To be sure, every long-standing franchise of the NFL can lay claim to contributions and "firsts" when it comes to the historical development of the NFL. Some of these elements may have been stop-gap measures to get by in a particular season or situation. Others were profound contributions that improved some aspect of the game. In either case, there is one thing for certain. The Pittsburgh Steelers can be proud of their body of work when it comes to helping the league in some form or fashion.
After the Steelers combined with the Eagles in 1943, in reaction to lost manpower due to World War II, things began returning to normal for the 1944 season. The Army declared that it had enough men in service and that no one over 26-years old would be drafted. The Steelers and Eagles went their separate ways. The Cleveland Rams resumed operations and the Boston Yanks became an expansion team. A major problem arose when the eight-team 1943 league became an 11-team league in 1944. Eleven teams became a scheduling nightmare, back in an age when the owners would get together at their Spring Meeting and dicker their own schedules.
NFL Commissioner Elmer Layden pleaded with all the owners for someone, actually two someones, to merge together in 1944 and create a smooth 10-team league. Art Rooney did not want to be one of the sacrificial owners. He had just gone through that massive administrative headache and team disruption. There was a stalemate. Layden declared that no one was going home until two teams combined, just for 1944. Rooney broke the stalemate by raising his hand. He suggested that the Chicago Cardinals be his new dance partner, since they had gone 0-10 the year before and posed no competitive threat to the league. This was a huge and unselfish contribution to the league, even for just a year. Rooney kept things alive and amicable during the transitional war years. The Card-Pitts, as they were called, went 0-10 in 1944, bouncing back and forth between Pittsburgh and Chicago. People started calling them "carpits" since everyone walked all over them. Rooney, however, was a champion and the inner circle of the NFL learned what kind of a man and owner he was.
Prior to the 1953 NFL Draft in Philadelphia, Rooney called Steelers radio voice Joe Tucker into his office and told him that Tucker was going to be a temporary vice president. Rooney wanted Tucker to attend the draft and collect interviews of the players Pittsburgh selected. This was unprecedented, in that only high-level executives were permitted to attend the draft. Media was taboo. In Philadelphia, Washington Redskins' owner George Preston Marshall was livid. Marshall was the league's equivalent of Al Davis and usually kicked and screamed until he got his way. Marshall accused Rooney of pulling an end run to allow media presence at the draft. The other owners saw the bigger picture. Having media at the draft was a major advancement of the NFL. Rooney changed the landscape of the league.
Two years later he changed it again. In 1955, officials were and had been assigned to teams on a regional basis. Fiscally this was more efficient, but it caused problems with "homerism." Officials found themselves working the same home teams repeatedly. It was natural for them to cozy up to coaches and players, who were smart enough to know they would see the same guys over and over. It came to a head in 1955 when the Steelers played in Los Angeles with west coast officials. The Steelers were beating the Rams, 26-24, when Los Angeles did not have enough time to get on the field to try a game-winning field goal. Incredulously, the referee stopped the clock and called an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty on Steelers' defensive back Richie McCabe. The Rams now had plenty of time to set up the field goal and were 15 yards closer to the goalposts. After Los Angeles pulled the out 27-26, Steelers' Head Coach Walt Kiesling chased the referee like a madman. Stadium security stopped Kiesling from who-knows-what, but the issue was not over. Art Rooney went on a dignified crusade for the league to assign officials nationally, which it did the very next year.
Two years later Rooney changed things again. After a career-ending injury to Lowell Perry, the Steelers promising phenom, Rooney offered Perry a job as an assistant coach. Never before had an African-American held a coaching position in the NFL. The Pittsburgh Steelers broke the barrier. Before that season began (1957), Pittsburgh was in Jacksonville to play an exhibition game. The players were invited to partake in a parade. Unbeknownst to the white players, the black players and Lowell Perry were forced to stand at the curb.
Art Rooney took the next flight to Jacksonville and told his team that never again would they be subject to discrimination. The next year in Atlanta, the Steelers were scheduled to play in another exhibition game. The City of Atlanta was putting its best foot forward to audition for an expansion team, but it made the mistake of housing the white Steelers in one hotel and the black players in another. Rooney canceled the game.
The Steelers' next "first" came in 1961. Pittsburgh organized the NFL's first cheerleading squad. Prior, some teams brought in local high school or college groups, but the Steelers' created their own group. They were called the "Steelerettes." Soon after the team added male cheerleaders called the "Ingots," in reference to the team's nickname. This did not have a profound effect on the team, the fans or the NFL. They were soon disbanded. Pittsburgh was a shot-and-a-beer town, not a cheerleading town.
Pittsburgh's next "first" was indeed profound. The Steelers initiated the NFL's first talent combine. What you see in Indianapolis today was the brainchild of Steelers' Head Coach Buddy Parker. It began in Pittsburgh in 1963 under the leadership of former Steelers' assistant coach Ken Stilley. It seems impossible that Buddy Parker would think to bring college seniors together before a draft. After all, Parker traded away his draft choices every year for veteran players. In the first six rounds of hiss eight NFL drafts in Pittsburgh, Parker traded 36 of the 48 picks. On deeper thought, Parker did not trust rookies and the idea of a combine might bridge that gap. In any event, the first talent organization was called LESTO, standing for Lions Eagles Steelers Talent Organization. It was born in Pittsburgh.
With civil unrest rampant in the turbulent 1960s, Art Rooney broke another color barrier. He already had one of only two black players in the NFL when he bought the team in 1933 (Ray Kemp), and then hired the first African-American coach (Perry), in 1969 he pulled the hat trick. The Steelers hired the first black front office executive in NFL history. His name was Bill Nunn and he came from a local black newspaper, The Courier. The Rooneys, now with Dan and Art Jr. having great impact on the franchise, talked Nunn into leaving his newspaper job and working for the Steelers. Nunn was wired into the black colleges of the South and immediately had profound impact on scouting players that would soon form a dynasty.
From a corn comes a corn. The same colorblind mindset that Art Rooney possessed was passed on to his sons. Dan Rooney became chair of the NFL's Diversity Committee when the league passed watershed legislation that mandated teams interview a minority candidate when a coaching vacancy occurred. Rooney's influence resulted in the legislation being universally known as the Rooney Rule. In short, the Pittsburgh Steelers have done more through the years, by far, to bridge the racial gap than any franchise in the NFL.
Yes, the Pittsburgh Steelers were the first NFL team to win three Supers Bowls, four Super Bowls and six Super Bowls, but the milestones and contributions of this great franchise go far beyond the field of play. And while most other franchises may find nuggets of pride in their own house, Steeler Nation can be rightfully proud of a heritage of success and contribution unparalleled in the history of the NFL.