The Pittsburgh NFL franchise was founded by Arthur J. “Art” Rooney, one of the most colorful owners in league history. Rooney was born and raised in the Pittsburgh area. An exceptional athlete as a young man, Rooney was recruited to play football for Notre Dame, baseball for the Boston Red Sox, and was invited to join the 1920 U.S. Olympic boxing team. Football was very popular in the Pittsburgh area. However, the state’s puritanical blue laws prohibited athletic competition on Sundays (the day the NFL played most of its games). In May of 1933, in anticipation of the repeal of the blue laws, Rooney applied for a franchise in the NFL. His application was approved on May 19 in exchange for a $2,500 franchise fee. The new team took the nickname “Pirates” in reference to their baseball landlords at Forbes Field. In the early years the football Pirates were NOT Rooney’s only (or even his primary) focus. His office at the Fort Pitt Hotel was shared with the Rooney-McGinley Boxing Club, which promoted prize fights. He also spent a good amount of his time handicapping and betting on horse racing. He once won approximately $300,000 in a single day of betting in 1936. One urban legend suggested that Rooney actually won the Steelers while betting on a horse race. While this story is not true, Rooney’s gambling skills unquestionably helped keep the franchise alive during the Great Depression.
Bidding wars for star players in the 1930’s made it difficult for teams like the football Pirates to compete with the Giants, the Bears or the Packers. In 1936, with Rooney’s active input on this issue, the NFL established a college football player draft. This gave less established teams a chance to compete. In 1938 the Pirates signed future U. S. Supreme Court justice Byron (“Whizzer”) White to a record football contract. However, White, a star back from Colorado, played just one year for Pittsburgh before leaving to play for the Detroit Lions. From 1933 to 1939 the football Pirates languished. Rooney believed a new nickname was in order. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette ran a contest to pick a new moniker. The name “Steelers” was selected, in homage to the city’s largest industry, steel production. The new nickname failed to improve Rooney’s football fortunes. From 1933 to 1969 the Pittsburgh franchise never won a division title, never won a playoff game and never got close to a championship. The Steelers were so bad that many considered Pittsburgh the NFL’s version of Siberia. In 1957, Quarterback Bobby Layne led the Detroit Lions to the NFL Championship(under head coach George Wilson, who later became Miami’s first head coach in 1966.) Two years later, the allegedly hard-drinking Layne, whose play had dropped-off just a bit, was shipped to Pittsburgh by the Lions. Layne was so incensed that he put “an eternal curse” on the Detroit Lions organization, saying “they’ll never win another NFL Championship.” 53 years later (in 2012) the Lions are still looking for their next title. In 1969, Pittsburgh’s fortunes improved dramatically with the hiring of new head coach Chuck Noll. That year, the Steelers drafted future Hall-of-Famer “Mean” Joe Greene. In 1970, future HOFers Terry Bradshaw and Mel Blount were selected. In 1971 Jack Ham was drafted and in ’72 Franco Harris joined the list of future Pittsburgh Hall-of-Famers. The Rooney family’s luck had changed forever. By the end of the 2011 season the Steelers had won more Super Bowl titles (six), and more AFC Championship games (eight) than any other team in NFL history. Their 20 division titles since 1972 dwarfs any other franchise. The Pittsburgh Steelers, the former “Siberia” of the NFL, are now considered the standard by which all other franchises are measured.
Back to Dec. 31, 1972. The 12-3 Pittsburgh Steelers had never been in a championship game. NEVER! They were here because of an amazing stroke of luck, now known as the “Immaculate Reception” with just 22 seconds left in their semi-final game against Oakland. This roster was filled with young and very talented players. And the Steelers were playing on their own home field. They and their home field crowd would NOT be intimidated by the undefeated Miami Dolphins. Pittsburgh’s offense was led by future Hall of Fame QB Terry Bradshaw. His top receivers in 1972 were the speedy duo of Ron Shanklin and Frank Lewis, who averaged 17.6 and 14.5 yards per reception, respectively. Rookie running back Franco Harris rushed for 1,055 yards and 5.6 yards per carry. Their star-studded defense featured “Mean” Joe Greene, L. C. Greenwood, Jack Ham, Andy Russell and Mel Blount.
The Dolphins, for their part, were one game away from making good on their promise to return to the Super Bowl. Don Shula, in particular, was fixated on this goal. He was the only man to lose two of the first six Super Bowls. Carroll Rosenbloom, the owner of the Colts when they were shocked by the Jets in Super Bowl III, predicted “Shula always freezes up in the big one,” Shula was determined to prove him wrong. Strategy-wise, Shula and his staff decided to emphasize what the Dolphins had done best during their first 15 games: run the football and mix-in some short to medium range passes. Schnellenberger, in particular, wanted to make more use of Miami’s tight ends. Defensively, Arnsparger believed holding Harris to under 100 yards was an absolute must, so he designed his defense accordingly.
