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Vikings quarterback Fran Tarkenton crumbled under the menacing Steel Curtain defense.
Rooney Gets His
January 12, 1975
For 42 years mild-mannered Art Rooney had watched his Pittsburgh Steelers compete in the National Football League. As four decades slipped by, he lived in the hope that he could bring a professional football championship to his native city.
At the close of every season, however, the little man with the big heart and the ever-present cigar looked back in disappointment as his team finished down the track. Eleven times they finished last, 10 times they were fourth and six times they came in second. For a man who had made his initial stake in one implausible weekend bonanza at the race track, it was beginning to appear as though the "little people" had deserted forever the non-complaining gentleman who was friend to everybody.
There had been a glimmer of hope in 1972 when the Steelers finished first in their division, their first championship of any kind, only to lose to Miami in the American Football Conference championship game.
And the following year, after qualifying as a wild card team, the Steelers were eliminated by the Raiders in the first round of the playoffs.
Now they were back, bidding for football's brightest bauble, the Vince Lombardi Trophy emblematic of the Super Bowl championship. They had won 10 games, lost three and tied one during the 1974 AFC season before they eliminated Buffalo, 32-14, in the playoffs and then did away with Oakland, 24-13, in the conference title game as Terry Bradshaw engineered three fourth-quarter touchdowns.
The change in Rooney's football fortunes had commenced in 1969 when he hired Chuck Noll as head coach. A native of Cleveland and a graduate of Dayton University, Noll had been a defensive back with the Cleveland Browns for seven years, after which he served as an assistant coach for the San Diego Chargers and Baltimore Colts.
In Noll's three seasons at Baltimore, the Colts had lost only seven games. Noll's familiarity with a winning tradition was a big factor when Dan Rooney, son of the Steelers' owner, interviewed Chuck for the Pittsburgh job.
"I liked his attitude and the way he evaluated our team," reported the young Rooney. Everything he told me about our team was right on target."
Noll entertained no illusions about life with the Steelers. The team had a 2-11-1 record in 1968. In the five preceding years, they had won only 18 games and enjoyed a winning record in only four of the last 19 years. Clearly, the task facing Noll was monumental.
"The Steelers gave me everything I asked for," revealed Noll, noting that the organization, archaic in many facets of its operation prior to his arrival, took one gigantic leap forward by shifting its offices from a tired downtown hotel into spanking new Three Rivers Stadium.
Noll was only 37, but he demonstrated a solid maturity from his first day on the job. The Steelers needed help virtually everywhere and Noll might have succumbed to public clamor by starting his rebuilding program with Terry Hanratty, Notre Dame quarterback and a native of nearby Butler, Pa., as his first choice in the NFL draft.
A one-time defensive player himself, Noll recognized, however, that the Steelers' foremost need was defensive strength and, after conferring with scouting supervisor Art Rooney Jr., he chose instead Joe Greene, 6-4, 270-pound defensive tackle from North Texas State.
Hanratty was No. 2 choice, followed by defensive end L.C. Greenwood of Arkansas AM&N and offensive tackle Jon Kolb from Oklahoma State. The foundation was laid, solidly and wisely.
Noll won his first game as a head coach, defeating Detroit, 16-13, but after that the news was all bad as the Steelers lost 13 games in a row.
"We weren't being blown off the field, we were losing because of our mistakes," Noll summarized later.
The next season, 1969, playing now in the realigned Central Division of the AFC, the Steelers won five games and lost nine. In '71, they were 6-8 and the next season 11-3 as they won the division title.
Following up his initial success in the player draft, Noll selected Bradshaw, the Louisiana Tech quarterback, as first choice in the 1970 draft. Cornerback Mel Blount also was selected that year. Noll selected Jack Ham, Ernie Holmes, Dwight White and Mike Wagner in '72. When the Steelers arrived in New Orleans for their January 12, 1975, Super Bowl engagement with the Minnesota Vikings at Tulane Stadium, seven of their 11 starting defensive players had been acquired via the draft.
Despite the Steelers' 10-3-1 record, their 1974 season had been neither smooth nor straight.
Franco Harris, the third-year running back out of Penn State, gained only 125 yards in the first three games and then sat out the next two with an injury. When he returned to the lineup for the sixth game, Harris was ready to explode. In the last nine games of the regular schedule, he gained 881 yards, finishing with 1,006.
