Saturday, September 4, 2010

Ode to the Pittsburgh Steelers

With the last pre-season NFL game for my team finally over, the new football season is upon us, and my favorite time of the year is here. I love the fall for the cooler sunny days, the brilliance of natures colors on the trees, and the popping of shoulder pads as giants on a gridiron engage in a battle of wills to achieve victory. When I was younger, I was completely obsessed with football. I would go to high school games on Friday, watch my college team (Penn State) and other college teams that might meet them on Saturday, and watch my pro team and the other pro teams that might meet them on Sunday. And, of course, the Monday night game. As I grew older, my interest waned in the high school and then the college game, and now I have lost interest in most pro games (which has not exactly disappointed my wife). But there exists a white-hot fire deep in the darkest recesses of my being, a passion, a loyalty, yes a love for the PITTSBURGH STEELERS that I think nobody except those of us from southwestern PA can really understand. This blog will attempt to explain it to you, so that you will know that no professional team has the kind of intimate relationship with their fans that Steelers fans do.

As I stated in a prior post, America possessed well over half of the world's manufacturing capacity in the wake of World War II. As was our want for generations, American manufacturers dominated global markets in all the most important industries, automobiles, electronics, aerospace and defense, and above all, STEEL. American companies were price setters in the global market place, because in the wake of world-wide destruction, no other country's companies had the capacity to deliver the goods in size and the spec that American companies could. For the 20 years following World War II, labor unions would ask for improved compensation and working conditions, and management would largely accept their terms due to their ability to pass these costs through to their customers. In the late 1960's and early 1970's, this state of affairs was beginning to be disrupted by companies in Germany and Japan that had built state-of-the-art steel making facilities and employed labor at a fraction of our domestic costs.

Cut to the North Side of Pittsburgh in 1968. Art Rooney, the owner of the Pittsburgh Steelers, had been the sad sack of the league for 35 years. In that time, his team had cobbled together a winning percentage of 37% by virtue of its 161 wins, 254 losses, and 19 ties. Despite this atrocious record, Mr. Rooney kept his good-natured disposition, and his blue collar sensibilities. As the league was gaining popularity and given the economics of the league, Rooney grew more wealthy, Rooney did not give in to the material trappings of success. He built Three Rivers Stadium in the neighborhood where he spent his entire life--the rugged and increasingly dangerous neighborhood of the North Side. Until his dying day, he walked to work in the stadium from his modest home a few blocks away. As age was taking its toll on this lovable loser, Art Rooney gradually turned over the day to day operations of his team to his son Dan. In January 1969, as Dan was interviewing people for his head coaching job, he was stunned by a young assistant coach that was aware of so much about his team. Chuck Noll was the defensive coach for the 1968 Baltimore Colts who, one day earlier, had suffered one of the most stunning upset losses in the history of the league. The icy cool and understated demeanor of Noll fit well with the Rooneys, and the disposition of the people of his adopted city.

Noll was meticulous in his preparation, thoughtful in his interactions with players, and focused completely on his objectives. He was brutally candid with his players and boringly consistent in his emotionality or, more precisely, lack thereof. Andy Russell, a standout linebacker on the lousy teams remembers that first camp with Noll when he gathered the players together to tell them, that their problem was not their attitude or that they didn't work hard enough, it was just that the players on the team were not talented enough and that he would have to get rid of most of them. Andy said that their were only 5 players who heard that speech that were on the 1974 Super Bowl team. Noll was an intellectual that was interested in facts and expected results. In that first season, he was 1 and 13; in his second season he was 5 and 9; and in his third season in 1971, he was 6 and 8. Needless to say, no other ownership would have had the patience to stay with Noll after three consecutive losing seasons. Can you imagine Jerry Jones, Dan Snyder or George Steinbrenner sticking with a coach after 3 consecutive losing seasons? It is to laugh! But Noll had laid the groundwork with the owners, promising them no immediate results and demonstrating that he would build his team brick by brick, or girder by girder through the draft. In 1972, Noll drafted Penn State talent Franco Harris. That year they were 11 and 3, and we were on our way.

