Forty years of glory for Pittsburgh ... and more?
Executives, players marvel that a Steelers victory tonight would mark 'lucky' city's 12th major professional championship since 1971

Sunday, February 06, 2011
By Dejan Kovacevic, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

FORT WORTH, Texas -- This all began, really, with a Steve Blass pitch that brought the Pirates the 1971 World Series championship.

[IMGR][/IMGR]It carried into the next year with Franco Harris' Immaculate Reception, a remarkable reversal of fate that set the stage for four Super Bowl championships in six years.

Two decades later, Mario Lemieux and the Penguins hoisted back-to-back Stanley Cups.

And now, tonight, with so many other successes along the way, the Steelers can add to a phenomenal four-decade run for Pittsburgh's professional sports franchises by beating the Green Bay Packers in Super Bowl XLV in North Texas. It would be a 12th championship for the city, the seventh for the Steelers, in 40 years.

To fully appreciate that, consider these figures since the championship-clinching pitch in 1971:

Pittsburgh's 11 total championships rank behind only Los Angeles' 14 and 12 each for Boston and New York in that span. All of the other cities with seven or more -- Chicago has nine, Detroit eight -- have much larger metropolitan bases. New York's take would increase to 16 if the four Stanley Cups of the NHL's Islanders were counted, but precious few fans there consider the Long Island-based team a New York city entity.

Of cities that have fewer than four professional franchises, as Pittsburgh does, the next highest-championship total is six, with that many won by each of the Bay area cities of San Francisco and Oakland, Calif.

Of all cities with six or more championships, only Pittsburgh and Boston have seen all of their individual teams win. Eleven of Los Angeles' 14 championships have come from the NBA's Lakers, and another was by the NFL's Raiders, who played there briefly between stints in Oakland.

Pittsburgh teams have appeared in 13 championship series or games and won 34 division titles, almost one per year on the latter count.

Nine individual Pittsburgh athletes have been named league MVP, and seven Steelers have been named NFL Defensive Player of the Year, emblematic of the team's trademark strength. Safety Troy Polamalu just won the latter award this week.

And, just for fun: Cleveland has gone without a championship since 1964, when the Browns won an NFL title. The Indians have not won in 62 years, the American League's longest futility streak.

A victory for the Steelers tonight would only add to it all, Harris said.

"For a little town inside these three rivers to achieve so much in sports for 40 years, that's remarkable," he said. "But, to me, that's the spirit of this area. I can't explain it, but that's how it is."


It was Oct. 17, 1971, when Blass' final-pitch slider brought a final-out bouncer from Baltimore's Merv Rettenmund, then a joyous leap by the pitcher into the hulking arms of first baseman Bob Robertson.

"To me, the teams and the community are connected," Blass said. "We have a blue-collar work ethic here, so the fans don't see a professional athlete and think they're above anything. You feed off that as an athlete. When I was a player, and after that game, the city of Pittsburgh made me feel like I was a good, hard worker. If you're from Pittsburgh, you're legit. You're solid."

It is easy to forget now, with the Pirates' ongoing professional-sports record of 18 consecutive losing seasons, but they were a powerhouse in the 1970s -- overshadowed at times by the star-studded Cincinnati Reds and Philadelphia Phillies -- then won three division titles to open the 1990s.

Blass' 1971 team, the 40th anniversary of which will be feted at PNC Park this summer, was joined in 1979 by Willie Stargell's Fam-a-lee. And Stargell was joined on that famous Sports Illustrated cover by the Steelers' Terry Bradshaw with the headline, "City of Champions."

The Pirates have won eight division titles since 1971 and have had four MVPs: Dave Parker, then Stargell shared the honor in that title year, and a still-skinny Barry Bonds won two.

Team president Frank Coonelly has known little but grief since taking over in 2007, but he is adamant that the recent success of Pittsburgh's other two teams is nothing but a plus for the Pirates.

"I get asked a lot: Are you jealous of the success of the Steelers and Penguins? My answer is absolutely not," Coonelly said. "The standards are set high by those teams, but we embrace that. We look forward to meeting those standards, as well."

Coonelly said he is aware of the impact sports championships can have on a city.

"I didn't grow up here, but I've talked to many of our fans who have explained to me how important it was in the 1970s for the city to be proud of the Steelers and Pirates," he replied. "Those were tough times here, and it helps me to understand the way this special bond continues between the city and the Pirates. If that's the way your bond is formed? That's a bond that will never be broken."

Evan Meek, the Pirates' best young reliever, and Coonelly together attended the Steelers' AFC championship victory against the New York Jets two weeks ago at a raucous Heinz Field.

"Loudest stadium I've ever heard," Meek said. "And I thought to myself, 'Well, heck, I work just down the street.' We know what championships mean to Pittsburgh, believe me. And we want that. I want that. I'll never let go of what I felt at that Steelers game that night."


It was May 25, 1991, when Lemieux took the Penguins to their first championship, in Bloomington, Minn. But it was grinding winger Phil Bourque who stole the show a couple days later at the celebration inside Point State Park before 80,000 fans when he raised the Cup and shouted: "What do you say we take this thing out on the river ... and party all summer?"

