex developed a sterling silver swagger.
And a city once described as hell with the lid taken off turned into the City of
Alchemy should work so well.
The franchise that had seen such quarterbacks as
Sid Luckman, Johnny Unitas, Len Dawson and Bill Nelsen get away used the first
pick to select Terry Bradshaw, a rifle-armed, fleet-of-foot bundle of raw energy
who endured a rocky start to become an integral part of the glory days.
A new wind was blowing other ways as well. The
Steelers moved into Three Rivers Stadium, and a scratchy-voiced showman named
Myron Cope, with his impeccable sense of timing, joined the broadcast team.
"If that stadium had never been built, we'd never
have won," Steelers founder Art Rooney once said. "We had second-class
facilities in the old days, and we were a second-class team. We went to being a
Only a handful of veterans made the transition
from old Forbes Field and Pitt Stadium to the new multi-purpose facility and a
new start in the American Football Conference, but they noticed a new attitude
in the new players coming aboard.
"I don't think they know about the old losing
image. They didn't know the Steelers are supposed to lose," lineman Ray
Mansfield said at the time. "When I first came to Pittsburgh, even if we won a
few games, there was always an expectation of doom."
Still, the bandwagon had plenty of room as the
Oh, those draft
For an outfit notorious for botching the draft,
the Steelers set a standard that was the envy of the NFL. Chuck Noll believed in
molding young talent by building through the draft. Art Rooney Jr., son of the
founder, was in charge of personnel with super scout Dick Haley,
Joe Greene was already on board, and Mel Blount
arrived in the Bradshaw draft. Jack Ham was added in 1971. The coach preferred
Robert Newhouse as a running back in 1972, but the scouts sold him on Franco
Harris. Then came the mother lode in 1974 -- Lynn Swann, Jack Lambert, John
Stallworth and Mike Webster before the fifth round was over. There was no other
draft like it before or since.
But in addition to all those future Hall of
Famers, the Steelers scored big in lower rounds, especially with players from
traditionally black schools. Credit went to a new talent evaluator, Bill Nunn
Sr., who as sports editor of The Pittsburgh Courier had named an annual All-Star
team of players from black schools.
He recommended draft choices and free agents such
as L.C. Greenwood, Ernie Holmes, Joe Gilliam and Donnie Shell.
By the end of the decade, not a single player on
the Super Bowl roster had ever worn another team's uniform. They were all
home-grown. A total of 22 players were measured for all four Super Bowl rings.
In a sporting sort of way, Steelers history has a
biblical quality. The first 40 years of wandering through the wilderness is the
football version of the Old Testament. The new age dawned with a play known by a
religious name and interpreted as an act of providence.
But before the Steelers ascended to the ranks of
winners, they had to vanquish the Browns. Cleveland had won 34 of the first 45
games played against the Steelers, and the radio stations in a city where the
river caught fire looked down their noses at Pittsburgh.
The breakthrough came on a gray, gloomy Sunday in
1972, with the teams tied for first place, in a game The Pittsburgh Press called
Armageddon. It was a chance to right everything for all the bad years, and a
resolute bunch of blue-collar fans packed Three Rivers Stadium to be part of it.
A throaty roar went up an hour before the game
and never let up. Those who were there on that Dec. 3 game to witness a 30-0
victory can attest that the reinforced concrete actually pulsated as primal
voices, without prompting, chanted "Dee-fence! Dee-fence! Dee-fence!" while
savoring every delicious moment.
"I got the feeling that if we didn't win, the
fans were going to come out of the stands and win it for us," said linebacker
Andy Russell, who intercepted a pass and recovered a fumble, leading to 10
From that day on, the Steelers have never failed
to sell out a game.
After finishing first in the division for the
Steelers' first title of any kind, the Oakland Raiders came to town for the
first playoff game here in a quarter century. It was as fun to watch as a street
fight. The Steelers allowed their first touchdown in December and fell behind
late in the game.
On fourth down, with time nearing expiration, Art
Rooney got into the elevator on his way to consoling his team. Then a 17-second
sequence buried the Same Old Steelers for good.
A pass thrown to Frenchy Fuqua, who was belted by
Jack Tatum the instant the ball arrived, caromed backward end over end. Franco
Harris picked it out of the air at shoe-top level at the 42-yard line and ran
into the end zone with five seconds left.
In the bedlam, referee Fred Swearingen phoned the
press box to confer with Art McNally, the NFL's director of officiating. "You
have to call what you saw," the referee was told.
