Think about the Pittsburgh Steelers for a moment. Close your eyes if you like. What do you see? It's a pretty clear image, isn't it? You see those black and gold uniforms. You see howling defense. You see a running back powering through the middle, maybe led by a bruising fullback. You see a big and sturdy quarterback who doesn't so much throw the ball as muscle it down the field. You see those golden Terrible Towels spinning throughout the stadium. You see those black helmets, with the single golden stripe, and the Steelers logo -- a white circle, the word "Steelers," and the three astroid shapes taken from the logo of U.S. Steel -- on one side of the helmet, always one side.
Now think about something else: Think if you can name a single other team in American sports that has stood for exactly the same thing for the last 40 years.
My first thought was the New York Yankees. They are our most enduring team. Only, no, they're really not. The Yankees were blah in the early 1970s, then they went through the turbulent and successful Bronx Zoo years, then they went through the bloated 1980s and early '90s, and only when Joe Torre and Derek Jeter arrived on the scene at the same time did the Yankees become the team we think of today. That was 15 years ago, and 15 years is an eternity in sports. But the Steelers have been doing their thing for 40.
The Boston Celtics? People might forget that the Celtics went through a two-decade lull when they did not reach the finals and went through eight consecutive losing seasons. Alabama football? No, any Alabama fan will tell you the Crimson Tide has gone through many different phases and adjustments since the Bear passed on. North Carolina basketball? The Tar Heels have been numbingly consist, but even they went through a trying and confusing period in the years after Dean Smith stepped down.
Think about all the rise and falls in sports over 40 years. The Kansas City Royals were a consistent power from 1976-85. The Green Bay Packers had a 20-plus year lull after Lombardi when they hired five coaches, started eight main quarterbacks and made the playoffs twice. The Montreal Canadians have not won a Stanley Cup in approaching 20 years.
One team that has been consistent over 40 years is the Los Angeles Lakers. They have been good almost every year. But even they have changed personalities, from Jerry West to Magic and Showtime to the Shaq Attack to Kobe's World. They Lakers are not a testament to constancy as much as they are a testament to changing with the times, the way only the best organizations can.
But the Steelers are something else. They don't change with the times. They bend time to their own personality. If someone had gone into a coma in 1974, the first year the Steelers won the Super Bowl, and then come to consciousness in 2011, he would not recognize much of our world. He would be left breathless by the role of computers and high definition television and 24-hour news channels and the advances in medicine and the look of cars and these magical devices called cell phones. But he would recognize the Pittsburgh Steelers.
"I've had concussions," Pittsburgh's Steelers linebacker James Harrison said this week at the Super Bowl. "It wasn't bad enough to where I needed to come out of the game. I'll put it like this: If you don't tell them, they don't know unless you get knocked out and you're sitting there wit h your arm stuck in the air."
Yes, the man definitely would recognize the Pittsburgh Steelers.
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Let's try putting a few numbers out there just so we can get a little perspective. The Steelers, after years and years of incompetence and buffoonery, made the playoffs in 1972 under a fourth-year head coach named Chuck Noll. The team had eight consecutive losing seasons leading into 1972, and nobody outside Pittsburgh (and few in it) really thought Noll knew what he was doing. But by '72, the team that would win four Super Bowls was more or less in place. The quarterback was the young Terry Bradshaw. The running back was the talented and mercurial Franco Harris.* The defense was built around Mean Joe Greene and Jack Ham.
*Harris' college coach, Joe Paterno, best summed up Harris when he said that when you told other players to run through a brick wall, they'd run through that brick wall. If you told Franco to run through a brick wall, he'd feel the thing for cracks.
Two years later, the Steelers would draft Lynn Swann, Jack Lambert, John Stallworth and Mike Webster -- four Hall of Famers -- in the first five rounds and would start winning Super Bowls immediately.
OK, since 1972, the Steelers have rather famously won six Super Bowls, and they are playing in their eighth Super Bowl on Sunday. They have made the playoffs 25 out of 39 seasons. They have been Top 9 in defense 28 times, and No. 1 in fewest yards allowed seven times. they have had six different backs run for 1,000 yards, not including Frank Pollard who ran for 991. They have had many different quarterbacks, but in some ways they're all just attempts to reincarnate the big, strong, right-handed power-thrower Terry Bradshaw.
Bradshaw: 6-foot-3, 215 pounds.
Mark Malone: 6-foot-3, 223 pounds.
Bubby Brister: 6-foot-3, 205 pounds.
Neil O'Donnell: 6-foot-3, 228 pounds.
Tommy Maddox: 6-foot-4, 220 pounds.
Ben Roethlisberger: 6-foot-5, 240 pounds.
This list does not include Kordell Stewart, who did not really fit into the Steelers mold, though he had running back Jerome Bettis to bruise defenders and a savage defense to intimidate offenses and terminate drives, so everyone sort of put up with the whole Slash experiment for a while. Anyway, at least he was right-handed. Imagining a left-handed quarterback in Pittsburgh is like imagining Derek Jeter at shortstop for the Red Sox.
