Pittsburgh Sports: Remembering the Journeys to the Top
"Hey, baby, whew!
I know that you believe in me,
Thats all I ever need, uh huh.
No, no, nothings gonna stop me,
Nothing will be scaring me, oh no
Hey baby, its the only way out
Oh, little darling,
Cmon whats it all about?
Standing on top of the world
For a little while....."
"Top of the World" - Van Halen
Van Halen wrote that song in the late 1980s or early 1990s.
Living in a town that has seen a Super Bowl and Stanley Cup championship won in the past year is the most exciting time to be a sports fan.
It can also be the worst time to be a passionate fan.
Nonetheless, to watch two of my favorite sports teams take care of business and win is the most exciting thing any die hard fan can live through vicariously.
What any true fan must remember that if you stuck it out through the tough times, the good times are much better
Both franchises here in Pittsburgh faced challenges in their history to reach the top.
The Steelers were not always a perennial power, as they have evolved into under Dan Rooney.
Between 1933 and 1972, the Steelers had participated in one postseason game.
In the 1948 Playoff to determine the Eastern Conference Division winner between the Steelers and Philadelphia Eagles, the Steelers got destroyed 21-0. Though the team would qualify for the Playoff Bowl vs. Detroit in 1963 (a game they would lose 17-10), it is not considered a true playoff game, and the game was played to determine the second-best team in their conference.
Fred Shero, the longtime Philadelphia Flyers, coach made a quip about being the runner-up, saying, "Second place is just the first loser."
Shero's son Ray is currently the general manager for the Pittsburgh Penguins, and that team had a rocky start as well.
The Penguins franchise seemed to be stuck in neutral for the first 20 years of existence. Because of ownership changes, including a time when the Penguin offices were padlocked by the IRS, and tragedy, the Penguins couldn't seem to shake heartbreak.
The career of Michele Briere, who was the first true young talent the Penguins ever had, was cut short to a tragic car crash, and he is the only Penguin to have his number retired besides Mario Lemieux.
The Penguins also endured hardships on the ice.
The 1975 Penguins were up 3-0 on the New York Islanders in the Stanley Cup semi-finals, but what seemed to be an upcoming coronation of the greatest triumph in team history became a dubious distinction.
The Penguins would not win that fourth game, as the Penguins joined the 1942 Toronto Maple Leafs as the only two NHL teams to lose a series up 3-0.
It was a stat that came up every season.
The Penguins were victimized again by the dynastic Islanders in the 1982 Stanley Cup Playoffs. Pittsburgh held a 3-1 lead late in the fifth game of its playoff series against the reigning champs, but the Islanders rallied to force overtime and won the series on a goal by John Tonelli.
Both franchises faced a crossroads.
In the middle of the teams' paths to glory, the Steelers and Penguins faced coaching decisions, personnel decisions, and decisions that revamped franchises.
The Steelers' defining moment came in 1969.
Dan Rooney was in the process of becoming President of the Steelers, and in the process, of being the lead say of the Steelers being passed on from patriarch Art Rooney.
One of Dan's first measures was to find a new coach. Bill Austin had failed to live up to his billing as the next Lombardi. Austin went to the Lombardi football school, coaching in Green Bay for their dynasty years, but that success never translated in Pittsburgh.
He would turn to Joe Paterno, but Joe Pa would stay in Happy Valley.
He then heard of a coach considering the New England and Buffalo jobs.
The man was Charles Henry Noll.
Noll was impressed with how much Dan wanted to build a winner, so he decided to come to Pittsburgh.
Noll's first act was to get ready for the NFL Draft. Many prognosticators and many people in Pittsburgh fell in love with Butler native and former Notre Dame quarterback Terry Hanratty. But Noll wasn't enamored with Hanratty, and he remembered scouting the Texas region and a player he felt was a cornerstone player.
Pete Rozelle read his name, and the Pittsburgh headlines read: "Joe Who?"
The "Joe Who?" was future NFL Hall of Famer Joe Greene.
While the Penguins didn't necessarily feel the scrutiny of the pick they would make, they indeed felt the pressure from their peers from Montreal to Quebec.
