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Saturday, March 26, 2011

Steelers - The 1940's (1940-1949)

Steelers – The 1940’s (1940-1949)
In 1940, the Pirates were renamed the Steelers through a public contest. Thank goodness. The NFL struggled to fill out rosters during World War II, as thousands of young men joined the military. Perhaps the Steelers’ greatest success was staying intact as a franchise during the forties.

Tag Line – From terrible to bad
40-64-6 (.364 pct)
Winning Seasons: 4/10
.500 Seasons: 1/10
Playoffs: 1 season
Well, they did get better. However, they still pretty much stunk. With World War II draining the supply of athletic-age males, the Steelers were forced in 1943 to combine rosters with the rival Eagles. After a 5-4-1 season (the first winning season in Philadelphia history and only the second for Pittsburgh, Art Rooney joined forces with the Chicago Cardinals for 1944. The Cardinals were 0-10 in 1943. The Card-Pitts (referred to as the ‘Carpits’ because everyone walked over them) went 0-10. It was the only winless season in Steelers history. Fortunately World War II ended and Pittsburgh returned as a solo franchise in 1946, leading to the successful 1947 season.

FIRST PLAYOFF GAME! (sort of…) – In 1947, the Steelers finished tied for first place in the Eastern Division. This meant they would host a ‘playoff game’ against the rival Eagles. The winner would go on to play the Western Division Chicago Cardinals for the NFL Championship. It was the first post season action in team history.Unfortunately, the team lost 0-21, the same score as the first game against the Eagles that year.
BULLET BILL - The decade did see their first real star player: Bullet Bill Dudley. Though he was only a Steeler for three seasons (1942, 1945-1946: he served in the military for two years), he was a two time pro bowler and had a fantastic 1946 season. He led the NFL in rushing, interceptions, punt returns and lateral passes attempted (no, I didn’t make up that last one). This was after leading the league in scoring the previous year.
Unfortunately, the team was only 7-13-1 those two years. Dudley was traded the Detroit Lions before the 1947 season (perhaps Pittsburgh would have been in the title game if Dudley were still around) and went into the Hall of Fame in 1966. Dudley was the first of many who would enter the Hall based on their on-field performances as a Steeler (Prior inductees and short-time Steelers  Johnny McNally and Walt Kiesling were inducted for their play with other teams).
JOCK – A FORGOTTEN LEGEND - The Steelers were coached by Jock Sutherland in 1946 and 1947. The Scottish-born coach had been a college legend, leading the Pittsburgh Panthers to nine national championships (it was quite different back then and multiple organizations declared champions. The University officially acknowledges five of Sutherland’s championships). Sutherland’s combined record of 13-9-1 accounted for the team’s best back-to-back seasons until 1962-1963 (16-9-3). His hiring marked the first time Art Rooney got really serious about the Steelers: he had hired friends and over the hill coaches up to that time, with poor results.
Studying film back in the day
Sutherland died somewhat unexpectedly of a brain tumor in the spring of 1948. It would take until 1972 (.786) for the Steelers to top the team’s 1947 winning percentage of .667. They would only have one other postseason appearance in the next 24 seasons: and that wasn’t even a real playoff game (see the Sixties). It’s possible that Jock Sutherland would have turned the woeful Steelers into a competitive NFL franchise, but his premature death ended the momentum he had generated.
You know what: someone needs to write a biography of Sutherland. He was born in Scotland; became one of the most successful American college football coaches in history; resigned after winning a national championship because the University of Pittsburgh president was de-emphasizing the football program; coached the Brooklyn Dodgers (yep, that was an NFL team) to the two most successful seasons in team history; joined the Navy in World War II and became a Lieutenant Commander; took over the Steelers after the war ended and guided them to their first ever playoff appearance; died suddenly at age 59 and was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame as both  a player and a coach three years after his death. That’s quite a story!
SUMMARY – 1940-1949 saw a bit of growth in the franchise, but the Steelers largely remained losers. Back then, there were no baseball playoffs: just the winners of each league’s regular season meeting in the World Series. The Pirates wouldn’t make the World Series from 1928 to 1969. In 1946 and 1947, the Pirates finished a combined 66 games out of first place. So, fans in Pittsburgh weren’t getting much to cheer for in either sporting season.
TRIVIA – The Chicago Cardinals won the 1947 championship, 28-21. Violet Bidwell (owner via widowhood) moved the team to St. Louis after the 1959 season, effectively blocking the fledgling AFL from placing a team there. It also moved the Cardinals out of the Bears’ long shadow. Her son, Bill Bidwell (who is one of the NFL’s worst owners) would himself abandon St. Louis for Phoenix in 1988.
The Cardinals (on-going) sixty-three year title drought is the longest in the NFL. They were only 35 seconds away from ending that streak when Santonio Holmes caught the game-winning pass in Super Bowl 43. 

This is not THE program, but it's from the same season. And it's memorable.

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