3400 South Water Street
In 1933, Art Rooney purchased an NFL franchise for $2,500. Over the next eight decades the Pittsburgh Steelers have become a beloved part of the city, bringing so many great moments to the league and the Steel City.
Pittsburgh Steelers Sports, Inc., is the operating company for the National Football League's Pittsburgh Steelers, four-time winners of the Super Bowl. The company is privately owned by a second generation of the Rooney family. With the opening of a new football stadium, Heinz Field, the Steelers are now involved in developing the real estate that surrounds the facility. The team, founded in 1933, is only one of five NFL franchises still in existence from that period.
The Steelers were founded in 1933 by Arthur Joseph Rooney, better known as Art. He was born in Coultersville, Pennsylvania, in 1901, one of nine children. Two years later his family moved to Pittsburgh's North Side, then known as Old Allegheny, where they lived over their father's saloon. Close by was Exposition Field where the Pittsburgh Pirates baseball team played its home games. Baseball was actually Rooney's first love, but he grew to love most sports, and despite his slight frame, standing just five-feet-seven, he proved to be a versatile athlete. He was a good enough boxer to win Amateur Athletic Union titles in the welterweight and middleweight classes and to earn a berth on the U.S. Olympic boxing team in 1920, although he would not participate in the games. He was also a good enough football player that legendary coach Knute Rockne recruited him to play at Notre Dame. Rooney, however, elected to stay home in Pittsburgh to play football at Duquesne University and college baseball at Georgetown University and Indiana State Normal School of Pennsylvania. Rooney attempted to make a career out of baseball, playing minor league ball in Wheeling, West Virginia, from 1921 to 1925, but an arm injury ended his pitching career and he was unable to entertain offers to play major league ball with the Boston Red Sox or Chicago Cubs.
Rooney now turned his attention to football. He played semi-professionally for the Canton Bulldogs, then from 1926 to 1932 organized his own Pittsburgh clubs under several names: the P.J. Rooneys, the North Side Majestics, and the Hope Harveys. He also staged boxing events and became active in horse racing. He began breeding racehorses in 1930 and became an adept handicapper. According to family lore, one day at Empire City Raceway in 1936 (or perhaps 1937) Rooney placed a $10 bet (or perhaps $500) on a long shot and went on to win over $100,000 that afternoon. The next day he took his bankroll to Saratoga Raceway where he increased his winnings to $300,000 (or perhaps $380,000). It had been another good day at the track that supposedly allowed Rooney to buy a franchise in the fledgling National Football League in 1933. For $2,500 he was awarded the NFL's fifth franchise.
Rooney named his new football team the Pittsburgh Pirates after the local baseball club. (Other early NFL teams also latched onto the names of their hometown baseball teams, such as the New York Giants, New York Yankees, and Brooklyn Dodgers.) The Pirates became a member of the Eastern Division in the ten-team league and played most of their games at the University of Pittsburgh's Forbes Field, home to the baseball Pirates. In the early days of its history, however, the team was at the end of the pecking order of area sports teams. The University of Pittsburgh football team was a winning program, so that when scheduling conflicts occurred with baseball or college football, the football Pirates were forced to play their home games elsewhere. Given the team's lack of success, winning just 22 games in its first seven seasons, it was little wonder that Rooney's club played "home" games as far away as Louisville and New Orleans--as well as in Johnstown and Latrobe, Pennsylvania, and Youngstown, Ohio. One of the team's star players of this period was Byron "Whizzer" White, an All-American at the University of Colorado who would lead the league in rushing in 1938. He would also go on to become a Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court for 31 years.
To keep his losing team afloat Rooney often had to rely on his track winnings to meet the payroll and pay the bills. At this stage, the club was little more than a hobby for Rooney, who did not seem overly troubled that the franchise lost money during its first seven years. In 1940 the Pirates became the Steelers, following a contest in which a fan submitted the name in homage to the city's predominant industry. The fan won free tickets for a year; the switch in names, however, failed to change the team's losing ways. Rooney, discouraged, sold the team to Alexis Thompson and bought a half-interest in the Philadelphia Eagles, which were owned by his friend Bert Bell. Thompson tried to relocate the Steelers to Boston, but the NFL denied permission. Rooney had second thoughts about leaving his hometown, and soon a deal was worked out that satisfied all parties. Bell had not done well in Philadelphia and agreed to swap franchises with Thompson. Bell and Rooney would co-own the Steelers until 1946 when Rooney bought out Bell, who became the NFL Commissioner.
