Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Pittsburgh Steelers War Years

In the 1940s, Art Rooney’s Steelers along with other teams suffered financially as players went off to war and the public interest in the game declined. Of those who did play, some had injuries that precluded them from military servicepoor eyesight, chronic leg injuries, etc.but they were able to play football. Some professional players were also preoccupied with full-time jobs to back the war effort. 

In a few instances teams merged for a season at a time to control costs. In 1943, the Steelers and Eagles became the Steagles. In 1944, the Steelers and the Cardinals became the Card-Pitts. It was not easy for teams to share players and for coaches from two different teams to work together. No doubt, it was also a challenge to come up with cheers for the Card-Pitts. 

In 1946 as the war ended, Rooney brought in Jock Sutherland, the legendary taskmaster of the Pittsburgh (College) Panthers to coach. Sutherland was just the right man for the jobhonest and tough. According to Dan Rooney, Sutherland’s football was “rockem-sockem coal miner football.” Sutherland’s great reputation helped the Steelers to sell season tickets. Sales jumped from 1,500 to 22,000 after he was named new head coach.

Sutherland preferred a single wing attack used in college versus the T formation that had gained acceptance in the pros. He made it work in Pittsburgh because he drilled his players to perform it perfectly. After having won just one game in 1945, the Steelers went 5–5–1 in Sutherland’s first year, 1946. In his second year, they leapfrogged to an 8–4 record. The Steelers tied for the division lead and lost to the Eagles in their first playoff. Pittsburgh fans were looking forward to the next season. Sadly, Sutherland died from a heart attack before the next season got underway. 

Hopes of a championship did not immediately slip away. John Michelosen, a young protégé of Sutherland, took over, but the Steelers dropped to 4–8 in 1948. They improved to 6–5–1 in 1949. The Steelers picked up Jim Finks in the 1949 draft, giving them an excellent pass combination of Finks to tight end Ebbie Nickel that would please the fans in the early-to-mid 50s. Rooney also added tailbacks Bobby Gage and Joe Geri, who would help entertain the fans. Unfortunately, the Steelers would get no closer to the championship under Michelosen’s tenure, which lasted through 1951. He held tight to Sutherland’s single-wing offense and could not make it work in the pros.

 Post is taken from Sports and Faith: Stories of the Devoted and the Devout.

Copyright 2014, Sporting Chance Press.  Patrick McCaskey is a senior director of the Chicago Bears, Chairman of Sports Faith International that recognizes athletes who lead exemplary lives, and  Chairman of Catholic Radio Station WSFI 88.5 FM. Sports and Faith: Stories of the Devout and the Devoted by Patrick McCaskey published by Sporting Chance Press and available on Amazon and selected stores and public libraries.