It was a swell setting for a renaissance: the Fairmont hotel in new Orleans, a 15-story Victorian palace with golden columns and majestic chandeliers. On this Friday 20 years ago, Jan. 9, 1970, a football franchise with a 37-year run of bad luck faced a coin flip for its future.
In two days the last AFL-NFL Super Bowl would be played, between the Kansas City Chiefs and the Minnesota Vikings. The following autumn the two leagues would merge into an expanded NFL, None of that much concerned the management of the Pittsburgh Steelers on this day. Their team was coming off a 1-13 season, as were the Chicago Bears, and representatives of both were in a ballroom at the Fairmont to toss a coin to determine who would pick first in the 1970 draft of college seniors, which would be held 18 days later.
The first choice on everyone's draft board was a bubbly small-college quarterback who could snap off 70-yard line-drive spirals: Terry Bradshaw of Louisiana Tech. There was no clear No. 2 pick. George Halas, the boss of the once-formidable Bears, had dispatched his son-in-law, Ed McCaskey, to represent Chicago at the coin flip. Club vice-president Dan Rooney and coach Chuck Noll represented the Steelers, and the flip was more important to them.
Pittsburgh was a franchise that had never excelled. The Steelers' ambitions in the 1940s had been thwarted when coach Jock Sutherland dropped dead in 1948 after the first season in which Pittsburgh had ever made the playoffs. In three years of the late '50s, the Steelers had waived rookie quarterback Johnny Unitas, picked somebody named Gary Glick over Lenny Moore in a bonus draft and selected Len Dawson over Jim Brown in the regular draft. Instead of entering the '60s with a backfield of Unitas, Brown and Moore, they had 33-year-old Bobby Layne handing to Tom Tracy and Larry Krutko. In '64, the Steelers' misguided wheeler-dealer of a coach, Buddy Parker, traded their first-round draft choice in '65 to the Bears for second- and fourth-round choices in '64. The Steelers took defensive ends Jim Kelly and Ben McGee with their choices; the Bears took Dick Butkus with theirs. This was a franchise that had been in existence since 1933 and had never won a playoff game. It needed Bradshaw. The Steelers' scouts believed that another quarterback like him might not come along for 10 or 15 years.
January 22, 1990
Noll sat on the edge of the stage in the ballroom, his feet dangling off the side. Rooney stood on the stage with commissioner Pete Rozelle, making small talk until McCaskey entered the room. McCaskey was good friends with Art Rooney Sr., the Steelers' venerable owner. Art Sr. had always preached that one ought never to call a coin flip himself, but to defer to the other party, because then the pressure would be on the other guy to make the right call. (In matters of luck, this counted as logic.) But McCaskey knew that Rozelle and Dan Rooney were close friends, and so he figured he'd better make the call. Following his dad's credo, Rooney said to ahead, you call it." McCaskey said, "Heads." Rozelle threw a 1921 silver dollar a foot in the air, and it landed flat on the floor. "Tails it is," Rozelle announced.
"McCaskey, you bum!" shouted Jack Griffin, a writer for the Chicago Sun-Times.
Rozelle gave Rooney the winning coin. That night, Rooney and his wife went to dinner with Noll and his wife. "Here," Rooney said, handing the coin to Noll. "This is the beginning of good things to come."
Remarkable things, actually. In football, nothing is built to last. The 1980s were a testament to that. Look at the one-year wonders in the decade, like the New York Giants and the Bears. Only the San Francisco 49ers were resistant to the short-timer syndrome. And even the 49ers, who on Jan. 28 will try to win their fourth Super Bowl since '81, were largely retooled as the decade went on. But the Steelers built a championship team in the early '70s that remained intact for eight years. They won four Super Bowls with essentially the same players. Twice they won Super Bowls back to back. From '72 to '79, they never lost more than five games in a year.
They were our football team, our singular team, for an era. And what better time than now to remember them? Twenty years ago this month they won the coin flip for Bradshaw. Fifteen years ago this month they won their first Super Bowl. Ten years ago this month they won their fourth. What a decade. What a run.
If you spent any time in Pittsburgh in the 1970s, locals say, you became a Steeler fan for life. "It wasn't just the won-lost of it," says Art Rooney Jr., who was the club's director of scouting until a purge of the scouting department after some bad drafts in the '80s. "It was just being there. I still feel it to this day: What a lucky person I am to have gone through it. This is corny, and you'll laugh at this. But it was like being in Camelot."