The stage was set. Pittsburgh fans had waited 40 SEASONS to get to their FIRST conference championship game. The frenzied 52,000 Steeler fans at Three Rivers Stadium wanted a trip to the Super Bowl more than anything else in the world!! The game started well for the Steelers. Glen Edwards picked-off a Morrall pass and returned it to the Miami 48 yard line. Under Bradshaw’s guidance, the Steelers drove to Miami’s 3-yard line. Bradshaw faked a hand-off and ran a bootleg. Jake Scott crushed Bradshaw, hitting him low and flipping him in the air. Bradshaw landed on his head, fumbling the football into the end zone. Pittsburgh caught a huge break when lineman Gerry Mullins fell on the ball for a quick 7-0 Steelers’ lead. One series later, a very woozy Bradshaw would be forced to leave the game. His back-up, Terry Hanratty, would run the offense until Bradshaw returned well into the fourth quarter. Meanwhile, the Miami offense was stymied by Pittsburgh’s youthful defense. In the second quarter the Dolphins faced fourth down with 5 yards to go. Punter Larry Seiple, to the surprise of his own team mates, took off running toward the Pittsburgh goal line! He was finally stopped at the Steelers’ 12! Larry Csonka ran for 3 yards, then took a short pass from Morrall for the final 9 yards and the tying touchdown! Seiple’s daring had lifted the Dolphins to a 7-7 tie at halftime in the 1972 AFC Championship Game! In Miami’s halftime locker, Don Shula was not pleased with the offense. Earl Morrall was struggling. The offense needed a spark. Shula went over to Bob Griese and asked, “Do you think you’re ready?” —“Yeah, I’m ready,” replied the studious and confident Griese. It was a huge gamble. But it was a gamble Shula felt he needed to take. Except for a few plays against the Colts in week #14, Griese had seen no live action since being injured early in week #5 against San Diego. Meanwhile, in Pittsburgh’s locker, Chuck Noll was told Bradshaw was very iffy for the second half by Pittsburgh’s medical staff. Thus, Miami would start the third quarter with Bob Griese while Pittsburgh’s back-up, Terry Bradshaw, would continue as quarterback. Absolutely no one could have foreseen a a Griese vs. Hanratty showdown in this AFC Championship Game!
Pittsburgh received the second half kickoff and drove deep into Miami territory. Franco Harris was having some success in the running game. But, on 3rd and goal from the 7, a Hanratty pass misfired. Roy Gerela’s 14-yard field goal attempt was good and, for the second time in the game, Pittsburgh had the lead, this time by a 10-7 margin. Bob Griese trotted onto the field to begin a drive from the Miami 20. On third and 6 from the 24, Griese fired a strike to Paul Warfield who caught it in stride over the middle of the field. The speedy Warfield blew by a couple of defenders before being caught at the Steelers’ 24 yard line! This 52 yard pass play led to Jim Kiick’s 2 yard touchdown run and the Dolphins, on Griese’s first drive, had retaken the lead 14-10 midway through the third quarter. In the fourth quarter a Steelers’ drive got into Miami territory. When it stalled, Roy Gerela attempted a 49-yard field goal. Huge Maulty Moore BLOCKED Gerela’s kick and Miami recovered at Pittsburgh’s 49 yard line! Emphasizing the running game, Griese led the Dolphins deeper into Pittsburgh’s end of the field. A short pass to Marv Fleming kept the drive going. Finally, from the 3 yard line, dependable Jim Kiick burst through the line of scrimmage and SCORED his second touchdown of the second half! Center Jim Langer, who controlled “Mean” Joe Greene throughout most of the second half, played a key role in Miami’s ball-control clock-eating ground game. The Dolphins now had a 21-10 lead well into the fourth quarter.
Chuck Noll was running out of time and options. He decided to yank ineffective Terry Hanratty (who’d completed only 5 passes for 57 yards) and re-instated Terry Bradshaw. Bradshaw responded with a quick-strike touchdown drive, culminated by a 12 yard touchdown pass to Al Young. Would Pittsburgh pull their SECOND miracle comeback in two weeks?
The Steelers’ would have two more offensive chances. On the first series, Nick Buoniconti intercepted Bradshaw to stop the drive. The Dolphins eventually punted, giving Pittsburgh one final chance to end Miami’s Perfect Season and extend their own.
Could the “No Name Defense” come up big ONE FINAL TIME? –YES!!!! Mike Kolen picked-off Bradshaw one final time and that was it! Bob Griese took a knee, the clock ran out, and the MIAMI DOLPHINS WERE RETURNING TO THE SUPER BOWL!!! THE DOLPHINS RAN FOR 193 YARDS AND PASSED FOR 121 YARDS. Tight end Marv Fleming led the team with 5 receptions (as Schnellenberger had planned). And Warfield had the 52-yard bomb that set-up the first of Jim Kiick’s two second half touchdowns. Now, at last, the stage was set. The Dolphins would have another chance TO WIN THEIR FIRST SUPER BOWL!! –And they could do it in the greatest style imaginable, A PERFECT SEASON!!!