Since none of the officials saw anything to
negate the result, Mr. Swearingen raised his arms to signal a winning score,
making official the single most electrifying play in NFL history. The fact that
the collision and the reception maintain an element of controversy only adds to
There was no Super Bowl trophy that year, but the
play lives on. Two figures greet passengers headed to baggage claim at the
Pittsburgh airport. One is of a young George Washington, who fought to claim the
fort that became Pittsburgh. The other is of Franco Harris reaching out to
recreate the city's moment of unabashed joy -- the Immaculate Reception.
Madness in the
Darwinism of a sort has a niche in Steelers
history because Steelermania evolved from a primate. Well, actually, it evolved
from a guy wearing a gorilla suit -- Bob Bubanic of Port Vue, who introduced the
world to Gerela's Gorillas, a fan club dedicated to a soccer-style kicker
claimed off waivers for $100 in 1971.
He and his pals first rented the monkey suit for
$60 a game, then held a raffle to buy it outright for $250. They showed up every
Sunday to cheer Roy Gerela and to jinx opposing kickers.
"Yes, I felt like I was part of the team and
that. We all did," said Mr. Bubanic. "It was a lot of fun."
All kinds of fans went ape over the Steelers.
Thaddeus Majzer, also from Port Vue, saw Hall of
Fame potential in a new linebacker. Beginning in 1971, he hung a sign that said
Dobre Shunka, which means Good Ham in Slovak.
As he watched Jack Ham and the Steelers grow into
a team without peer, Mr. Majzer would remind his friends: "Enjoy this while it
lasts. You'll never see another football team this good."
In 1972, Tony Stagno and Al Vento brought forth
Franco's Italian Army and the battle cry "Run, Paisano, Run!" Their ranks were
later graced with the enlistment of Ol' Blue Eyes himself, Frank Sinatra.
Frenchy's Foreign Legion honored running back
John Fuqua, whose sartorial splendor included purple suits and platform shoes
displaying live goldfish. Ernie Holmes, part of the Steel Curtain front four
that made the cover of Time magazine, shaved his hair in the shape of an arrow
to point him toward the opposing quarterback.
The Steelers touched some deep emotional chord
that stirred a personal creative energy in a diverse ethnic population that had
been hungering for a winner.
A Greek showman named Jimmy Pol merged the melody
of the Pennsylvania Polka with his own lyrics. That 45 rpm record became the
anthem: "We're from the town with the good football team..." The original
version included references to the Gorillas and the Army.
Harold Betters and his jazz band serenaded fans
at games. His trombone provided the sound track to the chant, "Here We Go,
Steelers, Here We Go."
To top it all off, Myron Cope, the wordsmith
whose schtick was that of the Yiddish yinzer, turned terry cloth into a
trademark with the Terrible Towel.
One all-encompassing banner created back then now
graces Heinz Field. It is a proclamation and a warning: You're In Steeler
In a decade that introduced leisure suits and
smiley faces and disco, the '70s were a roiling time. The Kent State shootings.
Spiro Agnew's resignation and plea of no contest to tax evasion. Paris Peace
Accords. Richard Nixon said he was not a crook, then resigned the presidency and
was pardoned. Saigon fell. An Arab oil embargo inflated gasoline prices. Billy
Carter's brother occupied the White House. Iran held Americans hostage. The
Soviet Union prepared to invade Afghanistan. And the Steelers provided a blessed
After Terry Bradshaw emerged from a bitter and
contentious quarterback controversy, all the pieces were in place by 1974 for
the greatest stretch of football a football town has ever seen. When the
Steelers clinched the division title and a playoff spot by defeating the
Patriots, someone asked Chuck Noll where the bubbly was.
"Champagne?" he asked with steely-eyed resolve.
"We're interested in rings."
After the first round of the playoffs, the notion
was put forth that the best two teams in football had clashed when Oakland
defeated the defending champion Dolphins. But the Steelers coach had a different
view, which led to what Joe Greene called the defining moment in Steelers
"I have news for them," Mr. Noll told his players
before preparations began for Oakland. "The best team in professional football
is right here in this room."
He had never said anything like that before or
since. And it got the Steelers in a proper froth.
"It made a big impression on me," said Mr.
Greene. "We were behind in the fourth quarter on the road, but there was no
despair, no anxiety, no worries. Maybe it was foolhardy. I felt personally that
Oakland had no chance."
They didn't. And the Steelers earned a spot in
their first Super Bowl. They were underdogs going into that Jan. 12, 1975, game
against the Vikings, but this was no longer the Old Testament.
