The Pittsburgh Steelers’ franchise is a classic example of announcer Bob Prince’s maxim of “hidden vigorish.” According to Prince, it means that the more you lose the closer you come to winning. The Steelers’ franchise was founded in 1933, and during the years from their founding until 1972, the team did a lot of losing. They won their division only once during those nearly four decades of play, in 1947, but lost that division championship match.
Poor Performance Results in Few Candidates for Canton
As a result of those lean years, only a few Steelers trickled into the NFL Hall of Fame during the first few decades of the hall’s opening. The Hall of Fame opened in 1963 in Canton, Ohio, and the first inductees were sort of “catch up” inductees, obvious legends of the game who were a shoe-in for inclusion such as league founders, franchise owners, and outstanding players of by-gone eras. In that inaugural year, the Steelers had two inductees: Bert Bell (a co-owner of the team) and Johnny “Blood” McNally, who played and coached in the 1930s. The following year, Art Rooney, founder and president of the team, was inducted. Throughout the rest of the 1960s, the Steelers sent a quartet of players to the hall: Bill Dudley, a player in the 1940s, and Walt Kiesling, a player in the 1930s and coach in the 1940s and for one season in 1961, were taken into the hall in 1966. Bobby Layne, a player from 1958-1962, was inducted in 1967, while Ernie Stautner, who played 13 years from 1950-1963, was inducted in 1969. Players are inducted into the hall on an individual basis and not by team. There were several other inductees who made stops during their careers in Pittsburgh on their way to the hall including players and coaches such as Cal Hubbard, Marion Motley, Earle Neale, Bill Hewitt and Len Dawson. Of all the players inducted during the 1960s, only Stautner was a lifelong Steeler.
The Trickle of Steelers Turns into a Torrent
True to the law of the hidden vigorish, the hapless Steelers had lost so much, they had to start winning. And win they did. During the 1970s, the team won four Super Bowls, twice back to back in 1974 and 1975 and then again in 1978 and 1979, establishing the Steelers of 1970s as one of the greatest dynasties in NFL history. This unprecedented success set the stage for so many trips to Canton in the late ‘80s, ‘90s, and 2000s, that it’s a wonder that there aren’t ruts worn into the Ohio Turnpike from all the Steelers and their fans heading to the hall for induction ceremonies. The Steelers’ dynasty years featured some of the greatest athletes to ever play the game, resulting in a torrent of players heading to the hall. In 1987, Mean Joe Green was taken in as was Steelers great Henry Johnson, whose best years as a player were spent as a Steeler during the 1960s. In 1988, Jack Ham was inducted. For the next two years, Steelers went into the hall in pairs like passengers on Noah’s Ark. 1989 saw Mel Blount and Terry Bradshaw inducted, and in 1990 Steeler favorites Franco Harris and Jack Lambert joined the swelling ranks of teammates in Canton.
The man behind the success, Coach Chuck Noll, was inducted in 1993, as was Mike Webster in 1997. President and Chairman Dan Rooney was admitted in 2000 and the dynamic duo of Steelers wide receivers Lynn Swann and John Stallworth followed, with Swann entering the hall in 2001 and Stallworth in 2002.
From 1990 through 2015, the Steelers made it to the post-season 16 times, along the way claiming two more Super Bowl rings in 2005 and 2008. While the decades of the ‘80s and ‘90s produced no Super Bowl teams, they did produce some hall-of-fame players: Rod Woodson, who was inducted in 2009 and Dermontti Dawson who was inducted in 2012 along with Jack Butler, the Steelers great who played in the 1950s.
Who’s Up Next for the Hall?
The Super Bowl teams from the “one for the thumb” and “Sixburgh” eras are just starting to be considered for inclusion in the Hall of Fame. Jerome Bettis is the first from that era of Steelers stardom to be taken into the hall. “The Bus” was inducted in 2015. As players retire, the speculation about who will be honored by the hall will certainly increase and provide fodder for barroom debates. Among the names mentioned are Ben Roethlisberger, Alan Faneca, Hines Ward, and Troy Polamalu, not to mention the highly deserving and overlooked member from the Steelers of the 1970s, L. C. Greenwood.
The Chicago Bears stand atop the heap of the Hall of Fame inductees with a mix of 31 players, coaches, and front office members. Comparatively, the Steelers can boast 28 members who were once affiliated with the team, not a bad statistic considering the Bears have been around 13 years longer than the Steelers and for forty years were perpetual losers. The Steelers made up for a lot of lost time since the 1970s.
Perhaps it’s because fans endured so many losing years that they take extra pleasure in winning and supporting the team. Whenever a Steeler is inducted into the Hall of Fame, it can be assured that hordes of Steelers’ fans will flock to Canton to cheer, remember, and express their gratitude to the players, coaches, and management who have helped to make Pittsburgh proud.