Like Harris, Bradshaw struggled in the early season. The young quarterback was on the bench at season's start as Joe Gilham played a hot passing hand. In six preseason games, Gilliam completed 65 percent of his passes and accounted for 12 touchdowns.
On the sideiines, Bradshaw muttered about the necessity of a balanced attack that blended running and passing.
Eventually, Bradshaw was tapped for regular duty. Immediately, he demonstrated that time on the bench was not without its rewards. The Loulsianian emerged as a take-charge quarterback, prepared to lead the Steelers through the playoffs and into their first Super Bowl.
The Minnesota Vikings, making their third Super Bowl appearance and second in as many years, had won their sixth division title in seven years and then brushed aside St. Louis and Los Angeles en route to New Orleans.
Foremost among the Vikings once more was Fran Tarkenton, the scrambler, who had averaged 5.7 yards on 21 carries and tossed 17 touchdown passes behind a line that allowed only 17 sacks. One of Tarkenton's adversaries would be Greene, who had acquired the unwelcomed and undeserved moniker of "Mean Joe" because of his pursuit of Tarkenton in a hounds-and-hare chase some years earlier.
Tarkenton was with the New York Giants at the time and, as Greene remembered, "I kept chasing him and when I finally hit him I didn't realize he had thrown the ball five minutes before. I got flagged for it and got escorted off the field.
"I had been called 'Mean Joe' before, but this made it even stronger. I prefer Joe," concluded Greene, christened Charles Edward.
In the days preceding the Steelers-Vikings clash, the condition of Tarkenton's shoulder caused some concern among the NFC champions, although Coach Bud Grant conceded that "Francis always has a good game when his arm is sore. He's like all the great ones when they get nicked or have a temperature. They work twice as hard."
In the Steelers' camp there was concern over the health of Harris and defensive end White.
Harris was suffering from a severe head cold in the damp and windy climate, but worked out daily.
White's condition was a more serious matter, a viral infection. A week in the hospital, "living on water and sleep," had pared 18 pounds off his 6-4 frame and he was a doubtful starter almost until game time.
"Doctors told me I might suffer some serious consequences if I got a negative reaction after playing," White reported. "But this is the Super Bowl and I wasn't going to pass it up."
White's attitude was typical of the Steelers' spirit, declared Greene. It amazed Noll.
"He was weak," said the coach. "I figured he'd take part in the pre-game workouts and then he'd keel over and we'd drag him off. But it didn't happen that way."
Preparing for the game, in which the Vikings were three-point underdogs, Grant gave his players greater freedom than in previous Super Bowls, both of which wound up in defeats. The French Quarter, with its all-night attractions, was no longer off limits and the players were also permitted to fly their wives to New Orleans for the game.
"The players are not running off at every opportunity, and we're more relaxed," Grant noted. "We're not as edgy as we were in previous Super Bowls."
As a Super Bowl novitiate, Noll was unable to gauge the mood of the Steelers. "I've given up trying to determine if the players are ready emotionally," he conceded. "I don't worry about the mental aspect. I just prepare the players for the game and what to expect from the other team. There's a lot of hoopla attached to this game, but it will all come down to blocking and tackling, that's all."
Because of the Vikings' vaunted pass rush, led by tackle Alan Page, Noll decided that the best game plan was to rush at the Vikings, sending Harris up the middle on draws and traps and then trusting to Franco to weave a path to daylight.
But the Pittsburgh defensive front four were no slouches either. "With those four going for them," cracked Tarkenton, "the Steelers may be able to play without their linebackers. Usually, I can scramble away from a strong rush, but they are so quick it would be suicide to turn it into a track meet on every play. That's why we'll use a lot of play action to slow down their pass rush."
As the 80,997 spectators attempted to find warmth in Tulane Stadium, the game, as expected, developed into a defensive struggle. In the first quarter, the Vikings registered one first down, the Steelers four. The Vikes netted no yards rushing, the Steelers 64. The Vikes gained 20 yards by passing, the Steelers 15. The Vikings advanced no farther than their own 35-yard line. The Steelers twice penetrated to field goal range. On the first march, Roy Gerela missed on a 37-yard attempt. On the second, holder Bobby Walden picked up an errant snap from center and attempted to run, only to wind up with a seven-yard loss.
Crammed in their own territory on their first four possessions, the Vikings suddenly found themselves on the Pittsburgh 24-yard line early in the second quarter after Rocky Bleier fumbled and Randy Poltl recovered.
