Steelers Win Sixth Super Bowl
With less than three minutes to play and 88 yards to get to the end zone, Ben Roethlisberger and Santonio Holmes stepped up and delivered the only sixth Super Bowl win. Sportswriter Bill Modoono analyzes the most memorable games in Super Bowl history and one of the best franchises in sports.
Indulge me here. Your team has won yet another Super Bowl—and in remarkably dramatic fashion, no less. So please allow me a quick story about the last time the Pittsburgh Steelers won one, way back in 2006. You might remember the city’s rallying cry at the time: “One for the Thumb!” In Pittsburgh, everyone knew what that meant. Well, almost everyone. My wife didn’t. Not being a native Pittsburgher and not having the least bit of interest in the accomplishments of Chuck Noll’s Steelers, she was puzzled by the expression. She knew the team included someone called the “Bus.” So, who’s the “Thumb”? she wondered.
OK, funny. But her logic was sound. My wife figured that the team was rallying ’round a beloved teammate. Aren’t those the people who usually motivate players to win big games?
There was a time, of course, when winning “one for the thumb” could have been true. A number of Steelers in the 1970s had won four Super Bowl rings; the fifth was to go on the thumb, right? But long after all those winning Steelers had left the scene, the slogan lived on. Whose thumb was it now? The city’s, of course.
This year’s uninspired rallying cry urged the black-and-gold to pick up a “six pack.” Less poetic, but in the end it produced the same result. The city that insists on keeping track of the exact number of National Football League championships its favorite team wins added on another, this time by a 27-23 score over the Arizona Cardinals. At this point, feel free to ask: Do the Steelers really win these titles for themselves or for us?
To gauge local reaction, you might assume the latter. Periodic appearances by the Steelers in the Super Bowl have become so predictable they’ve developed a local reaction that is almost ritualistic. First you see an increase in the number of women who walk around Pittsburgh with their black-and-gold handbags with the number “43” on them. Then, there’s an influx of out-of-shape men wearing “86” jerseys in Giant Eagle. This is followed by those predictable downtown rallies and “Black-and-Gold Fridays” at schools and offices. Sprinkled in along the way are the funny wagers by politicians. This year, the AFC championship game prompted the mayor to temporarily renounce his name “Raven”stahl in favor of “Steeler”stahl. He even said he was keeping the name for the Super Bowl.
But these familiar Pittsburgh accouterments that go with another Steelers’ appearance in the Super Bowl carry a sense of urgency, too. If winning is what makes it wonderful, then nothing less than winning is acceptable. This year, even before the big game started, we got word that most area school districts had scheduled two-hour delays for Monday morning.
This time, a sixth title wasn’t just hoped for, it was pretty much expected. At the start of the two-week preparation leading up to Super Bowl XLIII, Steelers coach Mike Tomlin talked about how important it was to keep his team on a regular work schedule before they all flew to Tampa and left “normalcy” behind. But, really, what’s “normalcy” for the Steelers? You could certainly make the case that periodic Super Bowl appearances are not abnormal occurrences for them. For the Arizona Cardinals, yes. But the Steelers?
“This group understands the standard that comes with being a Pittsburgh Steeler,” said Tomlin. “We are aware of the standards. We are aware of the expectations. We embrace it. We don’t run from it. That’s how we operate.”
No other team competing for the championship this year could say the same. The New York Giants were the defending champs, yes, but before they got to embrace the expectations that go with such titles, they had that distracting business involving former Steeler Plaxico Burress and his handgun. One round and they were gone. After they left, the field was mostly loaded with teams that hadn’t spent much time anywhere near a Super Bowl spotlight in quite some time, if ever. Titans, Ravens, Dolphins, Cardinals. Teams without expectations. Without standards, if you will.
Teams without Rooneys, certainly, and too bad for them. This sixth title, above all the others, was really a demonstration of how essential the Rooney way is to the success of the franchise. It’s about how high expectations are quietly, but forcefully, passed from the owners of this family-run business to their highly paid employees; how a personal touch can still succeed in a business with no heart.
It’s a tradition that started with Art Rooney Sr., and has been passed on to his son Dan and now on to Dan’s son Arthur Rooney II. A tradition that starts with the family’s “genuine appreciation for the tough game that it is,” says former Steelers linebacker Andy Russell.
Russell remembers that “The Chief” knew how tough the game was, because he made it a point to attend every practice, not just the ones held on sunny days. Russell and his teammates always appreciated the way the family makes it a point to know the names of all the players and to know about their families as well.
In family businesses it is essential that “the owner cares” and is “genuine,” says Bill Repack, a professor of management at Robert Morris University and an expert on family-run businesses. “If people feel they are part of the family, they work harder,” Repack says. “They feel almost as if it’s their company.”
Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger lifts the Vince Lombardi Trophy victorious during the post-game award ceremony.
Photo: Mike Fabus, Pittsburgh Steelers
As a result, the high expectations the Rooneys have for their players are often fulfilled. “What they [the Rooneys] expect is your best,” says Repack. “Anything else is not good enough.”
