Pittsburgh Steelers, Arizona Cardinals share long history

TAMPA — A lifetime ago, their stories were almost exactly the same.

This owner was an operator of horse tracks, and that one was a player of the ponies. This one bought an existing NFL team in 1932, and that one was awarded an expansion team a few months later.

From 1933 to 1945, this team was a joke. And that one was even worse. When they combined rosters for a year during World War II, they managed to morph into something twice as awful.

In the first 30-odd years of family ownership, this team had two postseason appearances. And that team had one. Yes, they were two of a kind, these Cardinals and Steelers.

And then, all of a sudden, they weren't.

Gray hair is probably a pretty good cut-off point.

If you have none, then you have no reason to know any better. For, in your lifetime, the Steelers have been the epitome of NFL stability and excellence. And the Cardinals have been, well, something much less. The Rooney family is beloved in Pittsburgh for its loyalty. The Bidwill family? Not so much in Chicago and St. Louis.

For today's fans, the participants in Super Bowl XLIII could not be more different. The Steelers are trying to become the first team in the Super Bowl era to win six NFL championships. The Cardinals have not won an NFL title since 1947.

Yet, until the 1970s, the Steelers were the Cardinals. Maybe even more so.

"It took us umpteen thousand years to even look fairly respectable," said Ed Kiely, 90, who began working for the Steelers in the 1940s and later became Art Rooney Sr.'s assistant. "I used to drive to these little towns along the rivers and try to get the newspaper guys to write a little something about the Steelers. Nobody cared about the team."

The Bears and Giants were NFL royalty. Eventually, the Packers were too. The other longtime franchises, the Steelers and Cardinals, struggled to find a foothold through the 1950s and '60s.

Cardinals owner Charles Bidwill died in 1947, and his son Bill later ran the team. Art Rooney Sr. lived until the late 1980s, but his son Dan took over the day-to-day operations long before that.

It was in Dan's early years that the franchises veered in opposite directions. Though Art, known as The Chief, had kept the Steelers in Pittsburgh through some lean years, he was more of a baseball and boxing enthusiast. The Steelers were not his passion, and he often hired friends, or friends of friends, as head coaches.

Dan was far more serious about football.

"The Chief was always into other things, so his concentration wasn't necessarily on football," said Bill Nunn, a Steelers scout since 1968. "Once Dan came in, the operation of the ballclub changed. For Dan and Art Jr., this is their life. To me, that's one of the reasons for their success. They're here early in the morning, working as hard as anybody.

"You would never know these guys have money. Have you seen Dan Rooney's car? I don't know what model it is, but I know I drive a bigger car. That's the kind of people they are; they have time for everybody and they never put on airs."

No single event changed the direction of these two franchises, but Jan. 27, 1969 comes close. The Steelers introduced Chuck Noll as their coach that day, and Pittsburgh was never the same.

Noll began a tradition of continuity and building within for the franchise. Player scouting and development was paramount. When the Steelers won the Super Bowl in 1978 — the third of four titles under Noll — every player who started a game that season was homegrown through the draft or as college free agents.

Over the next 40 seasons, the Steelers employed three head coaches and all of them have taken the team to the Super Bowl.

The Cardinals, meanwhile, have had no stability. Including interim tenures, they have had 14 coaches in 40 years. They moved from St. Louis to Arizona, and floundered in the desert for more than a decade.

The eventual change was similar to what the Rooneys went through, just one generation later. Charley Bidwill's grandson Michael left his job as a federal prosecutor to work with his father in 1996. He helped get a new stadium built in Arizona, which increased the team's revenue flow and allowed for greater payrolls.

And it has momentarily stemmed the criticism of the Bidwills as cut-rate owners.

"When you win, like the Rooneys have, it's something people talk about. When you don't win, like we have until this year, it's something people will talk about," Michael Bidwill said. "(My father) couldn't be happier. He's not a very expressive guy, but he's really thrilled. He's in a terrific mood.

"I feel good that I've been a part, and the coaches and players and the rest of the organization have been a part, of getting this thing turned around, and being able to watch my dad lift up the George Halas Trophy (as NFC champion)."

It has taken more than 70 years, and a few branches down the family tree, but the Steelers and Cardinals are together again. Just like the old days.

John Romano can be reached at romano@sptimes.com.

Pittsburgh Steelers, Arizona Cardinals share long history 01/28/09 [Last modified: Thursday, January 29, 2009 7:38am]

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