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The Pittsburgh Way: How Do You Find People That Fit The Culture?

In the comments thread of my article on ‘The Downside of Being a Football Hero' and during an exchange with BTSC regular 5020, I wrote the following (typos corrected):

The idea that so many of us subscribe to is that with enough money, perhaps a better relationship, a better job that everything would be great. On the other hand, some of the most content individuals I have ever met didn't have much of anything. One of the things I think is really great about the so called blue collar mentality is that it detaches itself from and rejects the notion that the good life is a function of position and how much you make, but rather how you approach your life and responsibilities (values); a wise position because despite the propaganda suggesting otherwise many of us rarely completely transcend our circumstances. This may be the essence of the culture of Pittsburgh.

On reflection, two things resonated with me. First, as pointed out in the article, class is defined by more than financial status, but also by a system of values. That is why, I suppose, the definition is socioeconomic class. Second, while most of us in some sense recognized those values in a ‘know it when I see it fashion', sometimes there are things that are so obvious and pervasive that in a paradoxical sense we are unable to grasp them in a meaningful way.

When I was interviewing long time Steelers scout and talent evaluator Bill Nunn he mentioned something to me that I already knew, but the context of his statement jarred me into a deeper understanding of the meaning behind the facts. He pointed out that Dan Rooney, one of the most successful men in America, if not the world, a billionaire (that's spelled with a ‘B'), the United States Ambassador to Ireland, lives in the same home on Pittsburgh's North Side in which he grew up. Who else does that? Donald Trump? Dan Snyder? Jerry Jones? Mitt Romney? And what gave this greater impact was the fact that Nunn was saying this while we sat on the back porch of his home, which was also the home that he grew up in located in the Hill District (Nunn having enjoyed a successful career in the NFL spanning more than forty years and prior to that having served as Editor of the most prominent black newspaper in the United States).

In the article I posed a number of questions concerning what purchasing choices might be made if in possession of relatively large sum of money:

Do you buy a nice little economical hybrid or like ex-Steeler Leon Searcy do you use a limousine service? Do you purchase a condo, or a McMansion or something even more palatial?

I think we know how the Rooney family would probably answer that question. Some may be tempted to think that this type of thinking and behavior is peculiar to the Rooneys, but they are largely honored and respected by Pittsburghers because they so faithfully adhere to the values of the local culture. We label those values "blue collar", but they transcend both the type of work one happens to engage in as well as class affiliation.

Culture can be most difficult to define by those residing within it because, like water to a fish, it is so all encompassing that it becomes invisible, virtually impossible to discern. As such, you can be forgiven if you believe that the relationship between the Pittsburgh Steelers and what has come to be known as Steeler Nation is simply about football.

We call it the Steeler Way, but what that organization unswervingly represents is the Pittsburgh Way. Because one of the cornerstones of the underlying value system is a sincere, understated humility faithful practitioners like the Rooneys refrain from either self-promotion or justification of themselves or their governing set of values. Misunderstandings and underestimation is unavoidable since most of the rest of the nation, including (especially) the sports media operates under a different covenant.

Nor are the misunderstandings confined to outsiders. Many within Steeler Nation continually demonstrate a lack of comprehension of the culture, the values that are the foundation of the franchise's success. I certainly get how easy it is to be seduced by the priorities of the dominant culture. Nonetheless, it has to be acknowledged how bizarre it is that some of us envy those whose greatest aspiration is to someday be as successful as the Steelers. And nobody has been as successful as the Steelers. Yet we want to throw money at ‘big name' free agents because that's what everyone else does. We would jettison the development strategy that is dependent upon patience and loyalty for instant gratification because that's what everyone else does, and it is endorsed by the sages at ESPN. We ignore the example of the wise to worship at the feet of the ignorant.

I live in an area (Metropolitan Washington DC) that is largely governed by a different, competing value system; let's call it white collar values. Under this system your value is determined by the position you hold, your credentials and the amount of money you make.

Like many people I have been highly critical of Washington Redskin owner Daniel Snyder based upon the assumption that he has been stuck on stupid in relation to his decision making for his team. Looking at it from a different perspective Mr. Snyder can be viewed as being a prisoner of a dysfunctional value system.

How do I make the case that the white collar values are dysfunctional? Remember that professional football is rooted in the culture of western Pennsylvania and eastern Ohio, the same area that spawned the Pittsburgh (and Steelers) Way. In the culture of football self-sacrifice and interdependence are much more than just admirable warm and fuzzy qualities; they are essential elements to success. When understood in this context money and talent, though important, can be of limited value if the other elements of cooperation aren't present. Self-promotion (and the individualism that fuels it) is at odds with and has a corrosive effect on the team consciousness (and the attendant leveling effects on individuals) that is necessary for winning. And when that attitude begins at the top; when your owner lives in a modest home and stands in line in the cafeteria at lunch time just like everyone else is it any wonder why the Steelers have been so successful.

Dysfunctional values compel you toward questionable decision making. Snyder could have never hired someone like Mike Tomlin (or Chuck Noll or Bill Cowher) based upon his governing values, at least not at the front end because there wasn't that much ‘sizzle' in Tomlin's resume. And again, there were folks that had this issue in Steeler Nation as well. Tomlin was thought by some to be an ‘affirmative action' hire, the Rooneys being taken prisoner by their own rule (at the time there were people who were disappointed that Noll was chosen over a more ‘name' individual, Joe Paterno). Snyder ended up hiring the likes of Steve Spurrier and Mike Shanahan, guys with plenty of sizzle, but relatively little steak. Of course he would hire Tomlin now because he has a proven track record. But the key to success sometimes is the ability to recognize the potential before it manifests, something the Steelers organization demonstrates constantly.

