Training Camp for Fans, Part 7: Fandom At The End of an Era?

AP photo

by Ivan Cole

The Second Dynastic Period may be called, if you prefer, the Era of Ben Roethlisberger. It began in 2004 and is ongoing. This period includes the final three years of Bill Cowher’s leadership and the entirety of Mike Tomlin’s command. There have been no losing seasons, and three Super Bowl appearances have culminated with two championships.

While the common belief has been that unless the team manages at least one or more additional championships this period falls short of the first dynasty, I believe the opposite may well be true. What colors our perceptions is the difference in the myth making and fan expectations about what the 70s were about, and what the 21st Century rendition of the Black and Gold has produced.

There is a saying that we are entitled to our own opinions, but not to our own facts. Like so much of the rest of our society, Steelers Nation has significant fractures based largely on a lack of agreement on the basic facts and meaning of our history. In my opinion, the first dynasty was wonderful, but not as mythically great as some would like to imagine, while in future years some may ask how the Nation slept and complained through the best period in franchise history.

Ben vs. Terry

If we must compare, history will almost certainly be more kind to Ben, who led the team to a record setting number of wins his rookie season and to a championship in his second. And his poor performance in the 2004 AFCCG will likely be expunged over time as the story of Patriot chicanery becomes more deeply anchored. On the other hand, Bradshaw took five years to gain the trust and adoration of his team and fans, something today’s Steelers Nation would never tolerate.

While the player personnel moves of Noll’s first six years are likely unmatched, what has happened in the current decade easily surpasses what followed in the mid to late 70s and beyond. Yes, there was one more championship appearance and two more titles (so far), but there were losing records as well, and with the rose colored glasses removed, coaches who were as despised by a minority of the fan base in the same manner as Tomlin is today.

Truth be told, the Steelers are only a frighteningly small number of breaks removed from being a hard luck franchise on the order of a Buffalo or Minnesota. They are also a break or two from having one of the best runs in league history, eclipsing even that of the first dynasty.

So where is Steelers Nation going now?

With the ranks of the Before Chuck group diminishing, and to a lesser extent something similar occurring among those who actually were witnesses to the 70s dynasty, the grounding which comes from painful memories of more humble times will be lost. Additionally, a nuanced understanding of the grand times may also pass from the collective memory.

For example, as good as the 70s championship teams were, a lot of good fortune was part of the success as well. A different perspective on current events is obtained if we know only one member of the NFL’s greatest draft class started their rookie year, and that exception (Jack Lambert) occurred because the incumbent at his position was injured in training camp. The first Super Bowl victory came in spite of uneven play and a three player quarterback controversy. The Steelers trailed in the fourth quarter in two of its four Super Bowl victories, and the outcome of all four games were in doubt late in the game. The next Steelers team that manages to dominate wire to wire will be the first to do so.

As mentioned earlier, one of the unintended consequences of institutional success and growth is that it becomes increasingly contaminated with adherents whose connection to the values and goals of the organization are weak or nonexistent. B.C. era, early First Dynasty fans and even those who came on board during the era of Exhaustion almost certainly were more likely to be motivated by a more purist love of the game and the team. What other reliable reason was there?

Today one does not have to necessarily be a dedicated football fan to be a fan of the Steelers (or any other NFL team for that matter). When newborn babies are wrapped in Terrible Towels as a matter of course, members of the community may feel obligated or entitled to their fandom. How deep or sophisticated that attachment may be is another matter.

I imagine that for many present day fans a ticket to Heinz Field may be more a status symbol or badge of cultural competency, much as it is for some who attend the opera. On the other end of the spectrum are those who are inappropriately deeply attached to the team—whose very self-esteem teeters in the balance based upon the outcome of a game or a season.

I assume that the attachment of most fans regardless of point of origin or era is healthy, but it is reasonable to also assume that those who have the toxic combination of high expectations, low tolerance and express entitled arrogance as a proxy for knowledge will continue to be a growing and annoying minority in Steelers Nation.

The point here is that Steelers Nation as presently composed is ill equipped to appreciate anything the team accomplishes now with anything approaching the level of gratitude that existed in the 70s. Where the indigenous fan once chose to follow the team, current residents can only choose to opt out of their obligation to the team—a different attitude indeed. The Nation is becoming increasingly fickle and feckless. With many feeling spoiled and entitled, up really means nothing. There is nowhere to go but down, as many allow that fear to dominate their experience to the point that, like the drug addict, winning no longer makes one feel good, but just keeps you from feeling bad.

In many ways Steelers Nation itself may be described as flirting with moving from an era of greatness to that of exhaustion.

And winter is coming.

Though it isn’t entirely inevitable, when Ben leaves the stage the second dynastic period will almost certainly end. Those who believe that the team can simply select and groom a franchise quarterback in the same manner that as getting replacements for other positions are setting themselves up for disappointment. I can only recall one instance when a team was able to seamlessly transition from one franchise caliber quarterback to another. Special circumstances surrounded the handoff from Joe Montana to Steve Young, and that was that Young became available after the collapse of a rival league (USFL).

On the other hand, one advantage of the free agent era is that the situation in the Churck Noll era where the entire team got old is not going to occur. The current team has a nice mix of emerging, mid-career and sunset players, and that pattern is likely to continue for the foreseeable future. If the current cohort can win a championship or two in the coming seasons, there may be enough talent and experience in their locker room to manage another one with a caretaker leader whose greatest asset is not make many mistakes.

If so, then the franchise has the opportunity to move directly into re-emergence. The interesting question is whether a Steeler Nation that will be even more unmoored from its stabilizing roots than it now is will become more morose and cranky as elite performance may become harder to experience on a consistent basis for a time. We shall see.

[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; Part 5: A Take on Steeler Nation; Part 6: The Emergence of Steeler Nation.]


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