The 1988 Steelers season was a pretty miserable one, and it left an indelible impression on the mind of yours truly. There was that disappointing draft day that I talked about in a previous post. Unfortunately, that draft was the first in an entire year of disappointments as the Steelers suffered through their worst season since before the dynasty years of the 1970's. However, 1988 wasn't all bad for me as a fan. I got to witness my first game in-person, but as memorable as that day was, the team lost yet another game so the experiences of that day weren't as fulfilling as they could have been.
But there was one shining moment from that season that I will always look back on and smile: The night Chuck Noll finally got Jerry Glanville's butt in trouble.
After defeating the Dallas Cowboys in the season-opener, the Steelers lost 6 in a row and 10 out of 11. They were 2-10, but for some reason, I was still optimistic, and after the team finally ended another losing skid with a victory over the Kansas City Chiefs, 16-10, on November 27th to "improve" to 3-10, I cut out the 16-10 score from the newspaper and trimmed the 1 from the 16 to signify that the team would finish 6-10. That was their goal, baby! Or at least my goal for them. Why finishing 6-10 instead of 5-11, 4-12, or 3-13 was anything to be excited about is beyond me. I guess I was looking for hope anywhere I could find it. Ah, to be young and naive again.
The Steelers were now set for a rare Sunday Night appearance on December 4th in the Astrodome against their fierce division rivals, the Houston Oilers.
As bad as Pittsburgh's year was up to that point, their woes were magnified even more in the AFC Central. They were 0-5 in the division and the majority of the losses were lopsided like the 42-7 thumping in Cincinnati and the 34-14 pasting by the Oilers at Three Rivers stadium earlier in the season. The Steelers spent years as doormats in the AFC Central, going 4-14 from 1987-1989.
Despite the poor mark within the division, there was certainly no love-loss between the Steelers and their divisional rivals, especially the Oilers. In-fact, there was a game in Houston in late '87 that I remember pretty vividly. There were cheap-shots and skirmishes the entire day--complete with a huge brawl between Frank Pollard and some unnamed Oiler. After the game--a 24-16 Steeler loss that severely hurt their playoff chances--head Coach Chuck Noll greeted Oilers Coach Jerry Glanville at mid-field by sticking his finger in Glanville's chest and admonishing him for his team's dirty play. Chuck ended the short conversation by saying, "I'm gonna get your ass in trouble. I'm serious!"
Unfortunately for Noll, Glanville was never serious about anything and when asked about the possible bad-blood between the two coaches, he joked, "Nobody would pay to see Chuck and me fight."
Back to the Sunday Night game. Houston was 9-4 and still very much in the hunt for the division title, just a game behind the Bengals. The Steelers were going to be a mere tune-up fight for the Oilers big show-down with the Bengals the following week.
But to quote Chris Berman: "That's why they play the games." Despite the pretty horrific year, the Steelers came to play on this night.
After a Tony Zendejas field goal tied the score at three in the 2nd quarter, Dwight Stone returned the ensuing kickoff 92 yards to give the Steelers a 10-3 lead. Unfortunately, the Oilers answered right back with 10 points of their own to take a 13-10 lead. However, right before halftime, Bubby Brister hooked up with Louis Lipps for an 80 yard bomb and the Steelers had a 17-13 lead at the break.
The Steelers, who had absolutely nothing to play for other than pride, were taking it to the Oilers, who had EVERYTHING to play for. Surely, this was just an aberration, right? The Steelers quickly answered that question early in the 3rd quarter when Brister once again connected with Lipps, this time on a 65 yard touchdown pass, and the Steelers were now ahead, 24-13.
Pittsburgh was 3-10 for a reason and Lorenzo White, the guy I wanted the Steelers to draft, proved that he was at least somewhat more valuable than Aaron Jones and answered with a 90 yard kickoff return of his own and the Oilers were immediately back in the game, 24-20. Houston took the lead later in the quarter on a Warren Moon 2-yard touchdown run.
Pittsburgh answered in the 4th and took a 31-27 lead on Merril Hoge's 2-yard touchdown run. The Oilers regained the lead late on another Warren Moon rushing touchdown and it looked as if they would escape with the victory. The Steelers were game, but the Oilers and the rest of the AFC Central division owned them. I was tired of seeing them lose to the Bengals, Browns, and Oilers. 1988 was such a horrendous season. Just once, I wanted to see someone else suffer, but it just wasn't meant to be......Or was it?
Bubby Brister was having the game of his life, and with time running out, he marched the team down the field and had them on Houston's doorstep with less than a minute remaining. Would they come up short like they had so many times in the past? Not on this night. Brister hit Hoge with a 16-yard touchdown pass with less than 30 seconds left. I was going nuts in my grandparents living room. My grandfather was happy and clapping. It was a great scene. Funny story: When ESPN showed Hoge immediately after the touchdown, he flashed the obligatory "Number one!" sign for the cameras, and my grandmother, who was half-asleep on the couch before we woke her up with all the cheering, muttered, "Number one, your a**!" Even my grandmother knew that nobody associated with the 1988 Pittsburgh Steelers had any right to claim they were number one in anything, not even for a brief moment.
Now, the Steelers had a 37-34 lead with precious little time remaining and a Gary Anderson extra point would make it a 4-point margin and all but ensure the upset victory. However, since these were the 1988 Steelers, naturally, nothing would be easy and Anderson, who hadn't missed an extra-point since 1983, picked this time to shank one and the Oilers still had some life. Fortunately, Warren Moon couldn't get his team into field goal range and it was Jerry Glanville and the rest of the Oilers who were feeling the aches in the "House of Pain" as the Steelers celebrated their improbable win.
I was so giddy that night, I could barely contain it and my grandparents told me to settle down and made me go to bed. It took me about 3 hours to fall asleep.
The loss all but eliminated the Oilers from AFC Central contention and they would have to settle for the 5th seed in the playoffs.
Later in the week, I used my tape-recorder to tape the play-by-play highlights from the show "Inside the NFL" and spent the rest of the weekend listening to Jack Fleming, the former radio play-by-play man for the Steelers, describe each play as only he could. Fleming was the very definition of a homer. For example, during Stone's kickoff return, he screamed, "Go, Dwight, go baby!" It was very entertaining. I wish I still had that cassette. Remember those?
Whatever high I had from the Houston game went away the following week when the Steelers lost to an equally bad Chargers team led by quarterback Mark Malone, of all people. The team would go on to finish the year 5-11, one of the low-points for the Chuck Noll era.
But there was that one glorious night when Bubby Brister outplayed Warren Moon, Louis Lipps was the best receiver on the field, Merril Hoge came of age, and Jerry Glanville learned that you do not trifle with a legend and when he tells you you're in trouble, he's SERIOUS!