Believe it or not, when I was a little Steelers fan growing up in the early-’80s, I had an inferiority complex about my favorite football team.
In fact, I had an inferiority complex about most things Pittsburgh sports-related (it really wasn’t a great decade to be a fan of the local sports teams).
If you know anything about NFL history, you know that Green Bay was the mecca of the football world in the 1960s. The Packers won five NFL titles and the first two Super Bowls. Lambeau Field was the place to be during the decade. Vince Lombardi was head and shoulders above everyone else as far as head coaches were concerned. The Packers boasted a star-studded roster that included Bart Starr, Willie Davis and countless others.
In many ways, the Packers of the 1960s were the NFL’s first dynasty.
The 1970s weren’t quite as kind to the Packers. After Lombardi left and all of those stars retired, Green Bay couldn’t have been less relevant in the football world. In fact, you’d be hard-pressed to name one significant Packers’ moment from the 1970s. Instead of being the stars of NFL Films productions, they would often show up as bit players in highlights of Walter Payton shredding their defense or the Purple People Eaters terrorizing their quarterback.
After winning four Super Bowls, the Steelers were the NFL’s dynasty of the 1970s, and old Three Rivers Stadium was the place to be in a football sense.
The ‘80s weren’t quite as harsh to the aging Steelers as the ‘70s were to the Packers. However, in terms of relevance, Pittsburgh was just another football team.
Also, the Pirates--another Pittsburgh sports team that thrived during the previous decade--were mostly dreadful in the ‘80s, and the Penguins continued their long history of losing.
Pittsburgh went from being the city of champions to the city of has-beens and never weres.
This was tough to take for a kid who one day only cared about Sesame Street and super heroes, and the next day was a die-hard fan of most things Pittsburgh sports-related.
Talk about your bad timing for a seven-year old.
When you have an inferiority complex about your local sports teams, you become star-struck by things such as Mike Rozier, the 1983 Heisman Trophy winner from Nebraska, signing on to play for the Pittsburgh Maulers of the newly-formed USFL (the 11-year old in me is still amazed that this happened). You are obsessed with the NFL Draft and hope that the most recognizable superstars in college football become Pittsburgh Steelers.
You live for even a sliver of Steelers praise from those national sports types such as Chris Berman and John Madden.
You are giddy that Tony Pena—the closest thing the Pirates had to an All-Star in the mid-’80s—is actually playing on the same field as the likes of Reggie Jackson and Cal Ripkin during baseball’s Mid-Summer Classic.
You can’t believe that the lowly Penguins are owned by the same family—the DeBartolos—that also owns the big, bad San Francisco 49ers (I actually had a positive reaction to seeing the Penguins flag hanging on the same pole as the 49ers flag at the headquarters of the DeBartolo Corporation located in Boardman, Ohio) .
For whatever reason, my Penguins fandom never quite stuck, so I wasn’t too impressed by their back-to-back Stanley Cup victories in the early-’90s. Speaking of the early-’90s, while the Steelers were still mostly awful under the legendary Chuck Noll, the Pirates were in the throes of breaking my heart three-straight years in the NLCS.
Even though I had grown from a little boy in the early-'80s into a 20-something man by the early-’90s, that inferiority complex remained fully affixed to my psyche as it pertained to my favorite Pittsburgh sports teams.
Then the Steelers hired Bill Cowher to take the place of the recently-retired Noll in 1992, and everything began to change for me.
Cowher immediately turned the Steelers into winners and legitimate Super Bowl contenders, and they would remain at that level until the end of the decade.
Even though the Steelers gave me the same level of postseason heartache as the Pirates did in the early-’90s—maybe more, considering they made the playoffs six-straight seasons and never won a title—the journey didn’t seem as frustrating.
Maybe it was because the Steelers were able to advance in the playoffs on a fairly consistent basis, while the Pirates never actually won a postseason series.
Maybe it was because the Steelers actually made it to a Super Bowl, which was something I never thought I’d see when I was a frustrated sports junkie in the 1980s.
After a few down years, Cowher helped the Steelers find their way back to the top of the football food-chain at the start of the 21st century—ultimately leading them to a Super Bowl XL victory following the 2005 campaign—and they were able to stay there in the late-’00s under the leadership of new head coach Mike Tomlin.
With the exception of a hiccup or two, the winning has continued into the 2010s, and those expectations have remained the same—Super Bowl or bust.
Just the other day, I was disappointed to learn that Josh Bell, the Pirates new superstar baseball player, lost out in the voting to start at first base in the upcoming All-Star Game.
But I was only mildly disappointed.
Two months ago, I was excited to learn that the Steelers traded up into the top 10 to select Michigan linebacker Devin Bush in the 2019 NFL Draft.
But I wasn’t nearly as excited as I was the precise moment I thought the Steelers were about to select Michigan State running back Lorenzo White in the first round of the 1988 NFL Draft (it was actually some guy named Aaron Jones, and this nearly brought me to tears).
The consistency in-which the Steelers have won over the past 27 years—18 playoffs appearances, 14 division titles, four conference crowns and two Lombardi trophies—has cured me of my inferiority complex.
I’ve known for some time now that the Steelers are football royalty, complete with television ratings and a world-wide following that are the envy of most professional sports franchises.
It all started in the 1990s, when Bill Cowher and the Pittsburgh Steelers taught me how to feel like a winner.