During the last decade, while the city of Pittsburgh was making a giant leap forward into a new era of sparkling air and clean skyscrapers, one blot remained on its scrubbed escutcheon. The Pittsburgh Steelers, a tough, mean and old-fashioned professional football team, remained stubbornly committed to prewar days and ways. In the 33 years since Owner Art Rooney ponied up $2,500 (of the $380,000-odd he won in a momentous invasion of eastern racetracks over a long weekend) to acquire the Steeler franchise, the team has managed to finish .500 or better only 13 times. It has had the unique—if unwanted—distinction of being the only team in the NFL over six years of age never to win so much as a divisional championship.
When the rest of the clubs were launching computerized scouting systems in their search for playing talent, the Steelers were still trading draft choices for elderly players with a season or two left in their creaking bones. The Steelers, naturally, were the last team in professional football to forsake the antique single wing for the T formation and that only when their belabored tailback, Bill Dudley, asked to be traded to save what was left of his hide.
The image of the Steelers remained that of the pro football teams of long ago. The players were rugged and they could outdrink almost anyone you could name, but, unfortunately, they could not win. And, little by little, the old breed of Steeler fans—the miners and steelworkers—faded into the haze. Thus, in the biggest boom in the history of pro football, the antiquated Steelers, playing at obsolete Forbes Field with players that time had left behind, drew prewar-size crowds of 20,000 or so.
Now all this has changed. In their most recent home game, against the Washington Redskins, the refurbished Steelers drew 37,505 people despite a light rain. Washington, a team also rebuilding, but with a larger nucleus of good players, squeaked to a 33-27 victory. An old Pittsburgh fan would not have recognized the suddenly modernized version of his old team. Under the whip of a new coach, Bill Austin, and the direction of a new Rooney—Art's oldest son, Dan—the Steelers have stopped the world and asked to get on.
"It was my fault at first," says Art Rooney, an engaging gray-haired man of whom it may truly be said that he has no enemies. "I didn't pay much attention to the football team in the early years. I was interested in other things and I bought the franchise as a favor to Bert Bell [the late NFL commissioner]. I paid $2,500 for it, but if I had wanted to be tough about it I could have had it for nothing." Rooney's franchise is now worth something like $10 million.
"When I began to worry about football, I couldn't do anything about it," Art continued. He was killing an hour in the coffee shop of the hotel where the Steelers have their offices. "I used to act like it didn't bother me that we were losing so much, but it really did. I had a rule in our house that if the Steelers lost no one could mention football until Tuesday. I used to get terribly discouraged, but I never let on outside my home. My boys had to lock themselves up in one of their rooms if they wanted to talk about football.
"Of course," he went on, "I couldn't make any rules like that outside my home. People used to say how lousy we looked, and I would agree and say, 'Yeah, we sure were bad,' just to stop the conversation, but it made me feel terrible. It made you look so dumb, you know, as if you could not be a success at anything."
A waitress, shading from middle-aged to elderly, stopped at the table.
"Everything all right, Mr. Rooney?" she asked, and he nodded, waving her off with a cigar he was lighting.
"You know," he said, puffing vigorously and squinting at a companion through clouds of blue smoke, "this is the first time since I bought the club that I didn't hire a friend to coach it. That was Danny's idea."