Chapter 1: Getting There
It all began with Bradshaw, at least chronologically. But there was one problem. He wasn't a machine. He was a workaholic, a worrywart, a Bible student and at times a stand-up comic. But he was not an immediate success. He drove himself nuts as a rookie trying to figure out the pro game, and along the way in that 1970 season, he threw six touchdown passes and 24 interceptions.
A few weeks ago Bradshaw, now a broadcaster for CBS Sports, explained how hard it was for him at the beginning. "By the middle of my first year I was a wreck," he said with real misery in his voice. "God, I was awful. And I didn't know how to handle it. I was giving the sportswriters what they wanted, or what I thought they wanted, off the field. What'll it be this week? You want the L'il Abner act? Or Billy Graham? Or Hee Haw? I could do 'em all. I was so screwed up."
Pause. Bradshaw was feeling it all again.
"The worst thing was, I lost my confidence," he said. "Totally. What's the worst thing that can happen to a writer? He gets a mental block. What's the worst thing that can happen to a quarterback? He loses his confidence. That's what happened to me. I lived in a little apartment out near the airport that first year and, God, it was horrible. What a nerd I was! I should have been out on the town, living the good life, but I couldn't. I would go home every night, and it was me and Johnny Carson. Pathetic. I'd think so much about it I'd start to cry. My confidence got so bad, I called my college coach and asked him to send me up some reels from my senior year, so I could try to get it back. He'd send me film after film, and I'd see myself snapping off beautiful throws. Then I'd go out and I just couldn't snap it off the same way anymore. I was trying to be Joe Namath, or anybody, instead of myself. To this day, my biggest regret is I never threw the ball as well in the NFL as I did in college."
While Bradshaw groped, the Steelers built. And they built so well that he didn't have to be great in a hurry. In fact he didn't become the focal point of the Pittsburgh offense until after the Steelers had won two Super Bowls. No, at the beginning the scouts were the key to Pittsburgh's rise.
In many organizations, then and now, scouts write their reports, answer questions if asked and then watch as the front-office people or the coaches make the personnel decisions. That wasn't the case with the Steelers. Noll had the final word on draft picks, but Art Jr. and the scouts could change his mind. "Chuck cared about what we thought," says Bill Nunn, a former football and basketball player for West Virginia State who was only the league's sixth full-time black scout when the Steelers hired him in 1969. "I remember talking to him that first year, and he told me, 'You were an athlete. I want you to go out and find me athletes.' "
Since 1950, Nunn had picked the nationally respected black-college all-star team for the Pittsburgh Courier, so he knew the black colleges intimately. "It was like an open market," Nunn says of the black schools. "Some teams did a little bit of scouting, but I always felt this was an untapped source, almost like Branch Rickey going into black baseball and finding all those players. The talent was sitting there." Other teams were tapping it, too; the Miami Dolphins, for example, drafted 10 black-college players from '69 to '71. The Steelers just tapped it better. Pittsburgh took 11 black-college draftees in Noll's first three years; it had taken none in the previous two years. In '68, Nunn went to Arkansas AM&N in Pine Bluff and saw a tall, quick, elastic band of a pass rusher, L.C. Greenwood. The Steelers took him in Round 10 of the '69 draft. In the fall of '70, Nunn went to Texas Southern in Houston and saw one of the meanest players he'd ever seen, defensive tackle Ernie Holmes. The Steelers picked him in Round 8. In the fall of '73, Nunn went to Alabama A&M in Huntsville and saw a graceful, if slightly slow, wide receiver, John Stallworth. The Steelers got him in Round 4.
The Stallworth selection illustrates a big reason why the Steelers became so successful: They weren't slaves to size and speed. And they were lucky. Of course, it wasn't so much raw luck as it was educated good fortune, and that good fortune characterized their drafts for five years running, from that coin flip in '70 through Pittsburgh's remarkable class of'74.