As the prospects for our local team were getting brighter after several generations of humiliating losses, the economics of our region were turning for the worst. During the decade of the 1970's as the country went through high inflation, recessions, and stagflation, Pittsburgh and its surrounding areas were feeling the tip of the spear in increasingly competitive global markets. Austrian and German steelmakers lead in basic oxygen furnace steelmaking and in electric arc furnaces, which substantially cut capital costs in the manufacture of steel. Combined with their continued significant cost advantage in labor, they were aggressively taking market share away from the domestic producers. I was the son of a local merchant in a small town outside of Pittsburgh that included substantial manufacturing plant from both U.S. Steel and Bethlehem Steel. In the early 1970's, I observed how fathers who were millworkers and coal miners would bring their sons to their employers and get them high paying jobs right after they graduated high school--just as their fathers had done for them. It seemed like a natural course of events--like inertia. By the mid-1970's, you started to hear how U.S. Steel (X) and Bethlehem Steel (BS) were starting to push back on labor demands, as they continued to be undercut in global markets by Germans and Japanese. In January 1975, after 42 years of atrocious play, the Pittsburgh Steelers won the Super Bowl. As the locker room ceremony where Pete Roselle, the NFL Commissioner, awarded the trophy to Art Rooney unfolded, there wasn't a dry eye in any household in southwestern PA. After 42 years of battle, a weathered, weary and frail old man was given a gift that all men with quiet ambitions crave--REDEMPTION! Recognition for excellence in your field of endeavor, and the manner in which you achieved it in a life well lived.

During the latter half of the 1970's you began to hear about X and BS closing down old blast furnaces in a number of different areas and coal mines being shut for the lack of productivity. Men in their late forties and early fifties who had spent their entire working lives in mills and mines were faced with gut-wrenching and earth-shattering changes in their world outlook. Many who for generations had lived and died in the same borough or township were now being asked to move thousands of miles away to ply their trade or be forced to learn a new one. In January 1976, the Pittsburgh Steelers won another Super Bowl. As I was growing up, some of my friends who used to go on exotic vacations in the summer no longer did stuff like that. Some of my friends wouldn't see their dads except on the weekends as they worked during the week at the Baltimore plant or others. Some of my friends moved away.

The millworkers and miners whose expressions and mannerisms exuded confidence earlier in the decade belied an insecurity and anxiety later in the decade. In a region where the stoic and gruff exterior was the height of all virtues, fear began to creep in as we were all uncertain as to what the future may bring. The men of the mill and of the mine that were larger than life from my vantage point, seemed powerless in their ability to affect change amidst this growing adversity. From Monday through Saturday, everything seemed out of our control and we were at the mercy of whatever the hostile universe would meet out against us. BUT ON SUNDAY, we were a part of the most physically dominant football team in the league. They played football the way we once lived our lives--with determination, grit, and an unwavering commitment to success. The Pittsburgh Steelers didn't try to finesse you, or trick you. On any given play, everyone knew what the Steelers were going to do. It was up to the opponents to try and stop them, and more often than not, the opponent failed.

The region continued to deteriorate economically through the end of the 1970's. In January 1979 and 1980, the Pittsburgh Steelers won two more Super Bowls--doubling the number held by any other team. I remember Pete Roselle's remark as he handed his fourth trophy to Art Rooney in January 1980 and I quote, "We gotta stop meeting like this." And they did.

By 1980, the dye had been cast for the region and the Steelers. Intransigence by both labor and management had sealed the fate of the steel industry for the northeast quadrant of America--now routinely referred to as the rust belt. In 1983, when U.S. Steel promised to shut down the local plant if labor would not agree to concessions, labor voted down the concessions and 6 months later the plant was closed forever. In 1992, Bethlehem Steel announced that it would shutdown its local operations and would file for bankruptcy within a decade. US Steel largely avoided bankruptcy through a fortuitous acquisition of a steel facility in the Czech Republic. The outsized profits generated from that plant allowed the company to restructure and survive, albeit at a fraction of its former industrial might.

As a related consequence, a diaspora from southwestern PA ensued as people left to seek better lives in more promising locales, including myself. However, everyone I have ever run into from that region has a fervent love for the inherent beauty of those rolling, forest -covered hills, those winding streams, and those blindingly colorful, crisp fall days that only occur in my beloved Pennsylvania. And nobody has forgotten the gift that we were given during those economically tragic times by the Pittsburgh Steelers. The gift of hope. That you can lead a good and virtuous life and still come out ahead, just like Art Rooney did. Sometimes, nice guys do finish first, if they are committed enough to what they do and love the process of what they are doing. No, Pittsburghers never forgot their Steelers. By the mid-1990's, even the announcers covering games had to comment on the disproportionate attendance of Steelers fans at 'away' games. Owners in Baltimore and Cleveland and even San Diego had to go to increasing lengths to keep their team from feeling like visitors in their own stadium when the Steelers were in town. Nine players from those seventies teams made it into the Hall of Fame, and today they are the princes of the city. Joe Greene, Mel Blount, Jack Ham, Jack Lambert, Franco Harris, Lynn Swann, John Stallworth, etc. are revered by all who witnessed that era from the environs of that declining region.

A fan never could love a team more, and no team ever symbolized the character of a region the way the Pittsburgh Steelers, owners Art and Dan Rooney, and Coach Chuck Noll did.

This post is my ode to the City of Pittsburgh, the region of my birth and all the amazingly good and virtuous people who came out of it.

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