Montreal offered their entire draft. Quebec offered the Statsny Brothers and draft picks. Minnesota was about to offer their entire 1984 and 1985 drafts.
Who was this all over?
The Laval Voisins had a player who was getting as much press and publicity of Wayne Gretzky. The kid even flipped Gretzky's number to build his name. In his final year of juniors, he passed all of Guy Lafleur's scoring records with 133 goals, 149 assists, and 282 points.
Le Magnifique was Mario Lemieux.
While the Steelers faced harsh criticism for their pick of Joe Greene from the press, the Penguins faced harsh criticism from their top pick Mario Lemieux.
Lemieux saw the mess here in Pittsburgh and really didn't want to be here. Now whether the reason was contractual or not is still a mystery. But Lemieux would eventually dawn a black and gold 66 jersey.
With the Steelers, they got the right ownership in place, the right coach, and seemingly got the right player in Joe Greene.
Long time Steeler offensive lineman Ray Mansfield tells a story how the veteran offensive lineman would haze the new rookie defensive lineman. They would go low and high expecting to break the lineman.
Problem was, Joe Greene was not the normal rookie. Greene threw Mansfield and his partner in crime around like a rag doll and showed them who was the rookie and who got hazed.
The new attitude personified in the Steelers locker room started with Chuck Noll.
Steeler linebacker Andy Russell once said that Chuck Noll's first meeting with the team wasn't necessarily a "rah rah rally." Russell stated that the skeptical vets were wondering what the brass Noll had.
And they would learn quickly.
Noll told the team that the reason they weren't winning was because they were not good enough. He said he was going to get rid of most of them and replace them with players who could handle Noll's style.
While Noll shook the foundation of the Steelers franchise, Lemieux became its brightest star.
He would single-handedly rewrite the Penguins record book. But even though Mario was able to that, the Penguins were not any closer to the Stanley Cup.
The Pens would assemble talent, and in 1989, they got the first piece of management that would help shake Pittsburgh: general manager Craig Patrick.
One of Patrick's first initiatives was to get rid of the underachieving coach Gene Ubriaco. Patrick would then go behind the bench, but he realized that he was not the answer, as the Penguins would finish one point out of the last playoff spot after a tough loss to the Buffalo Sabres.
Patrick would then go out and find the perfect coach that would cultivate the great talent Pittsburgh had into champions.
"Badger" Bob Johnson was hired in 1990, and he brought to the Penguins a sharp contrast to what Noll was to the Steelers.
While Noll preached discipline and perfection, Johnson provided a positive outlook on life, brought humility to the game, and would give the Penguins its slogan for all eternity:
"It's a Great Day for Hockey."
While Johnson had most of the pieces in place, Noll was assembling a juggernaut.
Between 1970 and 1972, the Steelers brought in Terry Bradshaw, Rocky Bleier, Jack Ham, Mel Blount, Dwight White, L.C. Greenwood, and others. 1972 also saw the emergence of a rookie fullback from Penn State named Franco Harris.
The Steelers would make the playoffs for the first time in a quarter century, where they played host to the rival Oakland Raiders.
In a game where it was a defensive slugfest, the Steelers led 6-0. Entering the second half, Raiders coach John Madden felt he wasn't getting enough production and replaced Darryl "The Mad Bomber" Lamonica—who that day completed only one pass, that was to Jim Otto to Kenny "The Snake" Stabler.
"The Snake" would slither to a 30 yard touchdown run in the 4 quarter to give Oakland the slightest 7-6 lead.
The Steelers would get the ball back with the smallest of times. They faced a 4th-and-10 from their own 40.
The next play would go down by some as the greatest play in National Football League history.
Terry Bradshaw got flushed out of the pocket. In a desperation throw the ball is ricocheted from a collision between Oakland safety Jack Tatum and Pittsburgh running back John "Frenchy" Fuqua.
The balls ended up in Franco Harris' hands, and he ran into the end zone for the go-ahead touchdown.
The play is simply known as the "Immaculate Reception."
The Steelers would go on to the AFC Championship Game and play the undefeated Miami Dolphins. Though the Steelers had a 17-14 lead late in the game, they could not hold back Miami.
The Penguins were faced with dire situations during the season of 1990-1991.
