Hall of Famer
A Forgotten History: The Pre-Chuck Noll Era of the Pittsburgh Steelers
| Today the Pittsburgh Steelers are considered to be one of the best franchises in the NFL. They have won six Super Bowl titles, more than any other franchise, and have had only three head coaches since 1969.
But there's a long history of the Steelers that is often forgotten amongst even the most loyal fans. And that history ends with the teams hiring of Chuck Noll as head coach in 1969. Where it begins is a very different story.
The Steelers franchise was truly born on September 20, 1933 when they played their first game as the Pittsburgh Pirates, losing to the New York Giants 23-2. Throughout their first decade, Pittsburgh struggled mightily reaching a .500 record only once. In 1938, the team did sign Byron "Whizzer" White to what was then the largest contract in NFL history. But White played just one season in Pittsburgh before bolting to Detroit in 1939.
Prior to the 1940 season, the team dropped the Pirates moniker and officially became the Pittsburgh Steelers. But the name change had little impact on the field. Pittsburgh suffered a 3-16-3 combined record in 1940 and 1941.
But the team broke through in 1942, culminating in a 7-4 final record. It was the Steelers first winning season in franchise history. It would also be their last in five years.
In 1947, 14 years into the team's franchise history, Pittsburgh reached the postseason for the first time. They lost to the Philadelphia Eagles in their only playoff game, 21-0. Sadly, this would be the final playoff game for Pittsburgh until Noll took control of the team. The Steelers had one more winning season to close out the 40's in 1949 going 6-5-1.
The 50's decade saw the Steelers rise from a bad team to a middle-of-the-road team in the NFL. Pittsburgh posted a winning or .500 record in five years in the decade and helped develop some future names at the quarterback position.
Jim Finks became the first quarterback in Steelers history to throw for over 2,000 yards, heaving for 2,307 in 1952. He'd reach the milestone three of his four years under center. Earl Morrall, who would later gain fame with the Baltimore Colts, quarterbacked the Steelers for the 1957 season and led the team with 1,900 yards in the air.
Pittsburgh would also finish out the decade with future Lions Hall of Famer Bobby Layne calling the plays from 58-60 and again in 62.
But it was in the 1950's the Steelers made one of the more remarkable blunders in NFL history. In 1955, Pittsburgh spent a ninth round pick (No. 102 overall) on a little known quarterback from the University of Louisville. The quarterback's name was Johnny Unitas.
The Pittsburgh native was brought in under coach Walt Kiesling. Kiesling didn't think Unitas was smart enough to play the quarterback position and was cut before the 1955 season started without ever taking a snap in a Steelers uniform. Unitas went on to start his Hall of Fame career with the Colts in 1956 and became unquestionably one of the top five quarterbacks to ever play the game.
In 1962, the Steelers reached their highest win total in team history by winning their final three games of the season and amassing nine total victories. The team, however, still missed the playoffs pushing their postseason drought to 15 years.
As the 60's roared on, the Steelers got worse and worse, posting a 2-12 season in '65 and a 2-11-1 campaign in '68. That would be the last season before the Rooney's hired Noll in 1969.
In the 35 years of the Pittsburgh Steelers before Chuck Noll, the team saw some rough times. They posted an overall record of just 156-240 (minus the seasons they combined with other teams due to WWII shortages), a win percentage of .393. They compiled only 7 winning seasons and made the postseason only a single time, losing their only game.
The Steelers went through 17 head coaches during the period. They had 25 different leading passers and 21 different leading rushers in the pre-Noll era.
In comparison, in the 44 years since Noll took over the Steelers, the team has had 11 different passing leaders and 15 different leading rushers. They've made the playoffs 26 times and won six championships. Pittsburgh has amassed a total record of 678-405 since 1969, a winning percentage of .626.
Oh how times have changed in Pittsburgh.
Yet, it's simply amazing how unnoticed an entire era has gone. It's hard to believe, but for more than three decades, the Pittsburgh Steelers were the laughing-stock of professional football. And one man changed all of that.
I'm not saying the Steelers are headed back to utter futility. In today's NFL, it'd be almost impossible to achieve three decades of football that's that bad. But it does go to show how lucky Steeler fans have been since the 1970's. Pittsburgh has seen some of the best football in recent memory and built themselves into one of the NFL's elite.
Steelers fans should remember these unfortunate times. They're an important part of the long and storied history of their franchise. They may not be the most popular memories, but they're history none the less. And next time the Steelers fall on a Sunday, before you put your foot through that 60" TV, just remember things could be a lot worse.
Dan Snyder , a 2012 graduate of Temple University, has been covering the Pittsburgh Steelers for over a year now. His work has been published on mainstream sports media sites such as the Bleacher Report. Follow Dan on Twitter @dsnyder34 or shoot him an email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Are you sure Mean Joe wasn't the first player in franchise history? Prior to that, we might as well have been the Bengals.