When I was a little Tony just wondering around, loving the Steelers, I didn't have high expectations. It was the early 80's and the Steelers weren't the kings of the football world any longer. Sure, legendary players like Jack Ham, Terry Bradshaw, Joe Greene, and Franco Harris were still playing, but they were old and in the the last days of their careers. The team was pretty mediocre at that point and I always looked at them as underdogs.
I probably shouldn't have looked at them that way. After all, these were the same players who won multiple Super Bowls just a few years prior. But what did I know? I wasn't into sports in the 70's. I was into Mr. Rogers, and the Incredible Hulk. As I've said many times, the first game that I remember watching was Super Bowl XIV when the Steelers faced the upstart Los Angeles Rams. Pittsburgh captured their 4th Super Bowl of the decade and I was happy. I have been a die hard fan ever since. But I wasn't really conditioned to have high expectations. I didn't know any better.
My first full year following the team on a weekly basis proved to be rather disappointing as they finished 9-7 and missed the playoffs in 1980. What timing, right? The next year, they missed the playoffs again. In 1982, they made the playoffs but lost in the first round and by 1983, the majority of those great players had retired.
By that point, I had good reason to view the Steelers as underdogs, and how could I not, rooting for guys like Cliff Stoudt, Mark Malone, Walter Abercrombie, and Keith Gary.
The Steelers actually won 10 games in '83, and for someone like me, who was used to 9-7 and 8-8, that was pretty cool. I remember being all excited and telling my grandfather that they won 10 games, but he didn't seem very impressed. After all, why would he be? He was used to Super Bowls. 10 wins was expected every year. Hell, 12 or 13 victories was the standard. And it didn't matter that the team was being led by average NFL players, winning lots of games was expected no matter what. Most of the adults that remembered the 70's had those same expectations. It seemed like every Steeler fan did. Forget the number of wins. They all wanted Super Bowls. Looking back on it now, it wasn't very realistic, but that's what those people wanted.
In 1984, the Steelers were more mediocre than ever, but they managed to squeak into the playoffs with a 9-7 record. They somehow went into Denver and knocked off the Broncos, who were huge favorites. The following week, the expectations were for them to go into Miami and defeat Dan Marino and the high-powered Miami Dolphins and then go to the Super Bowl. When that didn't happen, people were pretty upset. In fact, I heard more than one person suggest that if they could have defeated Miami, they would have no doubt beaten the San Fransisco 49ers in the Super Bowl, because Pittsburgh was the only team to defeat San Fran the entire season. Really? The 9-7 Steelers, led by Mark Malone at quarterback, were good enough to beat San Fransisco, with Joe Montana, Roger Craig, and Ronnie Lott? Okay then.
As for me, I was just happy to see the Steelers make it as far as they did. After all, I didn't know any better.
Later in the decade, after some pretty sub-standard years, the Steelers had a Cinderella season in 1989, where they made the playoffs as a wild card and knocked off the Houston Oilers to advance to the divisional playoffs against the Broncos. If the Steelers could somehow get by the Broncos and then the hated Browns the following week to advance to the Super Bowl, they would then face the defending champion San Fransisco 49ers, winners of 3 previous Super Bowls in the 1980's, and they would stop them from matching their mark of 4 titles. Ok, so the Steelers of Bubby Brister, Louis Lipps, David Little and Keith Willis, were going to stand toe-to-toe with Joe Montana, Jerry Rice....okay, you get my drift. But that's what people around here thought would happen. How could they think that? It's illogical, right?
The Steelers didn't make it past Denver as they lost a heart breaker in the final moments. As for me, I was disappointed, but I had the time of my life watching the 1989 Steelers. They were underdogs almost every week, and just making the playoffs was a reason to celebrate, at least for me. And when they took it one step further and defeated the Oilers in overtime in the wild card round? Wow! Truly an epic moment for me.
By the early 90's, the Steelers mediocrity continued, and Chuck Noll retired. Bill Cowher came in to take over as head coach. In his very first year, he led them to 11 wins. I couldn't believe it. My Steelers, the team that only won more than 9 games once the entire time I followed them had actually won 11 games? Something to be proud of, that's for sure. The years that followed saw the team become an annual Super Bowl contender. Something I wasn't used to. They made the playoffs six straight years in the 90's and actually appeared in Super Bowl XXX. They always seemed to be in contention, and I started to raise my level of expectations. I wasn't quite at the level of expecting a Super Bowl every year, but I sure as heck expected them to make the playoffs annually.
The expectations of people who remembered the 70's never changed. Every year, regardless of how well they did, if they came up short in the playoffs, it was a bad year. I never bought into that mentality, even though seeing Pittsburgh lose in the AFC Championship game 4 times was quite agonizing. People wanted that "One for The Thumb." I did too, don't get me wrong. I wondered how I would react if it ever happened. Finally, in 2005, it happened. The Steelers not only made the Super Bowl as a wild card, they won it. I think I partied for a year, I was so happy. And then just two seasons ago, it happened again. The Steelers won their second title in a four year-span.
Now, I understand. I get it. I know why the adults in the 80's were acting the way they were. Now I know why people expect nothing less than a championship every year around here. When it happens, when you witness it, when you experience the thrill of it as a fan, there is nothing like it. Nothing at all. You want to experience that feeling again and again. When it happens more than once, it becomes like a drug. Anything less than that high just won't measure up.
It has become the new standard for me.
Before 2005, I often wondered if my Steelers would ever win the whole thing, now I expect it every year. I can't imagine the team not making the Super Bowl this year, next year and the year after that. That's all I want. I don't want just a division title. I don't want a playoff victory. I want the whole ball of wax. I want the parade. I want 7, 8, 9, 10 Lombardi trophies. I want every finger on both hands covered in rings.
This is why Yankees fans are the way they are. This is way Lakers fans are the way they are. Heck, this is why Notre Dame fans are the way they are. When you experience years of excellence, that's all you want regardless of how irrational it may be.
Years from now, when I'm a little older and the team is, perhaps, a lot less talented than it's been in recent years, I'll probably be like those adults in the 1980's who expected Bubby Brister to outplay John Elway. Or who wanted Brian Hinkle, Dwayne Woodruff, and Keith Willis to dominate Dan Marino.
But that's okay, because as Coach Tomlin likes to say, the standard is the standard.