The Steelers enjoyed their first winning season in 1942, winning seven and losing four, but with the United States now involved in World War II, many football players were drawn into the military, and NFL clubs were forced to adjust to thinned-out rosters. Once again the Steelers and Eagles were linked together, this time merging their teams for the 1943 season. Officially known as the Phil-Pitt Combine, the resulting team would be popularly known as the "Steagles," dividing their home games between Pittsburgh and Philadelphia. In 1944 the Steelers merged with the Chicago Cardinals. The Card-Pitt Combine suffered through a winless season and earned the unenviable name of the "Carpets." In 1945, with the war having ended, the Steelers were able to be reformed. Still, other than the 1947 season, when the team won a share of the Eastern Division title but lost in a playoff game to the Philadelphia Eagles, the Steelers continued to be a perennial loser.
The Steelers were destined to endure another 25 years of futility. It was very much a rag-tag organization, the team offices located in a downtown hotel and financial records maintained in a black notebook. For years, Rooney, who had little love for lawyers, entered only into handshake contracts with his players. During the 1950s the team managed just two winning seasons, while making a number of poor player decisions. The Steelers cut future quarterback John Unitis, traded Quarterback Len Dawson, and passed on drafting running back Jim Brown. All three would win championships and be elected to football's Hall of Fame. One highlight of this period came in 1962 when the Steelers posted its best record to date, nine wins and five losses. By virtue of finishing second in its division, the team played in what was dubbed the "Playoff Bowl," losing to Detroit 17-10. What was essentially an exhibition game between also-rans failed to captivate the interest of America's football fans and the format was soon dropped. The year 1962 was also noteworthy in the team history because it was the first season the Steelers adopted its Steelmark logo, which had been created by U.S. Steel Corporation and later turned over to the American Iron and Steel Institute (AISI) so that the design could represent the industry as a whole. While other NFL teams adopted logos during the 1950s, the Steelers simply added the players' numbers to the side of their gold helmets. It was at the suggestion of a Cleveland company, Republic Steel, that the team began to apply the Steelmark to its helmets. Unsure how well the logo would look against a gold background, the team elected to place the Steelmark on just one side. The word "Steel" inside the logo was changed to "Steelers" with the permission of AISI. When the team played in the 1962 Playoff Bowl, management, to mark the occasion, painted the Steelers helmets black, a change which served to better highlight the logo. The new combination was so well received that the team decided to make the look permanent. As a result, the Steelers became the only NFL team with its logo on just one side of the helmet.
With the advent of the American Football League in the 1960s and the heated rivalry with the NFL that ensued, football was becoming very popular. The leagues would merge, resulting in the playing of the Super Bowl and ever-escalating television contracts. Because professional football decided to evenly share television revenues, even losing clubs like the Steelers became profitable concerns. The fortunes of the Steelers on the field were also about to change. In 1969 Rooney hired a new head coach, 37-year-old Chuck Noll, a former defensive coach with the Baltimore Colts and San Diego Chargers. Although Noll would post three consecutive losing seasons, he began to put together the foundation of a team that would become a dynasty during the 1970s.
Other changes were also taking place. As part of the merger agreement between the NFL and AFL, the Steelers along with the Cleveland Browns and Baltimore Colts joined the AFL teams in the new American Football Conference in 1970. In that same year the team moved into a new home, Three Rivers Stadium, after nearly 40 years of either playing at Forbes Field or the University of Pittsburgh's Pitt Stadium. Even though Three Rivers was a multipurpose stadium shared with the Pirates, it was a dramatic improvement over the club's prior arrangements and added to the club's profitability.
Super Success in the 1970s
The Steelers made the playoffs in 1972 and the first playoff game ever held in Three Rivers would prove to be one of the most famous NFL games after played, almost entirely because of one play, the so-called Immaculate Reception. Trailing 7-6 in the final minute, quarterback Terry Bradshaw hurled a desperation, fourth-down pass that was deflected into the hands of running back Franco Harris, who ran the ball into the end zone for the winning score with five seconds left on the clock. Although the Steelers would lose the next week to the Miami Dolphins, they served notice that they were now contenders. With a defense known as the Steel Curtain and offensive stars such as Harris, Bradshaw, Lynn Swann, and John Stallworth, the team would win Super Bowls in 1975, 1976, 1979, and 1980.
