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It was a swell setting for a renaissance: the Fairmont hotel in new Orleans, a 15-story Victorian palace with golden columns and majestic chandeliers. On this Friday 20 years ago, Jan. 9, 1970, a football franchise with a 37-year run of bad luck faced a coin flip for its future.
In two days the last AFL-NFL Super Bowl would be played, between the Kansas City Chiefs and the Minnesota Vikings. The following autumn the two leagues would merge into an expanded NFL, None of that much concerned the management of the Pittsburgh Steelers on this day. Their team was coming off a 1-13 season, as were the Chicago Bears, and representatives of both were in a ballroom at the Fairmont to toss a coin to determine who would pick first in the 1970 draft of college seniors, which would be held 18 days later.
The first choice on everyone's draft board was a bubbly small-college quarterback who could snap off 70-yard line-drive spirals: Terry Bradshaw of Louisiana Tech. There was no clear No. 2 pick. George Halas, the boss of the once-formidable Bears, had dispatched his son-in-law, Ed McCaskey, to represent Chicago at the coin flip. Club vice-president Dan Rooney and coach Chuck Noll represented the Steelers, and the flip was more important to them.
Pittsburgh was a franchise that had never excelled. The Steelers' ambitions in the 1940s had been thwarted when coach Jock Sutherland dropped dead in 1948 after the first season in which Pittsburgh had ever made the playoffs. In three years of the late '50s, the Steelers had waived rookie quarterback Johnny Unitas, picked somebody named Gary Glick over Lenny Moore in a bonus draft and selected Len Dawson over Jim Brown in the regular draft. Instead of entering the '60s with a backfield of Unitas, Brown and Moore, they had 33-year-old Bobby Layne handing to Tom Tracy and Larry Krutko. In '64, the Steelers' misguided wheeler-dealer of a coach, Buddy Parker, traded their first-round draft choice in '65 to the Bears for second- and fourth-round choices in '64. The Steelers took defensive ends Jim Kelly and Ben McGee with their choices; the Bears took Dick Butkus with theirs. This was a franchise that had been in existence since 1933 and had never won a playoff game. It needed Bradshaw. The Steelers' scouts believed that another quarterback like him might not come along for 10 or 15 years.
Noll sat on the edge of the stage in the ballroom, his feet dangling off the side. Rooney stood on the stage with commissioner Pete Rozelle, making small talk until McCaskey entered the room. McCaskey was good friends with Art Rooney Sr., the Steelers' venerable owner. Art Sr. had always preached that one ought never to call a coin flip himself, but to defer to the other party, because then the pressure would be on the other guy to make the right call. (In matters of luck, this counted as logic.) But McCaskey knew that Rozelle and Dan Rooney were close friends, and so he figured he'd better make the call. Following his dad's credo, Rooney said to ahead, you call it." McCaskey said, "Heads." Rozelle threw a 1921 silver dollar a foot in the air, and it landed flat on the floor. "Tails it is," Rozelle announced.
"McCaskey, you bum!" shouted Jack Griffin, a writer for the Chicago Sun-Times.
Rozelle gave Rooney the winning coin. That night, Rooney and his wife went to dinner with Noll and his wife. "Here," Rooney said, handing the coin to Noll. "This is the beginning of good things to come."
Remarkable things, actually. In football, nothing is built to last. The 1980s were a testament to that. Look at the one-year wonders in the decade, like the New York Giants and the Bears. Only the San Francisco 49ers were resistant to the short-timer syndrome. And even the 49ers, who on Jan. 28 will try to win their fourth Super Bowl since '81, were largely retooled as the decade went on. But the Steelers built a championship team in the early '70s that remained intact for eight years. They won four Super Bowls with essentially the same players. Twice they won Super Bowls back to back. From '72 to '79, they never lost more than five games in a year.
They were our football team, our singular team, for an era. And what better time than now to remember them? Twenty years ago this month they won the coin flip for Bradshaw. Fifteen years ago this month they won their first Super Bowl. Ten years ago this month they won their fourth. What a decade. What a run.
If you spent any time in Pittsburgh in the 1970s, locals say, you became a Steeler fan for life. "It wasn't just the won-lost of it," says Art Rooney Jr., who was the club's director of scouting until a purge of the scouting department after some bad drafts in the '80s. "It was just being there. I still feel it to this day: What a lucky person I am to have gone through it. This is corny, and you'll laugh at this. But it was like being in Camelot."