The Rooney way runs counter to the NFL’s inherent socialistic streak, which trends toward parity and periodically results in playoff teams with 8-8 and 9-7 records. But parity doesn’t suit the Steelers; they are true NFL royalty. Winning a record sixth Vince Lombardi Trophy officially confirms that.
Unlike 2006, this was a Super Bowl that everyone in Pittsburgh could see on the horizon. In the regular season, the Steelers played what was considered the NFL’s toughest schedule and emerged with a highly respectable 12-4 record. They proved they belonged among the elite.
But, as noted, in Pittsburgh being an elite team is what’s expected. So, the team’s loyal fan base found much to complain about anyway. A Steelers team that couldn’t run for a first down on fourth-and-inches? No self-respecting Steelers team had ever had as much trouble grinding out short yardage on the ground as this unit did. A Steelers team without a reliable punter? Without consistent play from its offensive line? A Steelers team without one productive player selected in the most-recent draft? A Steelers team with a Super Bowl quarterback who was vilified as much as idolized? Yes, in many ways, this Steelers team was abnormal.
In the playoffs, you could argue that the Steelers were fortunate in avoiding two teams that had defeated them in the regular season—the Indianapolis Colts and the Tennessee Titans. But they also were good enough to defeat this season’s designated “team nobody wants to play”—the Baltimore Ravens. Beat them three times as a matter of fact. Yes, this team earned its way to Tampa.
And when the Steelers arrived there, they got to face a team that was both familiar and unknown. A team that had players, coaches and administrative personnel steeped in the Pittsburgh way of doing business. And an organization that was, at the same time, the polar opposite of the Steelers.
Where the Rooney family represents success based on stability and predictability, the Cardinals are a family-run team whose lack of success was reflected in the number of places they had worn out their welcome—Chicago, St. Louis, Phoenix. They finally landed in the Phoenix suburb of Glendale, Ariz., the site of many big football games, but until this year, none of which involved the Cardinals. While the Steelers had three head coaches since 1969, the Cardinals had four times as many, and, until this year, had yet to even make it to a conference championship game.
You could say the Cardinals only got things right after they decided to follow the Steelers model and hire Ken Whisenhunt, a former Steelers assistant. Oddly, that’s really not the way the Rooneys do things. When the Steelers have hired a new coach, they have never felt the need to hire from within, but instead are comfortable going outside the organization to get the right man. Chuck Noll arrived from San Diego, Bill Cowher from Kansas City and Mike Tomlin from Minnesota. And yet each has been successful and extended the Steelers brand, to put it in marketing terms.
Fortunately, you never think of the Steelers in marketing terms, because for four decades, their level of play has done all their marketing for them. The business of the Steelers is football; that’s why “The Chief” went to all those practices. That’s really what distinguishes them from most of their rivals in the NFL.
“We don’t care who gets the credit, and all we want to do is win,” is how Tomlin put it. “That permeates down from Dan Rooney. Those are the kind of people he assembles here, and it makes it a fun place to work.”
The players know the family has high expectations for them. “Absolutely,” says Russell, who adds, this is a kind of pressure that has “a family feel to it.”
In the Super Bowl, the Steelers had to face the pressure of losing a 13-point lead to a team that proved much tougher than advertised. With less than three minutes to play and 88 yards to get to the end zone, Ben Roethlisberger, Santonio Holmes and Co. stepped up and delivered. Holmes’ catch in the back of the end zone was the kind of play that only great athletes can make. That it was done under such circumstances only magnifies its difficulty.
“It was a drive that will be remembered for a long time,” said Roethlisberger in what is surely an understatement.
Linebacker James Harrison—whose 100-yard interception return now ranks with Franco Harris’ iconic “Immaculate Reception” in Steelers lore—thought the victory elevated the team to a new level. “Nobody else has six,” he said.
Steelers safety Troy Polamalu said the victory proved that the Steelers were “arguably the best franchise in sports,” a sentiment that was kicked around in the news media immediately after the game.
But Dan Rooney wasn’t playing that game. He doesn’t measure his team against others. Nor does he rate Super Bowl victories from one to six. To him, all of his NFL competitors are worthy adversaries and all his team’s titles are treasured. No. 6 was, “just a great feat for us,” he said.
Nor was Tomlin measuring himself against the coaches who had come before him, even though he, too, had gained admission to the exclusive Super Bowl champion club. “I just want to contribute to the legacy that is the Pittsburgh Steelers,” he said.
He has, as have the team’s players and his owners. As a result, the city now has six titles and a problem: What to call the campaign for the next one. “Seven Up”? “Magnificent Seven”?
How about “Seventh Heaven”?
No, we’re there already.
Bill Modoono is a Pittsburgh area freelance writer and a former 30-year veteran journalist who previously wrote sports for The Pittsburgh Press and the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. In addition to Pittsburgh magazine, his work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post and many other publications. He lives in Edgewood.