The consistency has been overwhelming. The Steelers too went through a championship lull -- they did not win a Super Bowl between 1979 and 2005 -- but even so they also never changed. Chuck Noll coached out his years, trying unsuccessfully the last decade or so to rebuild the Steel Curtain he had built in the 1970s. The team never got too bad, but never got too good again either. Then Bill Cowher came in and nothing really changed except results. The Steelers were still about the same things, about great defense, about power running, about big quarterbacks who could throw the deep ball. Only they started making the playoffs consistently again.
Cowher had a couple of lulls in his career too -- and there was even a time (during the Kordell Stewart years) -- when he will admit losing a little bit of touch with what had made the Steelers great. He got back to it and started making the playoffs again and won a Super Bowl.
When Cowher stepped down, Mike Tomlin stepped up to coach and he has said that he really didn't talk with Cowher. He had to be his own man. But being his own man meant building a team just like Cowher's teams, just like Noll's teams, teams so Pittsburgh that they should film their games in the static-filled color of 1970s television.
"A study of history is a window into the future," Tomlin says. And this: "You can learn so many lessons, formally and informally, from the experiences of those who have come before us, particularly the 1970s Steelers."
This sort of consistency is not just breathtaking ... it's unique. Let's face it: Times change in sports. Styles go out of style. Look along the side of the road in football and you can see discarded relics, the wishbone, the option, the run and shoot, the flex defense, on and on and on. Don Shula survived to become the all-time winning coach not because he stayed the same but because he changed, because he coached the exceptionally boring power game offense of the 1972 Dolphins and the high-flying, throw every-down free-for-all offense of Dan Marino. The America's Team Cowboys that won in the 1970s little resembled in style or substance the Jimmy Johnson Cowboys of the 1990s.
But the Steelers are the Steelers are the Steelers.
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So, now we have to ask: Why? The Steelers are not immune to the many changes in the league, the rule changes, the salary structure changes, the passage of time. Why have they been able to power through all that and stay the same? There is talk about stability. The Steelers have only had three coaches over the 40 years. The team has been owned by a Rooney the whole time. And that undoubtedly plays a role.
But there's something else, too. I think it has something to do with the city of Pittsburgh. Yes, I tend to romanticize rust-belt cities, having grown up In Cleveland. I don't think cities like Pittsburgh or Cleveland or Buffalo are any better than anywhere else. But they're just as good.
And, I guess I believe, there really is something about growing up in harsh winters and blue collar neighborhoods with houses crammed next to each other that affects your perspective. In 2009, I went to the AFC Championship Game in Pittsburgh -- and as I've written before the Kittanning Firemen's Band playing at halftime. They weren't in any noticeable uniforms. They just played. That to me said Pittsburgh. There was no desire for some B-list rock band that once had a hit. Frankly there was no desire to have an A-list superstar who wanted to get a little TV time. There was no need for Pittsburgh to put on airs. The Kittanning Firemen's Band was plenty good.
There's something about people knowing who they are ... this is part of the wonder and magic of the Green Bay Packers too. The Steelers' owner is Dan Rooney, who of course is the son of Art Rooney, who owned the team for the four Super Bowl years. He is Pittsburgh through and through. He lives a low-profiled life in Pittsburgh. The Steelers players say he shows up to practice pretty much every day. "I think there are a lot of teams in the NFL that don't see their owners at all," Steelers defensive end Brett Keisel said. "We see him every day. I get to give him a hug every day. He gets to yank on my beard -- Dan Rooney calls me Santa."
"Well, it's blue collar in Pittsburgh," Keisel continues. "Pittsburghers lean on each other. They care about each other. We care about the city. ... (Rooney) is one of us."
It's easy to let this sort of thing get blown out of proportion -- everyone wants to believe they live in a special place, and every place is special if you get to know it. Pittsburgh is a great town and a great football place but so is Kansas City and Cincinnati and Cleveland and Seattle and Detroit and their teams have not won a Super Bowl in more than 40 years.
What seems different is that Pittsburgh really does seem to love its Steelers exactly the way they are. They don't want the Steelers to change. It's so rare for a city and team to be in harmony, for them to value the same things, for them to see each other and see themselves all at once. When Nebraska and Oklahoma football became passing teams, it was jarring for fans, but they mostly accepted this as part of the changing times and the price of being competitive. Steelers fans have never made that bargain. It helps that the team wins ... but Pittsburgh has not won every year. They just haven't shown up after a losing season suddenly running some goofy spread offense or playing some soft bend-but-don't-break defense.
In the end, it's about running the ball hard, it's about sacking the quarterback, it's about blocking up front, it's about making receivers afraid to catch the ball over the middle, it's about rolling around in the pocket and making a play. Lots of teams actually want to play this way. But in Pittsburgh, you HAVE to play that way because that's the way the Steelers have played for a long time. And that's what the fans expect. They don't want it to change. The interesting thing is that Pittsburgh as a city has made changed dramatically. The city has largely moved away from steel and now focuses a lot on technology and banking. The downtown has a different look. Many people don't realize this, but there is not a single steel mill left in the actual city of Pittsburgh.
That means that the Pittsburgh Steelers have changed even less than Pittsburgh itself. And, best I can tell, that's exactly how people in Pittsburgh want it.