HITTING THE JACKPOT
TWO HEAD COACHES AND 40 losses later, the task of ushering a turnaround fell to former Colts defensive coordinator Chuck Noll. His early teams didn't fare much better than Parker's. (He was .286 through his first three seasons.) But unlike his predecessor, Noll was patient. He built the team through the draft, selecting Joe Greene in 1969, Terry Bradshaw in '70 and Jack Ham in '71. (His best haul came in '74: Lynn Swann, Jack Lambert, John Stallworth and Mike Webster—four future Hall of Famers in the greatest draft in NFL history.)
Noll's perseverance was rewarded in '72. That year the Steelers won their first division championship and their first playoff game—a 13-7 victory over the Oakland Raiders that proved to be one for the ages. Trailing 7-6 and facing fourth-and-10 with 22 seconds left, Bradshaw heaved a pass 35 yards downfield for Frenchy Fuqua, who collided with the Raiders' Jack Tatum just as the ball arrived. As it fluttered back toward the line of scrimmage and the Steelers' fate hung in the balance, in swooped Franco Harris, who gathered the ball at his shoelaces and raced 40 yards to pay dirt. While the legality of Harris's Immaculate Reception remains in dispute—some assert that the ball bounced off of Fuqua and not Tatum, which would've voided everything that followed, per 1972 rules—there is no arguing its exalted place in NFL lore. Fuqua, for his part, refuses to demystify the legend. "By God," he said, "it's the only secret I have in the world."
Though the team wound up losing to the eventual world champion Miami Dolphins in the next round, these no longer were Rooney's same old Pirates. Two years later they squarely beat the Raiders in the AFC Championship Game, then defeated the Minnesota Vikings in Super Bowl IX to claim the first of the franchise's five Super Bowl trophies.
RUNNING THE TABLE
TWELVE YEARS AFTER HAVING led the team to its fourth Super Bowl, Noll ceded the helm to Bill Cowher, whose 15-year run was enviable: He led the team to eight division titles, six AFC Championship Games and two Super Bowls, including a victory over the Seahawks in Super Bowl XL. One season later Cowher resigned with a higher winning percentage (.619) than Noll (.572).
On Jan. 22, 2007, little-known Mike Tomlin, 35, became the latest ward of the Steelers' tradition. Like his predecessors, he got the job in his 30s. Whether he'll keep it into his 50s depends on how much further he can push a franchise that already has 531 wins, five Super Bowls and 17 Hall of Famers—including Art Rooney himself, who died in 1988. A bronze statue that sits outside Heinz Field captures Rooney as he's most fondly remembered: with a cigar in his right hand and his face awash with the bemusement of a card shark after a winning hand, as if to say, Who knew such a rich tradition could come so cheap?