Well before he experienced the success of winning, Art Rooney in 1964 was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame for his contributions to the game. He then began to turn over day-to-day responsibilities to his son, Daniel M. Rooney, who was in his mid-30s and had been involved with the club since childhood, attending his first training camp at the age of five and becoming a water boy when he was 14. He was only 18 when he began to negotiate player contracts. After graduating from Duquesne University with a degree in accounting in 1955 he joined his father with the Steelers and became involved in all aspects of running the business. In 1975 he was named president. Art Rooney, known affectionately as The Chief, remained involved in the running of the Steelers, as chairman, until his death. In August 1988 he suffered a stroke while walking to his office at Three Rivers and died several days later. Despite being a multimillionaire--he also owned three horse racing tracks and a breeding farm--he continued to live in a house across the street from where he was raised. He was beloved by his players and a revered figure in the city of Pittsburgh and within the football community.
The 1990s and Beyond
Although the Steelers failed to win additional Super Bowls in the final two decades of the century, they generally fielded winning teams. When the Steelers suffered through a losing season, the Rooney family, unlike many NFL owners, were patient and not quick to fire the head coach. Noll retired after the 1991 season, during which the Steelers won seven and lost nine. He was replaced by 35-year-old Bill Cowher, a former Browns and Chiefs assistant, who quickly turned around the team. In his first year, Cowher led the Steelers to their first Central Division title since 1984. Following the 1995 season, Cowher became the youngest head coach at the time to take a team to the Super Bowl. The team lost to the Dallas Cowboys, the only time the Steelers lost a Super Bowl game in franchise history. Even when the Steelers suffered back-to-back losing seasons in 1998 and 1999, and missed the playoffs in 2003, the Rooney family remained patient, electing to retain Cowher.
In the 1990s the economics of the NFL began to shift as some teams began to enjoy the benefits of new state-of-the-art stadiums, replete with an abundance of luxury suites that brought in extra income. The Steelers operated in a small market where ancillary income, such as radio rights, were modest. The Steelers, because of the league's policy of sharing television revenues and the imposition of a cap on player salaries, remained profitable, but not to the same extent as other NFL franchises. Moreover, the Steelers lacked amenities such as a modern training facility, a feature becoming very important in teams' ability to attract free agent talent. The Steelers, as well as the Pirates, began pleading for new stadiums, ones that would be devoted purely to their respective sports. The same situation prevailed on the other end of the state in Philadelphia, where the Phillies baseball team and the Eagles were making similar demands. The Steelers, immensely popular in Western Pennsylvania, talked about finding a new home outside of Pittsburgh, but still in the region, which added some pressure for the state officials to act. Similar threats also emerged from the other sports franchise in the two cities. Several years passed before the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and the cities of Pittsburgh and Philadelphia were able to secure the necessary funding and negotiate the teams' contribution to the financing of four new stadiums in the state. In the end, the Steelers agreed to pay $76 million. Groundbreaking took place on June 18, 1999.
Before the new stadium opened, the team, in 2000, moved into a new training facility it would share with the University of Pittsburgh football program, The UPMC Sports Performance Complex. As for the new stadium, the Steelers wanted to name it after Art Rooney, but because the money received from naming rights was such an important economic factor the team tried to find a corporate sponsor that would share the name with the Steelers founder. That effort failed and the team ultimately sold the naming rights to H.J. Heinz Co. for $57 million over 20 years, an amount that was less than what the Steelers had hoped for. The 65,000-seat Heinz Field opened in August 2001. The new facility also brought with it real estate development possibilities, as the Steelers and the Pirates acquired the development rights to 25 acres of land that separated their new stadiums. Thirty years earlier there had been plans to develop the area around Three Rivers, including restaurants, stores, hotels, and office buildings, but in the end nothing significant resulted other than the paving of vast parking lots. Because the sports teams received parking revenue they were disinclined to invest in real estate projects. This time, the Pirates and Steelers were determined to maximize the value of the surrounding land. They hired Continental Real Estate Cos. to pursue a number of projects, including a new office building that would serve as the headquarters for Equitable Resources and a 5,600 seat amphitheater.
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