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Books | Sports

January 3, 2011

Pittsburgh's NFL Dynasty

ESPN's Chad Millman revisits the 1970s Steelers and their archrivals in Dallas, two teams that embodied their cities' divergent characters and economic fortunes.

Pete Croatto

Before Chuck Noll became the Pittsburgh Steelers' head coach in 1969, the organization was adrift. Pittsburgh had won 11 games, total, in the previous three seasons; in its first 36 seasons, the team recorded a winning record just eight times. Thanks to Noll's shrewdness, owner Art Rooney's patience, and some outstanding drafting, the Steelers won four Super Bowls from 1975 to 1980.

Chad Millman
"Teams that are representative of their cities are the most fun to watch, and they have the most character."

Chad Millman

While Noll built a dynasty, Pittsburgh was falling apart. The city's once-mighty steel industry was floundering, victimized by complacent union leadership and the emergence of foreign competitors. A new kind of athlete was emerging, one not beholden to authority but to the oh-so profitable future. Steroids were making the rounds in locker rooms. Rooney may have treated his players like family—he waited years for Rocky Bleier to round into form after he was shot in Vietnam; Ernie Holmes was welcomed back after his infamous emotional breakdown on the Ohio Turnpike—but no team reveled in image-conscious, bottom-line corporate culture more than the Dallas Cowboys. The Steelers met the Cowboys ("America's Team") in two Super Bowls, which doubled as a battle of ideologies.

Using the Steelers as a starting point, Chad Millman, a senior deputy editor at ESPN: The Magazine; and his co-author Shawn Coyne examine this swirl of change from 1969 to 1979 in The Ones Who Hit the Hardest: The Steelers, the Cowboys, the '70s, and the Fight for America's Soul.

In this interview, conducted by phone and edited for clarity, Millman talks about how the Cowboys and Steelers still reflect their cities, how the NFL isn't as corporate as you think, and why the Steelers mattered so much to 1970s Pittsburgh.

Gelf Magazine: Before you met Shawn Coyne, did you have any interest in writing about the Pittsburgh Steelers?

Chad Millman: No, not necessarily. My interest for books has always been steeped in writing about history of some sort, and writing about a larger event through the eyes of characters and personalities. A couple of the other books I've done have been like that.
My agent [Richard Abate] is very good with ideas. It just so happened that Shawn is an agent who worked in Richard's office. Richard went to Shawn and said, "I have this idea for Chad. What do you think of it?" And Shawn's like, "I think I want to do it because I'm from Pittsburgh." And they called me and they said, "Do you want to this with Shawn?" I'm like, "Yeah, sounds like fun."

Gelf Magazine: So you were more interested in the changing sports culture and the changing economic structure of the US?

Chad Millman: A broader examination of something through the prism of sports was very interesting to me. I grew up in the '70s and '80s, when the Steelers and Cowboys were the most dominant teams in the NFL. When I came to New York with my dad for the weekend before I went to college, the first place we went was the Museum of Television & Radio. And the first thing I did was watch a rerun of the second Cowboys-Steelers Super Bowl, because I was such a huge sports fan and I was such a huge football fan. And I remember that as being the greatest game I had ever seen and I wanted to relive that. I had a connection to these teams and these games in particular just from being a serious football fan when I was growing up. It took me about two seconds to be like, "Oh yeah, I'm thrilled someone thought of that [book idea]."

Gelf Magazine: When you met with Coyne, did he open your eyes to the nation's union struggles in the 1970s, or did you already know about those?

Chad Millman: My experience with that was very superficial. I knew about it just from knowing about the economic collapse in the 1970s, and the mills collapsing, and seeing the movie All the Right Moves and knowing that was a way of life that was going away. My familiarity was steeped in pop culture and whatever I could glean from history books.
Our responsibilities were split pretty evenly. I did all the Steelers stuff, beginning in 1969 and through the Super Bowls. He did the Cowboys stuff and the mill stuff. The mill stuff, which he knew intimately, made it a broader book.