In 1971, the Steelers took wideout Frank Lewis of Grambling in Round 1. Although Art Jr. also liked Penn State linebacker Jack Ham, he figured they could get Ham in Round 2. But as the second round began, a couple of defensive coaches started promoting another linebacker who was still available, Phil Villapiano from Bowling Green. Art Jr. was insistent. On the draft-room blackboard, where he would write the names of each player Pittsburgh was considering, he wrote under Round 2: "Jack Ham." One of the coaches walked to the board and wrote, "Phil Villa-piano." "Hey, no one writes on this damn blackboard but me!" Rooney yelled. "I don't go in and tell you guys what plays to call. You don't tell me what to put on the blackboard." The Steelers picked Ham, who was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in '88.
In 1972 Pittsburgh still needed a workhorse running back. Noll liked 5'10" Robert Newhouse from Houston; the scouts favored Penn State's Franco Harris, who was 6'2". As a senior, Harris had taken a secondary role to Lydell Mitchell in the Nittany Lions' offense, and he had been suspended briefly by coach Joe Paterno before the Cotton Bowl that year for being late to practice. An attitude problem, some scouts said. Art Jr. and Blesto, the scouting combine of which the Steelers were a member, were sold on Harris, but Noll wasn't convinced.
George Young, now the general manager of the Giants and then a scout for the Colts, saw Art Jr. the day before the draft. Rooney was depressed because of the unresolved Newhouse-or-Harris debate. "Noll thinks Newhouse is going to be better than Franco," said Rooney.
Young said, "You tell him for me that that question was settled over 2,000 years ago when Socrates said, 'A good big man is better than a good little man any day.' "
Pittsburgh took Harris.
In 1974, Noll entered the draft with a large crush on Stallworth, and he wouldn't have minded spending a first-round choice to get him. The scouts wanted to take USC wide receiver Lynn Swann, despite Swann's relatively poor speed; he'd been timed at 4.65 in the 40 by Blesto. Swann was like one of his big-play successors, Jerry Rice of the 49ers. He couldn't get up for races against a watch, but he seemed to find something extra when a corner back was chasing him. Finally, in Swann's last timing by the Steeler scouts, he ran a 4.58, and Noll was convinced he was fast enough.
Four teams tied for the 20th draft choice that year, according to won-lost record. Pittsburgh lost one coin flip but won a second, versus the Dallas Cowboys, to get the 21st pick. The Cowboys later said that they would have taken Swann if they had picked 21st.
In the second round the Steelers made one of their oddest choices: Jack Lambert, a middle linebacker at Kent State. He weighed only 195 pounds. (Many wide receivers weigh that much today.) Tim Rooney, another of Art Sr.'s five sons and then a Pittsburgh scout, recalls visiting Kent State in 1973 and listening to the coaches rave about Lambert. "When I got to see him, I was shocked," Tim says. "He was freakish for a linebacker. I was thinking how I could sell this guy as an NFL linebacker. But as I watched films, his productivity and determination kept coming through." Art Jr. went to scout Lambert himself. The Kent State team was working out in a gravel parking lot because of bad weather, and Lambert made a diving try at a tackle and came up bloody. "He's picking these cinders out, and he doesn't give a damn," Art Jr. says.
On draft day, two conflicts arose in the second round. Another prominent, and regular-sized, linebacker was available, All-America Matt Blair of Iowa State, and some of the Pittsburgh staff argued that the Steelers should take him instead of Lambert. Then there was Noll's regard for Stallworth. Pittsburgh had traded away its third-round pick, and 36 choices would be made before the Steelers would have another crack at Stallworth.
Noll turned to Nunn. "Will Stall-worth be there in the fourth?"
Nunn said, "He'll be there." He was sweating because he had seen scouts from two other teams at Stall-worth's last college game, in which he had caught 13 passes. Nunn sat in the draft room, thinking, "This is a huge gamble."
The Steelers took Lambert.
Noll, according to Art Jr., told the scouts, "You guys blew it. He [Stall-worth] will be gone." They had a two-hour wait before their next pick. When their choice finally arrived, Stallworth was still on the board. Nunn stopped sweating. "We got lucky," he says.
On its second pick of the fourth round, Pittsburgh chose UCLA defensive back Jim Allen, who became a special-teams contributor for four years. Then, in the fifth round, the Steelers selected Wisconsin center Mike Webster, who weighed all of 225. He ran a 5.3 40. "He was what you'd call a computer reject," Art Jr. says. There were bigger and faster centers in Pittsburgh high schools. But the scouts had seen films of Webster from a postseason all-star game in which he had manhandled a top defensive line prospect. The Steelers gambled again. Webster eventually gained 30 pounds and anchored Pittsburgh's offensive line for 14 years.
