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02-06-2009, 11:19 PM
Thursday, 05 February 2009 10:53

The Role Model Pittsburgh Steelers

By Carla Peay - WI Sports Editor
Washington Informer - WI Sports Editor

With the Pittsburgh Steelers emerging victorious in Super Bowl XLIII with a 27-23 win over the Arizona Cardinals, the sports media pundits are pondering this question – are they the preeminent franchise in the history of the NFL? The evidence would suggest that they are.

They have won six Super Bowl titles and seven AFC championships. Founded by Art Rooney in 1933 as the Pittsburgh Pirates, the Steelers have only had three head coaches in their modern history (since 1969) – Chuck Noll, Bill Cowher and Mike Tomlin. In the look-at-me culture that often defines the NFL, the one that gives us diva wide receivers and celebrity quarterbacks, and enough drama to rival a daytime soap opera, the Steelers have been a model of consistency.

The success of the franchise isn’t by accident or luck; it’s by a carefully orchestrated design that encompassed the vision of Rooney, son Dan Rooney, and his son Art Rooney II. Most football fans are familiar with the “Rooney Rule,” which stipulates that a minority candidate must be interviewed when a team has a head coaching vacancy. The rule was established in 2003, and was named for Dan Rooney, chair of the NFL diversity committee.

But the Rooney’s ability to see past color began long before the adoption of the rule that bears their name. The Steelers drafted a Black quarterback, Joe Gilliam, in 1972. Gilliam was a two-time All-American out of Tennessee State University, and became the team’s starter in 1974, before losing the job to Terry Bradshaw. Even Bradshaw admits that Gilliam had the skills to be a starter in the league, but in 1972, much of the sporting public was not ready for a Black man to be a starting quarterback.

Despite his talent, Gilliam was received with all the warmth and acceptance that President Barack Obama would in Rush Limbaugh’s green room. Gilliam was out of the league by 1975, and was unsuccessful in his attempts to make a comeback in both a semi-pro league, and in the USFL.

Two years ago, there were two Black coaches in the Super Bowl – Tony Dungy of the Indianapolis Colts and Lovie Smith of the Chicago Bears. Dungy, winner of Super Bowl XLI, got his coaching start with the Steelers, and credits Noll as being his mentor. Hired by Noll as an assistant coach in 1981, Dungy became the defensive coordinator in 1984, and went on to coach in Kansas City and Minnesota before finally getting a chance to become head coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 1996.

When former Steelers coach Bill Cowher announced his retirement, the Rooney’s bypassed internal favorites for the job – Ken Whisenhunt and Russ Grimm – in favor of 34-year-old Tomlin, then the defensive coordinator of the Minnesota Vikings, who had only held that position for one year. After two years on the job, Tomlin is now the youngest head coach to win a Super Bowl.

In the so-called copycat league that is the NFL, owners are looking at what the Rooney’s did, and are all looking for the next Tomlin.

“They took a chance on a 34-year-old coach with not a long résumé, I understand that. They took a little criticism for that and I took it personally. I wanted to ante up and add to their legacy, and thankfully with the help of a great coaching staff and great players we were able to do that,” Tomlin said after the Steelers Super Bowl victory.

Two years ago, it was all about Dungy and Smith’s race. This year, it’s about Tomlin’s youth. His being a Black man isn’t the central topic, nor should it be. He was simply the best coach for the job, and the Rooney’s knew it when they hired him.

Are the Steelers’ the best franchise in the history of the NFL? Absolutely, and for a lot more reasons than those six well-earned Lombardi trophies they now have.

Carla Peay is the Online Editor and the Sports Editor for The Washington Informer Newspaper and author of the novel “Just Another Sunday”. She can be reached at cpeay@washingtoninformer.comThis e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .