The long history of the Pittsburgh Steelers can be neatly divided in half. The first phase, which lasted nearly 40 years, was one of poor play and ineptitude. The next phase, which has now gone on for more than 40 years, is one of excellence and championships.
The team was founded in 1933 by Art Rooney, a colorful character who was known around racetracks and other gambling locations. He borrowed $10,000 from a sportswriter, Heywood Broun, who had just won a big bet at Saratoga. Rooney used the money to found the franchise, which 80 years later is, like all NFL franchises, worth well over a billion dollars.
The team was originally known as the Pittsburgh Pirates, named after the city’s baseball team. The name was changed to Steelers in 1940.
Through the thirties, forties, fifties and sixties, the team won no championships and rarely had a winning season. In 1944, they lost all of their games. They got into a playoff for the NFL’s Eastern Division title in 1947, but lost to the Eagles. In 1963, they had a chance to win the division in the last week of the season if they could have beaten the New York Giants in Yankee Stadium, but they lost the game.
The Steelers were better known for the players who got away than the ones that played for the team. A group of quarterbacks who were cast off from the team ended up winning championships for other clubs. The list included Bill Nelson, Len Dawson and most notably, Johnny Unitas, who was with the Steelers in the mid-fifties but given no chance to show his ability. He went to Baltimore and led the Colts to multiple championships while winning MVP awards and breaking all career passing records.
The Steelers played most years in the baseball stadium Forbes Field, though they also spent several seasons in the football bowl Pitt Stadium, designed for the local college team.
The Steelers’ streak of ineptitude changed dramatically when the team hired Chuck Noll as their coach and personel man. He came to the Steelers in 1969 after coaching and playing for such greats as Paul Brown, Sid Gilman and Don Shula.
The Steelers did not become an immediate hit for Noll. In his first year, they won their season opener, then lost their remaining thirteen games. But their poor record gave them the top choice in the following year’s draft. They selected Terry Bradshaw, who would be the team’s starting quarterback for over a decade.
In 1970, the team also moved into a new facility, Three Rivers Stadium, much more modern than the fields where they had been playing. The team played at Three Rivers for 31 years until 2001, when they moved into their new home, the football-only stadium Heinz Field.
Terry Bradshaw was just one of many great personnel decisions that Noll made in the early years of his coaching time. The year before Bradshaw, he also drafted Joe Greene, known as “Mean Joe,” who, like Bradshaw, ended up in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. They were joined in the Hall in Canton by many other teammates. The long list includes Franco Harris, Lynn Swann, John Stallworth, Mike Webster, Mel Blount and Jack Ham.
With so many great players, the Steelers won four Super Bowls in the 1970s. Even as these players got old and passed from the scene, the team, under Noll’s guidance, remained in contention most years, though they did not play in another Super Bowl until after Noll retired in 1992.
Under Cowher, the team reached the Super Bowl at the end of the 1995 season, but they lost to the Dallas Cowboys. It was the first time they had gotten to the championship game and lost. They would not return to another Super Bowl until January, 2006, when they won another championship, their first and only one for Noll’s successor Bill Cowher. After he retired, Mike Tomlin took over the head coaching position and he won a Super Bowl in his second year on the job in the 2008 season.
Through all the years, good and bad, the Rooney family has continued to own the Steelers. Art, the beloved patriarch, passed the team down to one of his sons, Dan, who continued to operate the team through 2012. His son, Art Rooney II, seems destined to inherit the team in the future.
There are now few around who remember the past inept days of the Steelers. The franchise has long since become known as a premier team in the league, thanks to the work of Chuck Noll, his successors and all the great players.