First, Mario Lemieux had to battle back problems. But coach Bob Johnson got a line together that would produce at the highest level, and John Cullen, Kevin Stevens, and Mark Recchi would help keep the Penguins afloat.
While the Penguins enjoyed the success of that line, and the return of Super Mario, the team was still battling for a playoff late in the season, and Craig Patrick made a move that would shake the franchise.
Simply known as "The Trade" here in Pittsburgh, it was considered a huge gamble at the time.
On March 4, 1991, the Penguins traded John Cullen, Zarley Zalapski, and Jeff Parker to the Hartford Whalers for Ron Francis, Ulf Samuelsson, and Grant Jennings.
While the Penguins made their move via a trade, the Steelers would make a move via the draft.
The Steelers would select in the middle of the 1974 draft because they were coming off of two winning seasons and two playoff berths.
The Steelers would make key selections that would be considered the greatest single season draft in NFL History.
The Steelers took future Pro Football Hall of Famers Lynn Swann, Jack Lambert, John Stallworth, and Mike Webster. Thye would also pick up future role players and starters Donnie Shell and Randy Grossman.
After the Penguins made "The Trade," they would go off on a tear and would win the Patrick Division and make the playoffs. There, the Penguins would endure a seven-game series in New Jersey, and then would have their way with Washington and Boston.
What stood between the Penguins and their coronation of the Stanley Cup was the Minnesota North Stars.
In six games, the Penguins would win the Stanley Cup for the first time in their history.
The Steelers would endure several quarterback changes in 1974. Though they were a prolific passing attack with Gilliam, they were not as solid as they needed to be. They turned to Terry Hanratty, and he wasn't the answer.
Finally, set on the beleaguered Terry Bradshaw, the Steelers would go on a journey they had not done before.
They made the playoffs with a 10-3-1 record. They pounded the Buffalo Bills 32-14. Then in the AFC Championship Game, it took three Steeler touchdowns to clinch the AFC Championship over the Oakland Raiders.
In Super Bowl IX, a lone safety by Dwight White in the first half was the only score. With a defensive showdown in place, a nasty block by Gerry Mullins led the way for a Franco Harris touchdown.
A Terry Bradshaw pass to Larry Brown sealed the Steelers win, and they would win their first championship.
In the locker room, Andy Russell was about to give the Game Ball to Joe Greene, but as he turned to make the announcement, he saw the spirit of the Steelers, and he gave the game ball to the "Chief" Art Rooney.
Since these initial climbs to the tops of their sports, both franchises saw the ups and downs that a franchise would go through.
The Steelers would go on to win three more Super Bowls in the 1970s, saw down times in the 1980s, and saw "The Emperor" step down and "Cowher Power" emerge in the 1990s.
The 2000s saw the Steelers drop "The Bus" off in Detroit, and Mike Tomlin led team to another championship in 2008.
The Penguins would have a real rough road.
"Badger" Bob Johnson would pass away on November 26, 1991. The Penguins would repeat as champs in 1992.
Lemieux would shake the foundation of his playing future and his life on January 12, 1993 when he announced he had Hodgkin's Disease. The strength and perseverance of Super Mario would emerge a classic return to the ice, as he netted a goal against Philadelphia that night.
The Pens would win an NHL-record 17 straight games. As the Pens were eyeing up a third straight Stanley Cup, an old nemesis doomed the mighty Pens when they missed David Volek and the New York Islanders.
The Penguins would play classic overtime playoff games in Washington and Philadelphia. Lemiuex would retire on and off. The Penguins looked like they were leaving Pittsburgh and going bankrupt, until Lemieux decided to save them.
The Penguins hit down times and were financially strapped, but Lemieux would right the ships and the team with the drafting of players like Marc Andre Fleury, Evgeni Malkin, Sidney Crosby, and Jordan Staal.
The Pens would reach the summit again this season with an epic seven-game series with Detroit.
Whether you love Pittsburgh sports teams or hate Pittsburgh sports teams, these teams had major obstacles on their paths to glory. If you are a fan and passionate about them as I am, appreciate the journey, because we are very fortunate to have these great teams here.
Maybe plug in that Van Halen album to realize you are only on top for a little while.
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