Five rounds: Swann, Lambert, Stallworth, Webster. Twenty-four Pro Bowl appearances. Sixteen Super Bowl rings. Four potential Hall of Famers (Lambert and Swann are finalists for election this year). "Maybe the best draft ever," says Bill Walsh, former coach of the 49ers.
A postscript: One of Nunn's best friends was Willie Jeffries, the coach at South Carolina State, a predominantly black school. One of Jeffries's players was an undersized linebacker, Donnie Shell, who Nunn thought would be a safety in the pros. When Shell wasn't picked in the draft, Nunn phoned Jeffries, extolling the virtues of Pittsburgh's defense and the opportunity it could provide Shell. The Denver Broncos and Houston Oilers also invited Shell to training camp. Shell asked Jeffries what he should do. Jeffries advised him. to go to Pittsburgh. Shell went.
Make that 29 Pro Bowls.
Chapter 2: Being There
When Dan Radakovich was hired to coach the offensive line of the Steelers in 1974, he inherited the smallest group of offensive linemen (by unofficial reckoning) in the NFL. The two guards, Gerry Mullins and Jim Clack, started each season weighing about 240 but would be worn down to the mid-220-pound range by December. The average weight of the seven offensive linemen who got significant playing time that year was 247 before the season. Their average by season's end was closer to 237.
Amazing. It's been only 15 years since the Super Bowl champion had offensive linemen weighing 240. A typical NFL line today averages around 270. "We must have had the only team ever with a running back [Harris] bigger than his blockers," says Mullins, exaggerating only slightly.
Late in the 1974 season Radakovich watched Clack and Mullins weigh in. One weighed 222, the other 218. Radakovich looked ashen. "This is awful," he told them. "You guys have got to start eating more."
"People think those Steeler teams wanted small offensive linemen," says Radakovich, now the defensive coordinator of the Browns. "That's a crock. We just brought a bunch of guys to training camp, and I kept the best I had." And he used every coaching trick in the book to help them. Actually, he put some of those tricks into the book.
•He thought his guys were getting thrown around too much by defenders, so he had equipment manager Tony Parisi's mother-in-law tailor all the linemen's jerseys so tight that defensive players wouldn't be able to grab the cloth. For extra measure, Radakovich made sure that the jerseys were stuck to the shoulder pads with double-sided tape.
•In those days, offensive linemen were allowed to use their hands, fists closed and within the plane of their bodies, to push off defensive players, so long as their arms were not fully extended. Radakovich instructed his linemen to fire out their fists with their arms at full extension, believing the officials wouldn't call a penalty. The officials didn't. Radakovich had his linemen wear boxing workout gloves—the kind fighters use when working on the speed bag—to protect their hands when they fired out. Noll made the gloves mandatory. Today they are common on NFL teams.
•Radakovich introduced the concept of area blocking: A lineman didn't always go one-on-one with a defender but rather pushed him to a fellow blocker if the defensive player stunted. And he introduced the pulling center to the Steelers.
•Radakovich knew his linemen had to be very quick laterally for the Steelers to execute their rushing game, which relied on trap blocking, so he introduced lateral-movement drills used by a friend at Upper St. Clair High in the south hills of Pittsburgh. Radakovich's practices were the most physically demanding the Steeler linemen had ever endured.
By 1974, Noll had assembled a staff of teaching coaches: Bud Carson, George Perles and Woody Widenhofer on defense; Radakovich, Dick Hoak and Lionel Taylor on offense. "I've always thought the key to the Steelers' success, the underrated part of their success, was coaching," says Bob Trumpy, the former tight end for the Cincinnati Bengals who is now a commentator for NBC. "Everyone has built them up over the years to be these monsters who just overpowered people. Hell, they hardly had anybody over 225. I remember how great they were at making adjustments. One year we figured I could slip past their line. So we'd do some play action, and I'd run a route at Lambert. Ken Anderson would just float the ball over Lambert. It worked for a while. They saw what we were doing and just widened their line. I could get free, but I'd have to run way wide, and by that time Joe Greene was in Anderson's face."
