Steelers stick to their roots in building a winner
(NBCSPORTS.com) - There are teams more renowned and teams that are more glamorous than the Pittsburgh Steelers. But for nearly 40 years now, there hasn't been a franchise in any sport that is more true to the town whose name it bears, more down-to-earth, and more consistent.
You think of such things when you open the sports pages and the headlines are dominated first by the Super Bowl matchup between the Steelers and Arizona Cardinals and then by the latest nonsense coming from the Dallas Cowboys.
Once, the Cowboys and the Steelers ruled together as the premier teams in the NFL. It was back in the 1970s, when the Cowboys made five Super Bowl appearances and the Steelers made four. Dallas won two, beating Miami and Minnesota, while the Steelers were 4-0, twice taking out Dallas in the NFL's ultimate showcase.
The Cowboys reloaded faster than Pittsburgh after their dynastic teams of the 70s finally succumbed to age. Both said goodbye to iconic coaches, with the legendary Tom Landry forced out by new owner Jerry Jones in Dallas, and Chuck Noll voluntarily hanging up his clipboard in Pittsburgh.
Jones had great initial success, throwing money around like the oil tycoon he was and building a team that won three Super Bowls in four years under two coaches. The first was in 1992, and the last came against the Steelers in 1995.
Since then, the success curves of the two franchises have gone in opposite directions. Pittsburgh did what it has always done since it discovered how to win in 1970: It tried to draft quality guys, its first priority always on the defensive side of the ball. The team wasn't always successful and the fans weren't always delighted with the results at the end of the year, but ownership never panicked, never went after glamour boys, and always looked unkindly at fools in the locker room. And though the Steelers have had three losing seasons in the past 20 years, they've gotten back to the top of the NFL, matching Dallas and San Francisco with their fifth golden football in 2005 and now making their seventh trip to the league's final game.
Best of all, from the perspective of a Steelers fan, the team has always stayed true to the spirit of its home town. Usually, it's a little too easy and not always true to say that football teams mirror the cities in which they play. But sometimes it works out that way.
You could say that Dallas is one of the teams that reflect the city it plays in. Except the team doesn't mirror the ethic of the long-ago cow town populated by callused cowpunchers, but the new, sprawling Dallas that puts a premium on arrogance and glitter. And Jones has seldom been able to keep from buying whatever flashy gewgaw he sees come onto the market, whether it fits his needs or not.
For a perfect match of city to team, you're better off looking to Pittsburgh. The team's name is taken from the industry that once made it a thriving - if smog-choked - blue-collar city. The steel industry is long gone, and not a few of the old inhabitants have fled for the booming suburbs of towns like Dallas. But even if there's more high tech in Pittsburgh than blue-collar grit these days, the people and the town take pride in being down-to-earth, hard-working and willing to give nine hours' work for eight hours' pay. In Dallas, people run horses in the back 40. In Pittsburgh, a citizen with a bit of extra money runs a riding lawn mower.
That's the Steelers in a nutshell. These are players who give a team value, men who will leap into a blast furnace to help a teammate, good citizens who care more about the name on the front of the jersey than the one on the back.
If a player in Dallas turns out to be a jerk, Jones coddles him if the owner thinks the player is a superstar. If a player in Pittsburgh is a jerk, he's sent packing at the earliest convenience. That's why the Steelers no longer have Plaxico Burress and the Cowboys still have Terrell Owens. The players that Jones collects are the same type that Pittsburgh kicks off the bus.
The difference isn't the towns. New York is the most famous city in the world, but the Giants have always taken pride in trying to be the same kind of lunch-bucket team that the Steelers are. Indianapolis is pure Midwest, but it runs the most flamboyant offense in football. In its glory days with Brett Favre, the Packers were also far more flamboyant than their Green Bay fan base.
And if it's not the town, then it has to be the owners. Jones is the George Steinbrenner of the NFL. He's the new Al Davis, obsessed with reclamation projects, convinced that he knows more about the game than people who have been working at it longer and harder than he ever could.
Contrast that with Pittsburgh, which is run by the Rooney family. The late Art Rooney was the patriarch. He presided over nearly three decades of unremittingly lousy football (except for 1947, when the Steelers lost the only playoff game they ever played between 1933 and 1972.), but he also hired the people who ushered in the next 40 years of excellence.
He didn't tell the professionals he hired what to do. He just let them do it. When he died, the team was inherited by his fractious family. They've squabbled over ownership, but like Art Rooney, they never got in the way of the people who knew what they were doing.
They have a plan and they stick to it, absorbing the bumps in the road and keeping an eye on the goal. They also tend to get coaches who know what a town like Pittsburgh is all about. Noll grew up in Cleveland and played for the Browns. His successor, Bill Cowher, grew up in suburban Pittsburgh and also played for the Browns. Mike Tomlin, who has no prior Pittsburgh connection, in 2007 became just the third man to coach the team since Noll took over in 1969. At 36, he's as young as they come on an NFL sideline, but like his predecessors, he's one tough dude.
But that's the Pittsburgh formula, which puts toughness ahead of flash, work ethic ahead of self-indulgence, team ahead of individual. It's 40 years since Art Rooney hired Noll and started a dynasty. In that time, no team has been more consistent in approach and purpose.
Someday, the Cowboys will be back, whether under Jones or someone else. When they get it back together, don't be surprised if they find the Steelers waiting for them. They're the team that never goes away.
Mike Celizic writes regularly for NBCSports.com and is a freelance writer based in New York.