There are many rivalries in sports, from the Yankees-Red Sox to Harvard-Yale and everything else in between. It's all a matter of where you are from. It is pointless to argue which is the greatest rivalry. The answer lies in the eye of the beholder. What is undisputable is that the Pittsburgh Steelers-Cleveland Browns rivalry is as good as it gets. Since World War II, each of these storied franchises has won five NFL championships.
I was born in Pittsburgh and will always be a die-hard Steelers' fan. I also spent 22 years working in Cleveland and 32 years living in Youngstown, a city exactly halfway in between. I am uniquely qualified to experience this this great rivalry from all perspectives.
From Bigelow Square to Public Square, Pittsburgh and Cleveland are separated by 134 miles of neighborhood taverns and, during its heyday, various factories in the steel industry. What makes these two cities so unique is that the people who live there, for the most part, are from there. So too are their parents and their parents' parents. Most other cities have a higher percentage of transplants.
The bond between a community and its football team is directly proportionate to the roots of the people who live there. Loving the Steelers, Browns, Packers and maybe a couple other teams is not generally an acquired taste, like so many other cities where people have relocated from elsewhere. It is passed through the umbilical cord from generation to generation. It is both nature and nurture and not just the latter. Of course, I am not talking about any individual situation, but the general psyche of a poplulation. Without mentioning names (to be sure there are die-hard fans in every city), I have been to most NFL stadiums across the country. The seats may be filled with team colors, but the pain of losing and euphoria of winning is just not the same. Our roots are deeper.
When the Steelers play on the road, Steeler Nation is proudly recognized by the television commentators as being the best in the NFL. When the Browns were in their productive years in the late 1980s, the Browns Backers Clubs throughout the country were unmatched. It is natural that whichever team is on top in a given era will have more exposure, but you don't hear the same kudos for most other national fan bases as Pittsburgh and Cleveland.
The rivalry itself has had very little consistency through the years. It began in 1950 with the Browns winning 16 of the first 18 games. There was very little hatred in those days. The Browns were delighted to play the Steelers twice a year to improve their record. The Steelers couldn't muster much animosity toward Cleveland since all the other NFL teams were beating them also. This continued through the 1960s, though the Steelers at least began to win occasionally. The 1964 Saturday night game at Cleveland in which John Henry Johnson ran wild (200 yards) in a 23-7 Steelers upset was a milestone moment between the two teams. The Browns eventually won the NFL title that year.
By 1970 the two franchises were joined together at the hip. The NFL and AFL were merging into one league, but sensitivities were high since three NFL teams needed to move over the American Conference to balance the league. No one wanted to jump. Art Rooney and Art Modell got together and decided that as long as they were together, it didn't matter where. They also surmised that in a few years no one would know the difference, and they were exactly right. They each took $3 million and along with the Baltimore Colts merged into the American Conference. But they never would have jumped without each other.
The rivalry took a spike in the 1970s when the tables were turned. Pittsburgh finally had reason to gloat and Cleveland took offense to that. The roots of Cleveland's animosity clearly took hold during the Steelers' Super Bowl dynasty years. The intensity jacked again when Bernie Kosar left the Youngstown demarcation line and went 67 miles northwest instead of southeast. Both teams needed a quarterback badly and Kosar was clearly the difference. Now it was the Browns who were gloating and Pittsburgh took offense.
The rivalry peaked from 1989 through 1993 when, finally, neither team dominated. In fact, they played 10 consecutive games without either team winning twice in a row. Moreover, in 1989 and 1994 both teams made the playoffs. Just when it was an even battle, Art Modell took his team to the eastern seaboard after the 1995 season. Ironically, no one worked harder than Dan Rooney to ensure the return of football to Cleveland. Arguably the most respected and influential owner in the NFL, Rooney helped broker an unprecedented guarantee that the Cleveland Browns would return, complete with name and colors.
Since then the rivalry has become lopsided again, in part because the Browns had to start over from scratch. However, as we stand today, Pittsburgh has won 57 times and Cleveland has won 55 times. If you just look at regular season, the teams are dead even at 55 wins apiece. So the two teams square off again in prime time this Sunday. If you think that pointspreads and how a team plays a week ago mean anything you are badly mistaken. Not in the NFL. Cleveland proved that a year ago. Come Sunday we can resume hating each other, but just for the moment, let's stop and salute one of the greatest rivalries in all of sports. It is far better to hate each other than for one of us to not have the other to hate. Like fire and ice, we need each other to make a fine brew.