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Steelers draw strength from their proud history

I'll take the Steelers in today's Super Bowl. My pick is based on where they came from long ago and what they have become.

It's fitting that Pittsburgh is playing in the 40th Super Bowl since the Steelers went nowhere in their first 40 years of existence. Art Rooney bought a franchise in the NFL with money he won at New York state race tracks.

Like the founder of the New York Giants, Tim Mara, Rooney was an Irish bookmaker but what made him different was his own skill and luck as a bettor. Accompanied by sportswriter Bill Corum to the venerable Saratoga racetrack in 1936, Rooney won five straight races, rolling his winnings into the next bet each time. At day's end Corum estimated that his take was between $250,000 and $350,000. In today's money that would be somewhere close to $10 million.

He celebrated by treating Corum to an ice cream soda.

After he bought the Steelers, there weren't many celebrations since they were the lovable bumblers of the NFL. Since the team hired Chuck Noll in 1969, they have had just one other coach, Bill Cowher, in 37 seasons. In their first 36 seasons they employed 16 coaches, including two separate hitches for Joe Bach, who coached St. Bonaventure University, where the Steelers trained. Jock Sutherland, one of the most famous college coaches in his days at Pitt, also moonlighted for a season as coach of the Steelers.

The Noll-Cowher eras have made them the most stable franchise in the NFL and stability is the most underrated organizational quality in the sport.

The change in Pittsburgh's fortunes coincided with the Steelers' decision to accept what amounted to a bribe from their peers to move into the AFC to complete the American Football League's merger with the NFL in 1970. Baltimore and Cleveland moved with them, creating outrage among fans of the Colts and Browns.

The general reaction of the Pittsburgh fans was, "We never won anything before, so what have we got to lose?"

In 1972 the Steelers and their fans first became accustomed to winning. They came into War Memorial Stadium on Oct. 29. O.J. Simpson had a great day for Buffalo, running for 189 yards, including a record 94-yard touchdown. Pittsburgh rookie Franco Harris didn't even start, but had an even more effective day. He ran for 131 yards in just 15 carries and made a finger-tip catch of a 17-yard touchdown pass from Terry Bradshaw for the game-breaking play.

Six weeks later the Steelers were division champions and stunned the football world with the Immaculate Reception playoff victory over the Raiders. Two years later they won their first Super Bowl, 16-6, over the Minnesota Vikings. Their approach was the same as it is now -- determined and confident but cool and relaxed. Most Super Bowl teams carp about how the media attention is a distraction. Ray Mansfield, the center on that first world title team, claimed that when the last busload of reporters left the Pittsburgh hotel, the players ran out on the street yelling, "Come back! Come back! We still have a lot of stories to tell you!"

Pittsburgh was largely a defensive team then. Jack Ham, one of its Hall of Fame linebackers, once told of barking at Bradshaw as the defense came off the field, "see if you can hold 'em," suggesting that accomplishing a first down or two was the best for which he could hope from the offense.

That changed with the 1974 draft, arguably the greatest in pro football history. The Steelers selected four future Hall of Famers in the first five rounds -- wide receiver Lynn Swann, middle linebacker Jack Lambert, wide receiver John Stallworth and center Mike Webster.

Those qualities still live in the Steelers genes. Pittsburgh 20, Seattle 13.

Larry Felser, former News columnist, appears in Sunday's editions.

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