The opportunity to score fizzled, however, when Fred Cox missed a fourth-down field goal from 39 yards.
Midway through the period, on a second-and-seven situation from his own 10-yard line, Tarkenton pitched out weakly to Dave Osborn, who fumbled the ball and then fell on it in the end zone for a Pittsburgh safety. That was the only score of the first half.
The Vikings had a second chance to score before halftime, marching from their own 20 to the Pittsburgh 25 as Tarkenton mixed passes with Chuck Foreman's line smashes to pick up three first downs.
With 1:17 remaining in the half, Tarkenton passed down the middle to John Gilliam. The wide receiver caught the ball, but was hit savagely by safety Glen Edwards and fumbled, Mel Blount recovering. Instead of a first down on the Pittsburgh 5, the Vikings came away emptyhanded.
"That play could have made the difference," said Steelers linebacker Jack Ham. "Edwards and Gilliam had a little feud going. That play may have done it."
Late in the second quarter, when middle linebacker Jack Lambert limped off the field with a sprained ankle, Ed Bradley replaced him in the Steelers' lineup.
"The Vikings were calling, 'Who's this turkey?' " related Bradley. "They came right at me, but they didn't get me."
"Bradley was beautiful," lauded Noll. "He made big hits and big plays."
The third quarter was less than one minute old when the Steelers scored the game's first touchdown. Bill Brown, playing his last game for the Vikings at 37, fumbled the kickoff after returning it four yards and Marv Kellum recovered on the Minnesota 30. Harris turned left end for 24 yards, then lost three on the right side before sweeping around left end for nine yards and the TD. Gerela's PAT increased the Steelers' lead to 9-0.
The Vikings uncorked one mild threat later in the quarter, to the Pittsburgh 47, where a Tarkenton pass was deflected and then intercepted by Greene, who returned the ball 10 yards to the Minnesota 46.
"I sort of lumbered along with that interception," reported Greene. "I would like to have gone all the way, but I just don't run fast enough."
Later in the period Pittsburgh linebacker Andy Russell limped to the sidelines with a torn hamstring. He was replaced by Loren Toews.
"I kept begging the coaches to put me back in," recounted Russell. "Then they'd ask me how I felt. I'd have to confess, 'I shouldn't be in there.' It ate my heart out. I didn't want to be isolated on Chuck Foreman or John Gilliam and get beaten for a touchdown."
By the end of the third period, the Vikings had generated only 23 yards rushing, compared to 192 for the Steelers, but had picked up 99 yards by air, more than double the 44 yards credited to the Steelers.
A Harris fumble, recovered by Paul Krause at the Pittsburgh 47, provided the Vikings with an early fourth-quarter opportunity. An interference penalty against safety Wagner on a Tarkenton-to-Gilliam pass advanced the ball to the Pittsburgh 5, where the drive ended when Foreman fumbled on the next play and Greene recovered for the Steelers.
"That was the biggest defensive play of the day," asserted Noll. "They tried to run a counter play and Greene knocked the ball out of Foreman's hands. If they had scored then, they would have made it tough on us."
Four plays after the fumble recovery, Walden's punt was blocked by Matt Blair and recovered in the end zone by Terry Brown for a touchdown. Cox's extra-point attempt struck the left upright and bounded away, leaving the score at 9-6.
"I saw Blair coming and knew I didn't have a chance to get the kick away," said Walden. "Nobody even touched him. I never had a chance to recover the ball once it was blocked."
More than 10 minutes remained in the game, and more than seven minutes were consumed in a Bradshaw-directed march that carried from the Pittsburgh 34 to the Minnesota 4. Bradshaw's pass to tight end Larry Brown in the end zone and Gerela's PAT supplied the final points of the game.
The pass play to Brown was suggested by Joe Gilliam as he watched Bradshaw maneuver the Steelers from the position he occupied at the start of the season. "Our quarterbacks hang together," Noll noted.
"I thought I had Brown covered on the rollout play," explained free safety Krause. "But then Bradshaw pulled up and Brown got behind me. I was hoping he'd throw the ball at first, because I had Brown covered real well. He just stopped and the ball was there."
When the Vikings' defensive unit left the field for the last time, with less than a minute remaining, Page slammed his helmet to the ground in a gesture of disgust. "I didn't think I'd need it anymore," explained the tackle.
