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How the NFL Pittsburgh Steelers became the AFC Pittsburgh Steelers

The longtime franchise was close to going under

The Pittsburgh Steelers have the NFL’s fourth-most championships of any team with six, and the most Super Bowl victories with the same number. But they weren’t always that successful. In fact, for the franchise’s first 40-years, they were always at the bottom of the league standings year-after-year. When other NFL team’s players acted up or came to a stalemate in contract negotiations, the threat was always that they would be traded to Pittsburgh. And several were.

The Steelers usually had a high draft pick in the annual college draft, and picked horrible players. Or they picked Hall of Fame players and then got rid of them. They drafted QB Johnny Unitas in the ninth-round of the 1955 draft, never played him in any of the six pre-season games, and then cut him. Two years later they selected QB Len Dawson with the fifth pick in the first-round, and then traded him two years later before he wound up in Dallas and played for the upstart Texans in the newly-formed American Football League (AFL).

1956 Browns vs. Steelers program

Oh by the way, the next pick in the 1957 draft after the Steelers took Dawson, the Cleveland Browns selected FB Jim Brown. Talk about missing out on all fronts.

Steelers Perennial Bottom Feeders

Because of their regular poor finish in the standings, the Steelers had a difficult time selling tickets for home games. Unless the visiting team had a huge star for the locals to see, most folks just didn’t bother going to games. This made Pittsburgh a club that was barely treading water financially.

So when the AFL began and starting playing, the two leagues had a gentlemen’s agreement not to sign veteran players that were still under contract and until all negotiations with their current team were concluded. However, college rookies were another story.

The AFL were masters of signing the cream of the college crop every year. The reason? They offered substantially more money and larger signing bonuses. Back then, the tradition was that the rookies were paid the least on the team and were basically a non-entity until they had proven their worth. Veterans refused to socialize with rookies until after a few seasons. They were cursed at during practices and treated like children.

But suddenly, many rookies were getting more money a year that most seasoned veterans without even playing a single down. This not only angered the veterans, but when their contracts ran out they wanted more funds than the rookies. This created a higher financial ceiling for every club in both leagues. Suddenly, players were getting huge deals whereas before they got what they could no matter their value to the club or the accolades they had generated throughout their tenure especially if the owner was cheap or close to broke.

Hence the problem for the Steelers. If they continually drafted in the Top-5 every year, the players they drafted were also Top-5 picks in the corresponding AFL draft. For example, in 1960 the Steelers drafted Texas Christian FB Jack Spikes with the fifth pick in the first-round, and later Wisconsin OT Dan Lanphear plus RB Abner Hayes of North Texas State. All three signed with AFL clubs. Hayes was the AFL’s Rookie-of-the-Year, made four AFL All-Star teams, was the league’s MVP in 1960 and won an AFL Championship. Lanphear cemented the offensive line and was also on the 1962 AFL Championship team. Spikes was a college stud and ended up playing eight seasons in the AFL and won a league championship.

All three players the Steelers had tried to sign, but were outbid by AFL franchises. They did sign some of their draft picks each year, but the better players left for the larger contracts and justifiably so. When the NFL team offers you $6,000-$10,000 to play pro football while the AFL team has already presented $21,000, the choice is clear.

Since this happened over-and-over each season, the Steelers were not getting any better, which meant their gate revenue suffered. The club could make more from the lesser visitor’s cut in New York or Chicago than the greater portion home cut in their own backyard. They were struggling to stay afloat. And every team in both leagues were feeling the pinch financially, but none more so than the Steelers. And they certainly didn’t have funds to outbid other teams for their prized rookies.

Angel Disguised as a Texas Ranger

What began their quest for financial solvency were two men from Dallas. No, the Dallas Cowboys didn’t loan them any funds, instead a door was opened for them to receive millions - for free.

L to R: NFL Cowboys Tex Schramm, NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle, AFL Chiefs Lamar Hunt

The NFL had decided that the bidding wars were killing each club’s bottom line. Something had to be done, and of course that meant a merger with the AFL. It was decided that the Cowboys’ GM Tex Schramm would do the negotiations with AFL founder Lamar Hunt, also owner of the Kansas City Chiefs. Before moving to Kansas City, the Chiefs were located in Dallas also at the same time as the Cowboys, so both men knew each other very well and Hunt still had his primary residency in Dallas.

