Training Camp for Fans Part 6: The Emergence of Steeler Nation

1934 Pittsburgh [Football] Pirates Team Photo

by Ivan Cole

As noted in his previous post, this series is a continuation of Ivan’s “Training Camp for Fans” series which ran last August. Those links can be accessed below. Back to Ivan…

  1. B. C. (Before Chuck)

You could also, if you choose, refer to this period as B.M.J. (Before Mean Joe) or B.D.R. (Before Dan Rooney). This represents a clear demarcation between the approximate first half of the Steelers’ franchise existence, which was characterized by a losing culture, and the soaring success of the more recent past.

Those like myself who claim this period as our initiation into the Nation share the characteristic of being well grounded—in part, because if you have any memory at all of this period, you are pretty old (hate admitting that). But also because you had to withstand the trials of being immersed within a losing culture. Because of that, and the fact that the NFL and sports generally did not have the reach or popularity that they enjoy today, a fan in this era (no term as fanciful as “Steeler Nation” existed at that time)  was almost certainly indigenous.

The fans of that period loved the Steelers because they loved football. The Steelers, however, were also an embarrassment. Western Pennsylvania operated from the conceit that we represented the state of the art of the game. That could be persuasively made based upon the impressive high school traditions of programs like Aliquippa, Westinghouse, Mt. Lebanon and New Castle. And while the local college programs weren’t always dominant, it was generally understood that the local talent was raided and dispersed across the country by the best programs. This theory was validated in the minds of many in the 70s when Johnnie Majors and Jackie Sherrill turned the University of Pittsburgh into a national power by keeping local talent like Tony Dorsett, Dan Marino and Russ Grimm home.

In this light, the incompetent Steelers didn’t get the level of support that has been common in subsequent decades, but it was probably more than they deserved. Art Rooney Sr. was not the revered figure that he became in the winning days, but characterized more as a lovable loser. The team was often referred to in the local press as Rooney U. It wasn’t usually a term of endearment.

A lot of things were upside down as they compare to today. Before the Chuck Noll era the best season record in franchise history was 9-4 in 1962 (no other group won more than 7, good times). Needless to say it was difficult for this segment of the Nation to relate to the we-just-went-8-8-my-head-is-exploding-we-need-to-fire-everyone thing. What would you have done in the 60s? Mass executions? Ritual suicide?

By far the greatest moment in franchise history to that point is when Pittsburgh upset a powerful Jim Brown-led Cleveland Browns team on a Saturday night in 1964. The Browns shook off that humiliation and went on to win the NFL Championship that year. (I told you things were upside down. In some ways today’s Browns look dignified and competent compared to the Steelers of that time).

As mentioned above, the fan base was dominated by the indigenous faction pretty much by default. The circumstances that would lead to the creation of the diaspora were not in play yet, meaning no large scale exodus (expats), or influx of new residents (immigrants). It was too early for there to be legacies. The game itself had neither gained the popularity or technological reach to create the conditions for there to be much in the way of converts. And even if these issues could have been overcome, the Steelers of the B.C. area were simply too unattractive to anyone beyond those exercising civic loyalty to have taken advantage.

2. The First Dynastic Period

The key for defining the previous era and two that follow is coaching regimes, but the dynasties (first and second) are more accurately identified with the franchise quarterbacks who were the pieces that ultimately were the factor that got the team over the hump in each case.

The first Dynasty runs from the decade of the 1970s into the first few years of the 80s. It encompasses the career of Terry Bradshaw and includes the Steelers first four Super Bowl appearances (and victories). It coincided with a number of other events, both in the game itself and with the community that served to strengthen and enhance the impact of Pittsburgh’s run.

Here are two events on the football side. Mergers, expansion and the shift in popularity where professional football supplanted both baseball and college football in the affections of the public was occurring as the Steelers surged. With this came increasing national exposure for the more successful teams. In the new media environment, blackouts of home games, customary in the 60s as a means of bolstering attendance at the stadiums, was lifted. Even though I left the area precisely as the first dynasty was beginning, because I resided in the same general region (state), with the local team (Eagles) being weak and in the opposite conference, I was able to view a lot of games even before the advent of all-inclusive satellite packages.

Imagine if you can this perfect storm. A fan base exists which is culturally predisposed to be deeply passionate about the game of football, but has previously never tasted success at the professional level. Just as the world discovers the joy of football, the local team performs a 180-degree adjustment and becomes the state of the art, combining the hardnosed fundamentals and style of the Western Pa. game with an entertaining quirkiness that embodied the celebration of the diversely talented elements composing the team.

And if that wasn’t enough, introduce elements of mysticism and creative gimmicky (Immaculate Reception, Terrible Towels), and time it for the moment when the economic foundation of the city was beginning to collapse. To label the result fanaticism is too mild. It is at this point that the Steelers became the civic religion of Pittsburgh.

It was also at this point that converts became part of the fan equation. At that time the motivation was of rooting for the underdog. The Steelers were the Chicago Cubs or the Jamaican bobsled team of their time. The last had become first and those tired of the narratives of the Cowboys, Vikings, Raiders or Dolphins enthusiastically embraced the transformation of the lovable losers of Rooney U becoming the bullies of the block.

3. Exhaustion

Several factors led to the Steelers slide into mediocrity in the 80s and early 90s. The aging and exit of the stars from the 70s cohort being the most obvious. But there were other significant changes as well. Noll’s last Super Bowl team was a completely homegrown outfit. With the changes in free agency beginning in 1982 such an arrangement was no longer possible. The landscape had changed significantly in the decade and a half after Noll took the reins of the team. Some like free agency were evolutionary of the game. Others like the Blount rule were specific to stopping the Steelers juggernaut. And, of course, competitors learned and adapted, closing the gap even more.

While Noll was unable to replicate the success of the 70s, he was able to coax a few runs out of the resources on hand. And though they didn’t recover to super elite status, mediocre was still far enough away from abysmal that the team didn’t lose the fan base (unlike, say, the Pirates), and probably made gains based upon residual reputation.

4. Re-emergence

The Cowher regime nudged the team back into elite, if not supreme status. Innovation in how to manage free agency and on the defensive side of the ball provided advantages. Unfortunately, Neil O’Donnell, Kordell Stewart and Tommy Maddox, like Mark Malone and Bubby Brister under Noll were no Terry Bradshaw. Consider that the loss of Super Bowl XXX can be pinpointed precisely to the performance of O’Donnell.

On the fan side of things, the Steelers had remained at or near enough to the top for long enough that intense fan loyalty had become multi-generational (the legacies), converts continued to come to the team, but now for the opposite reason jumping on the bandwagon of a traditional, reliable winner. Expats found the team as a reliable tie to their roots, and at home, Steelers as religion was solidly anchored among the indigenous and a growing population of immigrants.

[These links will take you to the previous articles: Part 1: The Myth of the Knowledgeable FanPart 2: The TrapsPart 3: Why Drafts Will Never Be Perfect; Part 4: The Ahistorical Fan.]

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