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22 January 2009

The Greatest Franchise

By David Fleming~ESPN.com
Less than an hour before kickoff of the AFC Championship Game in Pittsburgh, I stepped toward an elevator inside an empty lobby of Heinz Field. In front of me was an older man with silver hair, matching glasses frames and a long black overcoat. Right away, I thought it was Steelers owner Dan Rooney … but how could that be, I wondered? Just a few minutes before the players took the field for the most important game of the year, the owner of one of the most successful sports franchises in the world was standing quietly by himself in the back corner of a public elevator? No security detail? No private elevator? No entourage? No cameras?
But it was him, all right. And while I nodded hello we were joined by a family of fans that included a toddler dressed up in a Steelers cheerleader outfit. And despite the parents' pleading and prodding -- as well as some cute grandfatherly encouragement from Rooney himself -- the shy little girl refused to acknowledge the Steelers owner with so much as a wink or a wave.
You have to know the Steelers and football's first family a little bit to understand this, but the snub actually seemed to delight Rooney.
At a black-tie dinner two nights later at a Hilton in Washington, D.C., Rooney had a little better luck when he handed over a game ball from the AFC Championship Game to the newest member of a now-rapidly expanding Steelers Nation: the 44th president of the United States, Barack Obama.
"He's a Bears fan first, he admits that," Rooney told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. "But he's a Steelers fan. He said it, and all his staff, they're rooting for us [in the Super Bowl]."
The thought first popped into my head while watching Rooney leave that elevator and disappear down a hallway of Heinz Field, the picture of quiet, dignified strength. Then I actually wrote it in my notebook after the Steelers beat up the Ravens for a trip to Super Bowl XLIII and the chance to become the first NFL team to win six Lombardi trophies. But now that the most popular man on the planet and the leader of the free world has acknowledged his allegiance to the black and gold, I feel a lot more comfortable asking this question out loud:
Are the Steelers the best sports franchise ever?

Purchased by Art Rooney Sr. in 1933, with $2,500 he supposedly won at the track (love that), the Steelers initially struggled for decades. But since the AFL-NFL merger in 1970 (something Art Sr. helped orchestrate), no one's been better. No one. And now, after seven Super Bowls, 30 postseason wins, seven championship games in the past 14 years, 19 Hall of Famers and the dynasty of the 1970s that includes probably the greatest, baddest football team ever assembled … if you factor in the popularity of the NFL and the quaint but sturdy Midwestern soul of this franchise, it's hard to argue against what the Steelers have built.
Yes, of course, I know the Montreal Canadiens have won 24 Stanley Cups. But if we're talking about the best-run, most successful franchise in our lifetime, the Habs are disqualified for winning only two Cups in the past 30 years. There are the defending NBA champs in Boston, of course, who have collected 17 titles, but they too were largely a non-factor for the past two decades. The Cowboys? America's Team? Please. They haven't won a playoff game in a dozen years.
The stats definitely favor the Yankees, I know. In fact, the numbers are nearly impossible to argue: They've got a gazillion titles (26) in 109 years, but nothing since 2000. The Steelers could have six in the past 43, giving them 14 percent of their sport's titles as compared to 24 percent for the Yanks. I could go on with this, but the truth is math gives me a headache. So let me say this: You can't buy titles in football the way you can on the diamond. Therefore extreme parity in the NFL, plus the economic constraints of a hard salary cap, make it (at least) twice as hard to win Lombardi trophies.
"I see the personal sacrifice that people from our team make on a daily basis for this to happen," coach Mike Tomlin said Sunday night. "That is not just the players; the players are special, but the support staff, training, equipment, medical team, etc. It is a lot of sacrifice by a lot of people. I would be remiss if I didn't acknowledge that this is the Steelers' story and not my story."
Indeed, as Tomlin spoke it was impossible not to feel the profound impact of the Rooney Rule. In 2003 Dan Rooney chaired a committee that opened doors and changed the face of our national pastime by requiring teams to interview at least one minority candidate for head-coaching jobs. Rooney, who was elected to the Hall of Fame in 2000 and has had a major impact on labor negotiations and realignment in the NFL, has always said the best part of his Rooney Rule is that, hopefully, the NFL won't need it much longer. (Maybe the NFL can loan it to the NCAA.)
That kind of social responsibility and impact, however, is one reason why during the past five years the Steelers have compiled an average ranking of 12 in ESPN The Magazine's exhaustive and comprehensive evaluation of all 122 sports franchises. The Yanks' rank? No. 33. In a sports world drowning in drama, the Steelers are the picture of continuity: They've had one philosophy (defense wins championships) and three coaches in the past four decades. The Lions, meanwhile, are on their fourth coach in the past four years.
And finally, let's not forget the little fact that the Steelers aren't currently constructing a new stadium that destroys inner-city playgrounds and green space while costing taxpayers a billion bucks.
Sorry, Yanks; it's the Terrible Towel.
Realizing that the argument for the Steelers as the best sports franchise would still be a pretty tough sell (I mean, none of their players are, like, dating Madonna, duh), late Sunday inside the Pittsburgh locker room I asked Dan's son, Steelers President Art Rooney II, what the team's secret was.
"Our secret?" he said, almost embarrassed by the question. "We try to put a team on the field every year that can win a championship … "
Then he stopped for a split second.
And I swear, that artful pause somehow perfectly captured the essence of this franchise, a team that has remained grounded in its Steeltown roots while simultaneously soaring over the rest of the sports landscape.
We try to put a team on the field every year that can win a championship.
"And," Rooney said, "we never take a year off."
As I read this, I realize that he is absolutely right. Now, I am biased because I am a hardcore Steelers fan, but if you can step back and not only look at the whole picture, but look at that picture from every angle, the storied Steelers franchise can't be compared to any team in any sport in history.


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