The defense carried the Steelers into the playoffs in 1972 and '73. The offense, behind this pint-sized line, put them over the top in '74. Pittsburgh quarterbacks were sacked only 18 times in 14 games that year. The Steelers ran for 173 yards a game. In the AFC Championship Game and in the Super Bowl, they outrushed the Raiders and Vikings combined by an average of 10 yards to one: 473 to 46.
The most remarkable thing about those games—the first championship games of any kind the franchise had played—may have been that the Steelers were so confident. Before the game against Oakland for the conference title, Greenwood sat half-dressed in a tunnel outside the locker room, watching the NFC title game on a portable TV. He was asked what was up. "Just watching," he said, "to see who we play in the Super Bowl."
The Raiders were coming off a 28-26 win over the defending Super Bowl champ Dolphins and were playing at home. The left side of their offensive line, guard Gene Upshaw and tackle Art Shell, was headed for the Hall of Fame. But the right side of the Steeler defensive front, Holmes and Dwight White, was a wall. The Raiders rushed 21 times for 29 yards. Two weeks later, in the Super Bowl, Minnesota running back Dave Osborn rushed eight times for minus-one yard.
"There was a point, late in 1974, where—and you hear players talking about this now but never heard it back then—we were in what they call a zone," says Joe Greene, the former defensive tackle whom Pittsburgh drafted out of North Texas State in the first round in 1969. "We could just look at each other out there on the practice field, and everybody knew it. We weren't going to lose. There wasn't a chance."
Yet, in the AFC Central division, Pittsburgh faced the most difficult competition in the league. In 1975 the 12-2 Steelers edged the 11-3 Bengals for the division title and went on to win their second straight NFL championship. In '76, Pittsburgh and Cincinnati both went 10-4. In '77, Pittsburgh finished only a game up on the Bengals and the Oilers.
Walsh, who was Cincinnati's offensive coordinator from 1967 to '74, says that at the end of his tenure, and later, the Bengals spent most of their time in the off-season preparing for their two meetings the next fall with the Steelers. "It was obviously difficult to run with any consistency on them," Walsh says now. "If you tried to pass with a normal seven-step drop by the quarterback, you might get protection for a split second, but their defense was so physical it would knock the receivers off their routes. As a defense, it is clearly the best one I've ever seen. What we had some success with—and I stress some—was trying to match up [wide receiver] Isaac Curtis on Ham, or maybe Trumpy on Ham, and try to get them in man-to-man and have Anderson take a three-or five-step drop. But it was so draining preparing for them. God, what an absolute feeling of accomplishment when we'd get 300 yards on them."
"Our deal with them was to try to throw off our tendencies," says John Madden, who was then the coach of the Raiders. "If we were supposed to run, we'd pass. If we were supposed to pass, we'd run. But I remember what a great feeling it was to beat them. The year they were going for their third in a row, in 1976, Franco and Rocky Bleier were hurt in the playoff game before playing us, and we beat them, and there was a lot of talk about how we had won the game because their running backs were hurt. Well, the next year we played them right away in Pittsburgh. What a physical war it was. We won, and I think that's the best the Oakland Raiders ever were. Ever. But it took so much out of us. We ended up losing the conference championship game that year to Denver."
There was something about those Steeler teams, Greene, who is now Pittsburgh's defensive line coach, knows it, as does probably every other Steeler of that time. "I never appreciated how great we really were," says Mullins. "I played with half a dozen or so Hall of Famers."
"It's amazing how good we were," says Shell. "You don't know until you get out of the game how good it was."
Adds Lambert, "I never realized how great we were until I got out of the game.
"In the back of our old locker room, we had a sauna. We'd go back there after every game and have a couple of glasses of, uh, milk, and usually guys from the other team would come in and sit down and have a couple of glasses of milk with us. One time, Ken Anderson came in and sat down with us. I remember exactly what he said: 'God, you guys are awesome.' We didn't have to say anything."
Lambert, now a deputy game warden in western Pennsylvania, discounts the idea that the Steelers won because they were more dedicated to the sport and more eager to play. They won, he says, because they had more talent than anyone else of their era.
"The reason we won was not because we were so close and so committed," says linebacker Andy Russell, who played on the title teams of the 1970s as well as on the poor Steeler teams of the late '60s. "It was because we were so talented. We had 13 guys in the Pro Bowl, or some such number. I mean, how can you not win? We had an all-star team."