"What you don't always understand as an athlete is that the energy, the passion that a diehard fan has for a team. It's even more than what you have as a player," Bourque said last week. "So, to stand there after you've fulfilled the ultimate goal for a hockey player and look into the eyes of all those people ... it was pretty overwhelming."

The Penguins have won three Cups now and gained the final four four times, but their most amazing accomplishments -- no coincidence, given their starry makeup -- have been individual: They have taken five MVP honors and, in a distinction that cannot be matched by any team in any sport, have had 13 scoring champions in the NHL's past 22 seasons.

Most impressive, they have come from four different players: Lemieux, Jaromir Jagr, Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.

David Morehouse, the Penguins' president, speaks proudly of that sustained success, but he also deflects credit to another team in town.

"You don't have to look any further than across the river at the Pittsburgh Steelers," Morehouse said. "Sustainable winning teams starts with ownership. When you have ownership groups like the Rooneys or Mario Lemieux and Ron Burkle with our team, people who are just as passionate about winning as the fans, that's the start of the recipe for success."

And the rest of the recipe?

"We try to emulate a lot of the things the Steelers do, but one of the things I think that's organic for both teams is that we try to treat everyone like a family. How often do you hear a player with the Steelers or Penguins say they're treated there better than they were anywhere else?"

He cited Bill Guerin, the winger who was part of the Penguins' most recent Cup in 2009 but was released this past offseason, leading to his retirement.

"Both us and the Steelers, I think, have been really good at determining when it's time for a player to move on," Morehouse said. "To me, that's a loyalty to the fan. There's still a loyalty to the player -- we'll end up hiring Billy Guerin at some point -- but there are points when you have to make a hard decision. You have to make sure, for your fans, that you're putting out the best possible team."

Morehouse mentioned, too, the University of Pittsburgh's outstanding run in basketball over the past decade.

"What Jamie Dixon has done for Pitt, they're in the top 10 every year, and they're very much in the same mold of how they do things."

Morehouse, like the Pirates' Coonelly, harkened back to the 1970s to find the civic root of this sporting success.

"If you go back to when all this started, when I was growing up here as a kid in the '70s, the sports were the only good thing happening," Morehouse said. "You picked up the paper, and it was all bad news. Your neighbors were getting laid off. Steel mills were closing. You couldn't get a job. But these guys were winning championships, and they were doing it by working hard. They were validation that working hard would pay off."

Defenseman Brooks Orpik said now is "a fun time to be around the city," adding, "I've heard some people say how spoiled fans are here, but people probably don't realize it because it's all some people know."


It was Dec. 23, 1972, when Harris made the Immaculate Reception, a play that did not lead directly to a championship -- the Steelers were eliminated later in the playoffs -- but contributed immensely to the momentum that led to the dynasty of the 1970s.

"To me, this is all a great American story," Harris said. "For all of us, it helps that it might change how others perceive Pittsburgh. It helps to promote our region, and it makes people reflect on all the great history that has happened here, not just sports."

Asked about Pittsburgh's success over the past 40 years, Art Rooney II, the Steelers' president smiled.

"It's amazing. It's great," he said. "We're lucky, aren't we?"

Luck probably has little to do with the Steelers making an astounding 15 appearances in the AFC championship game and winning 20 division titles, not to mention all the rest.

Best franchise ever?

That topic is raised from time to time, especially because the Steelers compete in the salary-cap NFL, where every team has the same economic shot, and doing things the right way means everything.

The New York Yankees have won 27 World Series, but the modern championships have come in baseball's terribly skewed economics. The Yankees outspend some teams, including the Pirates, by more than 4 to 1.

The Montreal Canadiens have won 24 Stanley Cups, but only two since 1979.

The Boston Celtics have 17 NBA titles, and the Lakers have 16, including the 11 in the past 40 years.

The Packers have won 12 NFL titles, but only half the Steelers' six Super Bowls. The rest of Green Bay's titles came in the league's earlier days.

No matter the comparisons, the Steelers fare well. And that is a testament to their steadiness after decades of misery leading up to the hiring of coach Chuck Noll in 1969. The team has employed only three coaches in these 40 years and, of course, has been owned by the Rooney family throughout.

Art Rooney deflects the credit.

"You have to surround yourself with the right people, and we've been fortunate to have that over the years with great players and great coaches," he said.

But those involved with the team invariably point to the owners first.

"With the Rooneys, this is their business. It's football," tight end Heath Miller said. "The Rooneys come to work every day just like we do. They're shaking our hands, asking how our families are. You realize how lucky you are, how grateful you are to be part of this organization."

Coach Mike Tomlin cited another reason.

"To me, it's the carryover of the tradition and how that keeps us humble," he said. "When you're a young man, you can wear your hand out patting yourself on the back for your successes. But to be part of an organization where just about anything we do has been done before ... that's different."

It hardly sounds as if it is getting old, though.

Someone in Fort Worth asked linebacker LaMarr Woodley the other day to explain "the Steeler Way," a term often used inside the team.

"What's the Steeler Way?" he quickly came back. "It's to win championships. That's the Pittsburgh way."