Gelf Magazine: The Cowboys boast a nationwide fan base. Was there ever a thought of making the book more about the Cowboys?

Chad Millman: I think we originally thought there would have been more Cowboys in there. But at the end of the day, we always wanted it to be a book from the Steelers' perspective about this experience. We wanted to write much more about the relationship between the Steelers and the mills than about the one between the Cowboys and their fans. What was happening with the Cowboys and what was happening to the city of Dallas was interesting because it was at the opposite end of the spectrum of what was happening in Pittsburgh. It was also much more representative of the way the country was going forward, while Pittsburgh was what the country had been. We were also more interested in writing a book about the Pittsburgh angle of this particular rivalry because it's the team that won and was better.

Gelf Magazine: How hard was it to get so much material—sports history, cultural history, American history—into one book?

Chad Millman: That's the fun of writing a book. I don't think you do a book and hope that it's got one note and you are just writing about one incident flatly through 250 pages. You want to be as broad as possible and bring in as many subjects as possible. Shawn and I both love Ladies and Gentlemen, the Bronx Is Burning, and Jonathan Mahler, the author of that book, did a great job of merging several different topics: the riots in Brooklyn; the mayoral race of that year; the way that Rupert Murdoch had come in and was taking over the media at that time; and the Yankees and Reggie Jackson and Billy Martin and George Steinbrenner. A broad, sweeping book like that was something we admired and wanted to try to emulate a little bit.

Gelf Magazine: In The Ones Who Hit the Hardest, the Steelers come across as having a personality and being a family, while the Cowboys are corporate and slick. The same descriptions hold today, it seems. Why is that?

Chad Millman: From the Steelers' perspective, it is largely because of the Rooney family. The way they run the organization is still very much as a family-run business at a major, major level. It's not a corner drug store, but the values that the Rooneys had when they were hiring Chuck Noll and bringing Rocky Bleier back from Vietnam are the same values they have today. You can see that in the people they hire. That's a character issue. All the Big Ben [Roethlisberger] stuff is an anomaly more than it is a norm. I also think the Cowboys and Steelers are always representative of their cities in the best way NFL teams do that: You look at the Bears, you look at the Packers, you look at the 49ers when they were good. I think teams that are representative of their cities are the most fun to watch, and they have the most character.
The Cowboys are actually the same way. They are fairly representative of Dallas and sort of the white-collar culture that is prevalent there. You can see it in the way they built their stadiums bigger than everything. That's very much a Texas thing. So I do think it exists today, and I think it's a part of the culture of where these franchises are based.

Gelf Magazine: More and more teams are going the Cowboys route of being bigger and more corporate-minded. Is that arrangement permanent? And does that status lessen the fans' enjoyment of the game?

Chad Millman: Who are you thinking about when you think about big corporate teams? When I think about big corporate teams I think of the Cowboys, then and everybody else.

Gelf Magazine: I think of, let's say, the Giants and the Jets, with the new Meadowlands. The NFL is such a big business that I feel like every team follows that mindset. Are the Cowboys really that different?

Chad Millman: It starts with Jerry Jones. Before that it was the Murchisons. The attitude comes from the guy running the program. So I don't think of the Jets and the Giants as corporate teams because the Maras and the Tisches are practically original owners. I don't think of them being that way. And with the Jets, I don't think of Woody Johnson, who's not even a part of the family business, as being a big corporate guy. There are the Cowboys and I guess the Redskins, but I don't think of everybody else as being as corporate as those two franchises. With those two franchises, I think of hard-charging businessmen who think that because they're spending the most money possible, they will get the best product—which I don't think is necessarily the case in the NFL.

Gelf Magazine: So there's an entrepreneurial feel to NFL teams?

Chad Millman: It's the scale of entrepreneurship you're talking about, but I definitely think there is a difference in the corporatization of some teams versus other teams.

Gelf Magazine: Is that corporatization going to make things better or worse?