And they'd only just begun. The day the Steelers won their first Super Bowl, their average age was 25.2.
Chapter 3: Staying There
After each of the Steelers' Super Bowl victories, Noll and Dan Rooney arranged to have the players' championship rings delivered by early June. If the manufacturers couldn't promise that, they were told not to bid for the contract. "Chuck wanted all that stuff out of the way before we got to camp," says Rooney.
Did it work?
"Go out in our lobby and look at the trophies," he says.
Those Steeler teams bridged two eras. In the early 1970s, says Russell, "nobody made any money, so forget money. The badge of courage was to play hurt." By the late '70s, says Rooney, "we were into the Me Generation. You immediately heard money when you drafted somebody."
In 1977—"our distraction year," Shell calls it—Lambert, Holmes and cornerback Mel Blount held out during training camp for new contracts, dividing the city and the team. All eventually signed new deals and were back in time for the start of the season, but Noll says the Steelers never recovered their focus that year. Losing to Oakland and Houston in the first four weeks didn't help. Pittsburgh was eliminated in the first round of the playoffs, at Denver.
Still, at training camp the following year, Noll didn't change a thing. If anything would help the Steelers get back to the Super Bowl, he believed, it was consistency.
"Words are overplayed," Noll says now. "But words are a beginning. Every year, I just thought that zeroing in on the job at hand was important. When I came here, in 1969, I thought the past was a distraction to this organization. Everybody thought of 40 years of not winning. We had to block that out. That lesson was just as important when we won. Each year, I told them that nothing they did last year mattered."
There was another small bit of good fortune in 1978. NFL owners, prompted by the defensive dominance of the Steelers and Raiders, changed the rules to prevent defensive contact with receivers five yards past the line of scrimmage. The changes came at an ideal time for Pittsburgh.
Bradshaw says the team slipped in 1977 because it was putting in a more diverse offense. "I was biting at the bit," he says. "I wanted to open it up." The coaching staff installed more plays to take advantage of Stallworth's skills. Harris, though still a 1,000-yard rusher, no longer carried the offensive burden. At the same time, the defense had stopped dominating opponents the way it had in '75 and '76, although it was probably still the league's best. "We were in a transition period," Bradshaw says. "One unit was going down, one up." The next year, with the rule changes, the transition was complete.
Bradshaw, who was able to accept the restraints of the Harris-led offense through the mid-1970s, opened up. He had averaged 20 passes a game in '74 and '75. In '78 and '79—when Pittsburgh won its third and fourth Super Bowls—he averaged 26. The running game, which accounted for 64% of the Steelers' offensive yardage in '76, was responsible for just 46% in '78 and 42% in '79. Again, that Steeler luck: Who knows how well they would have fared if the league hadn't removed the restraints on the passing game?
Willing players helped too. The Steelers began the 1978 season with consecutive 11-point wins over the Buffalo Bills and the Seattle Sea-hawks. Then they went on the road to Cincinnati, where they had always had trouble. The night before the game, as was his custom, Shell took a film projector to his room. He studied the Bengals' goal fine offense. When it got inside the three, Shell noticed, Cincinnati liked to pull the right guard and fill that hole with a diving fullback. The other back would then try to sweep in for a touchdown. Shell figured if he saw the same formation the next day, he would dive in the hole before the fullback filled it, knock down the guard and rely on his mates to swallow up the ballcarrier. The next day the Bengals had the ball in a goal line situation. The play developed just as Shell had envisioned it—and ended with running back Archie Griffin being tackled in the backfield for a three-yard loss. Cincinnati settled for a field goal. The Steelers won 28-3.
They won seven in a row to start the season. By the time they got to the Super Bowl, against Dallas, they had the 1974 feeling back. "The Friday before the game, Chuck had to stop practice," says Shell. "We were incredibly ready, and he didn't want to ruin it. He said, 'That's enough. We're ready.' " The Steelers beat Dallas 35-31. "We haven't peaked yet," Noll said after the game.
