John Steigerwald: Chuck Noll the reason Pittsburgh became football town
Pittsburgh always has been a football town.
How many times have you heard that? It’s probably the consensus among the national media, but it’s only an accepted truth in Western Pennsylvania by people who are not old enough to remember when it clearly wasn’t.
Granted, that group is getting smaller every day, but those of us who were around when Chuck Noll was hired 50 years ago Sunday know his hiring is what eventually would change Pittsburgh into a football town.
On January 27, 1969, Pittsburgh sports fans were excited about the Pirates going to spring training. They also were preparing to say goodbye to Forbes Field because they were going to open the 1970 season at Three Rivers Stadium. (As it turned out, Three Rivers wasn’t ready until June 1970.)
January 1969 was not a good time to be a Pittsburgh sports fan. The Pirates finished 17 games behind the St. Louis Cardinals, going 80-82 and taking sixth in the 10-team National League. Roberto Clemente, who had been booed early in the 1968 season, hit .291, the only time he was below .300 in the 1960s. And the Pirates were, by far, the best and most popular team in town.
When Noll showed up for his first day on the job, Pittsburgh was a baseball town, and it wasn’t close. The Steelers were something to do in between Pirates seasons. They were a civic embarrassment and a community joke.
Pitt football was so bad, it made the Steelers look like the Green Bay Packers.
There have been periods of hard times for local sports fans over the last 50 years, but it was never as bad as when Noll showed up.
The Steelers finished 2-11-1 in 1968 and fired Bill Austin, who went 5-8-1 and 4-9-1 in his first two seasons. I was 20 years old. They had managed four winning seasons in my lifetime, three of them since my 10th birthday.
They shared Pitt Stadium with the Panthers.
Are you ready for Pitt’s record the three years before Noll showed up to coach the Steelers?
1966 — 1-9
1967 — 1-9
1968 — 1-9.
With seven winning seasons in the previous 20 years.
How about some losing scores from those three seasons?
Notre Dame, 40-0
Penn State, 48-24
Notre Dame, 38-0
Penn State, 42-6
Norte Dame, 56-7
Penn State, 65-9
The two teams playing at Pitt Stadium when Noll arrived had a combined 11 winning seasons in 40 years. If you weren’t around to experience Pittsburgh before it became a football town, I hope this information gives you some perspective on how much the culture changed because of Noll.
And remember, with all the football misery that existed when he started working on the turnaround, he won his first game, then lost the next 13 and added three more losing seasons.
The 1972 season and The Immaculate Reception changed everything. The Steelers won their first title of any kind in their 40-year history. The excitement around the Steelers must have influenced Pitt, which signed the most sought-after coach in the country, Johnny Majors, with the hope he could pull off a Noll-like turnaround.
Within seven years of Noll being hired, the two best football teams in the country, college and pro, were playing in Pittsburgh.
And despite Pittsburgh also having one of the best baseball teams in the nation, including five division winners and a World Series champion, Pittsburgh was no longer a baseball town.
Never underestimate the effect Joe Paterno had on Pittsburgh by turning down Dan Rooney’s offer to coach the Steelers in 1968. Rooney’s second choice changed life in Pittsburgh and Western Pa. forever.
John Steigerwald is a freelance writer.