Chad Millman: I don't think it matters, to be honest. At the end of the day, I don't think it matters to fans. I think fans only care if their team is winning. If the Cowboys were winning, nobody in Dallas would care that Jerry Jones is a billionaire who is trying to squeeze every dollar out of his team and build the biggest stadium in the world and do everything over the top and garner attention for things about his team other than what it does on the field. At all. They're just going to want to win.
And the same goes for the Steelers. If the Steelers were very, very corporate and run by one of these huge banks or one of the huge health-care organizations in Pittsburgh, and not the Rooneys, as long as the Steelers were winning, nobody would care. The idea of being corporatized in sports matters less to people if their teams win championships. That, to me, is when people get angry: When they're spending a ton of money, their teams aren't doing well, ticket prices are insane, and every week they feel like they're being taken for a ride.

Gelf Magazine: Which describes Redskins fans, essentially.

Chad Millman: Yes.

Gelf Magazine: The book covers the Steelers' innovations in the 1970s, including the Cover Two defense, and their use of fleet linemen. Those things aren't talked about like the Packer Sweep or the West Coast Offense. Are the Steelers becoming the NFL's forgotten dynasty?

Chad Millman: Everything I learned about the Steelers was interesting to me because I do feel like they have never gotten the credit for being as dominant a dynasty as the Niners were in the '80s, and the Cowboys in the '90s, or the Patriots in the '00s. It's forgotten how incredibly great the Steelers were: the details about creating the stunts; the way the linemen wore tapered jerseys; the way they ran counter-plays; the way Chuck Noll designed his program, building through the defensive line and then on the offensive side of the ball, mostly with Franco Harris, not even with Terry Bradshaw. Noll's team didn't get really great until it had a running game to match the stoutness of its defense.
Those are the things that I completely forget. I didn't realize how close-knit this team was, how much personality this team had, how they're all still very close. I think it was indicative of how great these guys were. They all had phone numbers to give me—they all kept in touch with each other. So many of these guys still lived in Pittsburgh. When they spoke about that era, there was never any bitterness about getting playing time, and there was never any bitterness about having not made as much money as they could have. They had such warm feelings talking about their friends, teammates, and coaches. When Joe Greene is telling me about chasing Alan Page with a pair of scissors or throwing a football into the stands in the middle of a game, he's laughing about it, because he's remembering the reaction that his teammates and his coaches had for him when he did those things, which was very short of tolerant.
All you remember is Jack Lambert and how fierce this team was, but there was some greatness and warmth to this team that I think gets forgotten. That's the tendency of history, and that's why these books are fun to do: They're about events that are recent enough that you can remember this team was great, but long enough ago that you can't really remember why.

Gelf Magazine: As Pittsburgh got further away from the steel industry in the 1970s—Texas businessman James J. Ling bought Jones & Laughlin Steel; jobs were being lost year after year—how important were the Steelers to the city?

Chad Millman: I think they were everything. The way the Steelers played was a reminder to everybody in Pittsburgh who was working in a mill, or who was getting laid off by a mill and didn't know what they were going to do next, that their way of life still mattered and that the ethos they believed in could still lead to greatness. It's the only way I could describe it. The Steelers played the way Pittsburgh residents lived, and they played the way they worked. So when the Steelers won, these guys weren't just cheering because their team was winning, they were cheering for the way the Steelers were winning. It was so representative of the way that fans lived and the way that they believed life should be played, that it was euphoric for them to experience that.

Gelf Magazine: Is today's America a Cowboys nation or a Steelers nation?

Chad Millman: I think right now we're much more a Steelers nation than a Cowboys nation.

Gelf Magazine: Why is that?

Chad Millman: The Steelers, when they win, have more people who can identify with the way in which they're winning and the way in which they play and their nostalgia for football than they can with the Cowboys, who are still as big as it gets. And I don't think people are feeling as big as it gets anymore.

Pete Croatto

Pete Croatto is a freelance journalist and movie/book critic whose writing has appeared in MAD, Publishers Weekly, ICON, and Deadspin.

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Article by Pete Croatto

Pete Croatto is a freelance journalist and movie/book critic whose writing has appeared in MAD, Publishers Weekly, ICON, and Deadspin.

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