But they had. Or they were very close to it. Bradshaw was entering his 10th year; his backs, Harris and Bleier, their eighth and 10th, respectively. Greene. Greenwood, Ham, White and Blount would all be 30 or older that year. At camp before the 1979 season, Stallworth wondered aloud, "How can we get back what we had last season?" Once more, they could. They won four midseason games by an average margin of 26 points, and they beat the Rams 31-19 in their last Super Bowl appearance.
"I always thought one of the reasons we were good was because of competition," says Stallworth, who today owns an aerospace research and engineering firm in Huntsville. "Swannie and I were friends, but the fact that we were competing put a barrier between us. I wanted to make the big play; he wanted to make the big play. I was ticked off at times early in my career because I felt Bradshaw was forcing the ball to him when I'd be open. The competition was the same at other positions. L.C. and Dwight [White] wanted to be known as great players. Every linebacker had to play well to live up to the level of play there."
Yet the competition never seemed to poison the atmosphere. Noll and many of the players think that the old man, Art Sr., who died in 1988 at age 87, fostered the harmony that generally characterized those years on the Steelers. During the player strike in the summer of'74, Lambert and Mullins were working a picket line at the end of a road outside the Steelers' camp when Art Sr. drove up and handed them a six-pack of beer. "Thought you fellows might be awful hot out here," he told them.
It was the custom for Art Sr. to get a large suite in team hotels on the road. He would sometimes grumble about his accommodations—not that they weren't good enough, but that they were too good. On the day before the opening game of the 1979 season, against the Patriots in Foxboro, Mass., Rooney was walking from his suite to the lobby when he noticed a priest and some very well-dressed middle-aged people gathered in a standard room, with two double beds. Rooney stuck his head in amiably, as he often did, to find out what was up. A wedding, he was told. These people were about to be married in this room. "I've got a big room I'm not using," he said. "This room's too small for a wedding. Use mine." He took them to the room and gave them the key, and they got married.
According to Bleier, one reason for the Steelers' success was "that there wasn't a jerk on that team. And I think a lot of the way we acted stemmed from the top."
By the time they had won their fourth championship, however, the Steelers were getting old—and immensely popular. Twenty-one of them made national commercials in the late 1970s. Bradshaw and Greene were in a Burt Reynolds movie. Bradshaw went on a national tour for Terry Bradshaw Peanut Butter.
"After that, we just weren't that good anymore," says Bradshaw. "We didn't dominate. We were old. And personally, I was tired. God, you win four Super Bowls in six years, and it's like. I don't want to get up for Buffalo anymore. I got to training camp after making so much money that off-season, and I just wanted to rest. I needed a break."
Bradshaw played through the 1983 season. Lambert ended his career in '84. Stallworth and Shell stayed on until after the '87 season, which was Greene's first year as the defensive line coach. By then, they all noticed how times had changed. "Sometimes I'd see Joe just off by himself, walking on the sidelines or something," says Shell. "I'd say, 'Joe, what's wrong?' He'd tell me he wanted his guys to be the best they could be. He wanted them to have that drive we had. I'd tell him, 'Joe, guys are different now. There are no more Joe Greenes.' "
So humanness and age and the 1980s and bad drafts finally caught up to the Steelers. They fell to earth.
"What a great time it was," says Bradshaw of the Steeler era. "What we had was an undeniable hatred of losing. We despised losing! Woe be to the fool coming into our stadium Sunday! We could not and would not accept a loss! We laughed and giggled and had fun playing, but we had the fangs and the blood and the slobber, too. We wanted it, Jack!"
Swann (88) and Stallworth were slow—but almost unstoppable. They were two of the '74 picks who added up to, says Walsh, "the best draft ever."
"There was a point," says Greene (75), "where we could just look at each other and everybody knew we weren't going to lose. There wasn't a chance."
"To this day," says Bradshaw, "my biggest regret is I never threw as well in the NFL as I did in college."
Dan Rooney succeeded his father as president in 75, alter the Steelers won their first Super Bowl trophy.
Nunn, who still scouts occasionally, remembers Noll's saying, "You were an athlete. Find me athletes."
Lambert, now a game warden, says the key to the Steelers was not desire or dedication, but talent.
"We had fun," says Bradshaw, now a TV analyst, "but we also had the fangs, the blood and the slobber."
Sometimes Greene gets discouraged as a coach because, says Shell, "there are no more Joe Greenes."
Stallworth, who owns an aerospace research firm, says his play was enhanced by competing with Swann.