The same value system likely would have encouraged Snyder to go in a different direction than Ben Roethlisberger if he had been in the market during the 2004 draft. Being true to his value system Snyder would have probably picked Eli Manning because of, literally, his name, and would have preferred either Manning or Philip Rivers because they were products of large conferences (SEC, ACC) as opposed to the mid major conference (MAC) associated with Ben. James Harrison, another MAC player, with less than standard measurables (too short for one thing) and something of a project would have been passed over as well. And isn't it funny that players that they let go often do rather well; think Ryan Clark, or more recently, Carlos Rogers.

The cultural/values argument goes a long way in explaining why the Skins consistently invest in players that are, objectively speaking, either past their prime (Deion Sanders, Bruce Smith), over-hyped (Albert Haynesworth) or were a bad fit for the team's schemes or personnel. Of course issues such as relationships don't come much into play with the white collar mentality. I would also argue that the Skins are extreme in some respects, and therefore more dysfunctional, but are for the most part closer to the norm for the league relative to Pittsburgh.

As I mentioned earlier, a lot of us in Steeler Nation are either white collar types (psychologically not necessarily professionally) or have been seduced to the point where we adopt the mindset when discerning the actions of the Steelers and other teams in the league. Confusion and other misunderstandings can result, something I have noticed playing out over the recent discussions over ‘character issues' involving our recent draft choices (Michael Adams, Sean Spence and Chris Rainey).

One of the questions being raised is whether the Steelers compromised their values by selecting these players. Were they so hard up for the infusion of talent that they turned their backs on their principles? Let's get one thing straight. If you conceptualize the Pittsburgh Steelers as being a bunch of milk drinking boy scouts you are somewhat deluded. Here begins an admittedly incomplete history lesson.

Are you concerned about Mike Adams' weed smoking? Eugene ‘Big Daddy' Lipscomb was a heroin addict. Bobby Layne would close down nightclubs at dawn and then go quarterback the team a couple of hours later. Joe Greene really was mean, at least on the football field. He kicked opponents in the groin, he spit in their faces. By comparison James Harrison looks like a nun. Ernie Holmes had disturbing psychological issues. Steve Courson (and others) used, some would say abused, performance enhancing substances. More recently, Adams has nothing over Santonio Holmes as a weed smoker, and he went to court on domestic issues. And of course there were Ben's troubles.

Clearly the point is that having a troubled past (or present) does not necessarily disqualify one from being a Pittsburgh Steeler. Environmental and developmental issues explain a lot of questionable decisions. The important thing is that once immersed in the Steeler Way, the Pittsburgh Way, can they exercise the self-sacrifice, specifically over their own vices for the good of the franchise and the community that supports them. Now in some cases the problems really are based upon the innate deficiencies of an individual's character, they are incapable of acting in any other manner. But if the waywardness is influenced by other factors then it would be a violation of blue collar values to not provide an opportunity for redemption. The problem with Santonio Holmes, to use one example, was not the indiscretions of his life prior to coming to Pittsburgh; it was the inability to move beyond that even in light of the extraordinary life opportunity provided him by being a Super Bowl MVP.

Big Ben represents the other side of the coin. Have you noticed that there hasn't been much talk lately about Ben's ‘issues'. My theory is that in the collective mind of Steeler Nation Ben has been completely rehabilitated, and according to the theory I can tell you exactly when it happened and why.

The moment came at the beginning of the second half of the first Cleveland game this past season. I was on the open thread of BTSC when it was clear that Ben was going to play after folks had assumed that he was on his way to hospital after having his ankle crushed. The reaction on site, at Heinz Field and presumably elsewhere was electric, and people actually said at that moment that all was forgiven.

Ben's actions were not merely heroic in the generic sense but also consistent with the Pittsburgh way. One of the fables that we were taught growing up was the story of John Henry. John Henry was a laborer who drove spikes to secure railroad tracks. One day a machine was brought in that, presumably could do the job faster and more efficiently. John Henry challenged the machine and was holding his own in the ensuing contest, but eventually the exertion killed him. This was a powerful metaphor for a people whose methods of making a living included the possibility of black lung disease, being asphyxiated by gas, buried alive or vaporized by an errant splash of molten metal. You soldiered on even though to do so might cost you your life.

In this context a high ankle sprain isn't a deal killer, and it is a tremendous act of leadership. It is also consistent to an extent with Steelers lore. In his time it was said the game hadn't started until Terry Bradshaw was bleeding and half dead. Some have said that Ben's insistence on playing on that ankle may have cost the team the season. They may be right, but It may have also set a tone that will yield great returns in the future.

Being from the area, Adams has been exposed to the Pittsburgh Way. And maybe that is what inspired the courageous act of pleading his case to the Steelers brass. That action and the Steelers response both exemplify the Pittsburgh Way in action. There is certainly a risk involved, but it is a risk that is consistent with the value system. In fact, you could say that the value system would insist that these types of risks be undertaken if you truly strive for greatness.