Both men were face-recognized in the Dallas-Ft. Worth area and preferred that their meetings stay private without any leaks. So, they would meet at a public place – in Schramm’s Oldsmobile. Their favorite meeting spot? At the 12-foot tall bronze Texas Ranger statue placed at Love Field Airport in Dallas. The two men, representatives of two pro football leagues, would meet periodically and hash out their desires and demands until an agreement was finally struck.

For both leagues, it meant financial peace – and a new beginning.

New Beginnings are not always Drama-free

Suddenly, the 16-team NFL was going to be a 26-team entity and begin play as one league beginning with the 1970 season. It was decided that all the AFL teams would be placed into the newly-formed “American Football Conference” while all the NFL clubs into the “National Football Conference.” NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle didn’t like the fact that this made an unbalanced league with 10 teams in the AFC while the NFC had 16 teams. He needed to move over three franchises to the AFC to balance it out.

That sounded good on paper, but what exactly is the process to extract three clubs who for many years were at war with the 10 teams they would suddenly be joining? Even though they were now one unified league, both sides still had the vinegar taste of the other side in their mouth. Still, three teams needed to switch. But which ones? In the beginning, not a single NFL team volunteered.

At the 1969 owner’s meeting in February, the problem to restructure the unified league still remained. A motion was made to leave things the way they were – 10 teams in the AFC and 16 in the NFC. Paul Brown, owner of the AFL’s Cincinnati Bengals and a former NFL head coach, went ballistic over that notion. He knew the former NFL teams had the best TV markets sewed up and besides the NFC’s influence would reign supreme on every decision. Oakland Raiders’ owner Al Davis agreed with Brown and made mention that part of the agreement was a full merger - not a divided one.

The meeting was adjourned without a resolution, but Rozelle did announce that the league would be comprised of two conferences with an equal number of clubs in each. Thus, the bottom line was that three NFL franchises would have to “go over.”

The Switch

At the special owner’s meeting in May of 1969 at the NFL league office, Rozelle locked the doors and informed everyone that they were not leaving until the new format was completed. It was determined that certain NFC clubs would be exempt from going to the AFC because of geographical reasons. So, the New York Giants were safe because of the New York Jets, the Cowboys with the Houston Oilers, and the San Francisco 49ers were excused because of the cross-bay Raiders.

It was then announced that whichever club ventured over to the AFC would receive a one-time sum of $3 million, paid by the other NFL owners. Carroll Rosenbloom, owner of the Baltimore Colts, decided that a rivalry with the Jets and QB Joe Namath would be a plus for his team’s gate and jumped sides. One down – two to go.

Without warning, Browns’ owner Art Modell was admitted to the hospital with a bleeding ulcer. In his room, Art Rooney and his son Dan, owners of the Steelers along with Giants’ owner Wellington Mara, all good friends of Modell, were there to console their comrade. In his hospital bed, Modell said he was going to break the deadlock and would go into the AFC if his good friend Art Rooney would go also with the blessing of Mara.

The Browns and Giants in those days were bitter rivals, and Mara knew those games were phenomenal gate draws. But he gave his blessing if the two teams could work out pre-season contests. Art Rooney wasn’t sold and told Modell he would have to give it some serious thought. Dan Rooney was instantly opposed.

Art Rooney

At dinner later that evening, Art Rooney gave his son a convincing response to why the Steelers should become an AFC club. When they arrived back at the league office, many of the owners were asleep in chairs and sofas. Art and Dan Rooney walked into Rozelle’s office, to which the commissioner handed Dan a piece of paper in which was inscribed: Clev, Pitt, Hou, Cincy. This was the commissioner’s stance on what would become the new AFC Central Division.

What was instantly appealing to the Rooney’s were two facts: 1) they would be in a division with another former NFL team the Browns, and in a division with Paul Brown, a former NFL head coach and innovator of which they were very familiar with, and 2) their franchise would suddenly be infused with a $3 million windfall that they needed desperately.

Art Rooney would later mention in his biography “The Chief” that it was the first time that the franchise had real money to work with.

Barry Shuck is a pro football historical writer and a member of the Professional Football Researcher’s Association.