Dwight White, who lost 18 pounds in a bout with
pneumonia during the week, climbed out of his hospital bed to register a safety
and the team's first points in a Super Bowl. Franco Harris ran and ran to claim
the MVP award.
Joe Greene intercepted a pass and recovered a
crucial fumble -- "I wasn't prepared to lose," he said -- and captains Andy
Russell and Sam Davis elected to give him the game ball. Fate took a hand when
Art Rooney was spotted off to the side, stoically waiting to accept the Lombardi
Trophy on behalf of his players.
"I saw The Chief standing in a corner, totally
removed from the scene, and I just knew that ball should go to him," said Mr.
Russell. "I had a lot of good moments with him, but that one was the best."
Thoughts turned to the fans who had waited so
long for the ultimate prize.
"The 'Burgh must be in ashes," Jack Ham laughed.
Lynn Swann's breathtaking catches earned him MVP
honors the next year in Super Bowl X, a win over the Cowboys that validated the
Steelers as true champions. But mention must be made of Jack Lambert, who served
notice that there were to be consequences for laughing at Pittsburgh.
With the Steelers trailing, Roy Gerela -- his
ribs bruised while making an earlier tackle -- missed a field goal. Cliff Harris
got in the kicker's face and taunted him, which prompted Mr. Lambert to toss the
Cowboys free safety unceremoniously to the ground.
"We were getting intimidated, and we're supposed
to be the intimidators," said Mr. Lambert, who did not draw a penalty for his
actions. "Someone had to do something about it."
That play inspired the defense to a second Super
Bowl win. It had taken the Steelers 42 years to win their first NFL title and
just 371 days for their second.
Said coach Noll: "Jack Lambert is the defender of
all that is right."
Injuries take a
Of all the super teams of the '70s, the best one
didn't win a Super Bowl. That 1976 team lost in the playoffs to Oakland because
injuries wiped out their running backs.
During a nine-game winning streak, in the hands
of rookie quarterback Mike Kruczek taking over for an injured Bradshaw, when a
loss would have eliminated them, the defense took command like never before. It
posted five shutouts and, in one stretch, didn't allow a touchdown for 22
quarters. The Steelers routed the Colts in the playoffs, but the only back
available in the AFC championship game was Reggie Harrison.
The next year, 1977, the Steelers defeated the
Raiders in federal court, but the messy proceedings served as a distraction.
Oakland's George Atkinson had sued for slander
after Chuck Noll said he was part of a "criminal element" for a hit on Lynn
Swann. A jury in San Francisco returned a verdict that exonerated the coach. But
the NFL fined him for inappropriate remarks.
The cast was largely the same but a fresh script
arrived in 1978, in large measure because the Steelers defense was so dominant.
New rules were adopted to create more offense, but they actually served to take
the reins off the Steelers passing game. Although Terry Bradshaw may have
exasperated critics who thought he was Li'l Abner in cleats and prone to stage
fright, he threw the prettiest spiral in the NFL and came up big on the biggest
After a going 14-2 in 1978 -- a franchise record
for wins to that point -- the Steelers breezed through the playoffs for a
rematch with the Cowboys, who had been dubbed America's Team by NFL Films.
The tag didn't phase Dan Rooney. "We're
Pittsburgh's team," he said.
And after Hollywood Henderson said that Mr.
Bradshaw couldn't spell cat if you spotted him the "c" and the "a," the
quarterback had his best day as a quarterback in a super win, leaving it up to
the Cowboys to spell M-V-P.
The exhilarating roll continued in 1979. Every
touchdown pass, every defensive stop, every victory served as a confirmation.
For the second straight year, the Steelers split
the regular season series with the Oilers and then beat their rivals in the AFC
title game. Houston coach Bum Phillips volunteered these words for his epitaph:
"He'd have lived a hell of a lot longer if he didn't have to play Pittsburgh six
times in two years."
Mr. Bradshaw repeated as Super Bowl MVP. His
biggest contributions were two long passes to John Stallworth -- both of them
right on the money -- to rally the Steelers in the fourth quarter over the Rams.
The Steelers became the first team to win consecutive Super Bowls twice and the
first team to win the big game four times, going from the outhouse to the
penthouse in one glorious decade.
After presenting the team its fourth Lombardi
Trophy, Pete Rozelle quipped that the value of the sterling silver was higher
than the franchise fee The Chief paid back in 1933. Priceless.
The bandwagon was so overcrowded it became a
movable tail-gate party. In the background, however, were rumblings that
real-life steelers and the mills that employed them were edging toward hard