Later Page confessed, "It didn't bother me so much that we lost, but that we had some players who didn't want to win. Franco Harris is a good running back, but we have faced others who were just as good or better. We just weren't good enough today to beat them."
Harris carried the ball six times on the Steelers' final touchdown drive and 11 times during the quarter. His last carry, a 15-yard gain to the right, increased Franco's rushing production for the day to 158 yards and broke the record of 145 yards set by Larry Csonka in Super Bowl VIII.
Harris, the game's most valuable player, found his rushing total difficult to believe. "You have to be kidding," he responded. "Gaining 1,000 yards and contributing to a title and Super Bowl victory make this the most significant year of my career.
"Bradshaw had us all relaxed in the huddle. The only time we weren't in control of the situation was when I fumbled, but when I came off the field, Joe Greene told me, 'Don't worry, we'll get it back,' and they did."
By all odds, Greene was the most formidable figure in the Pittsburgh defense that held the Vikings to 23 net yards on the ground, a previously unheard of total. Foreman gained 22 yards in 12 carries and Osborn lost one in eight tries.
"I feel so good about winning I'm almost weak," quipped Greene. "Winning is a lot bigger than I thought it would be.
"It's more fun than wearing the ring and being No. 1. We've never been here before, but we never considered losing. We knew we had a job to do because the Vikings are a tough opponent."
As he trudged off the field, Greene related, he felt sorry for the Vikings after losing their third Super Bowl. "But," he amended, "rather than us."
Bud Carson, who designed the Steelers' defensive game plan, noted, "We were convinced the only way the Vikings could beat us was with Tarkenton scrambling and completing those short rollout passes. Our plan was to shut their run down early to force them to throw the football. Our front four put on too big a rush to permit Tarkenton to have success throwing the football. Our biggest problem was that regular linebackers Lambert and Russell got hurt. We didn't know how their replacements would do, but Bradley and Toews did good jobs."
After a day of trying to contain the Steelers' defensive charge, Minnesota tackle Ron Yary declared, "Their defensive line outplayed us. They beat us with their defensive line. They beat us with their linebackers. They beat us in our secondary. Today our defense played well enough to win, but our offense didn't do the job."
In the opinion of Grant, "It wasn't a very good football game and that's a shame because this is football's showcase. The kicking game was not good, with three missed field goals, some fluke interceptions, some penalties. It was not the type of game either team played to get here."
Tarkenton put it more succinctly. "They deserved to win. They did it. We didn't."
When the victorious Steelers poured into their surprisingly-subdued clubhouse, they found Owner Art Rooney already on hand. "I came down early to make sure my hair was combed," wisecracked the 73-year-old
Bleier, the Vietnam hero with the Bronze Star and Purple Heart, was the first to greet the owner. "Thanks for giving me the chance to play," whispered Bleier from behind an embrace.
"Thanks for being part of the championship team," rejoined Rooney. The tears of both were genuine.
Russell presented the game ball to Rooney, exclaiming, "This one's for The Chief. It's been a long time coming."
"Thank you," murmured Rooney. "I'm proud of you and I'm grateful to you."
"Art Rooney is the greatest man who ever walked," exulted Bradshaw in a burst of hyperbole. "I'm glad our victory occurred in Louisiana. This is like the hometown boy coming home to win the Super Bowl." Bradshaw is a Shreveport native.
Terry recalled that Rooney had predicted in 1970 that the Steelers would be in the Super Bowl in five years. "I didn't believe in that stuff at the time but here we are," he said.
"As I walked off the field, I just savored it all, the noise and all the emotion. It was just a great, satisfying feeling."
As Bradshaw walked into the clubhouse, he, like many members of the Steelers, was wearing a special type of shoe supplied by equipment manager Tony Parisi.
"I knew that the artificial surface of Tulane Stadium would be slick if it rained," reported Parisi, a transplanted Canadian. "So I called up the Weather Bureau and asked for a long-range forecast. They told me there was a good chance there would be a lot of rain before Sunday.
"Then I remembered reading something about shoes that had not yet come on the market. I did a little checking and found I could get this special type of shoe in Montreal. I phoned and ordered 75 pairs of shoes, which arrived on Wednesday.
"I don't tell the players what to wear. I only suggest and if they like the suggestion, fine."
"I don't know where he got 'em, but it was like they came from heaven," declared Russell. "They made a tremendous difference. They were absolutely fantastic."
Russell, Bradshaw and Harris were among those who wore the special shoes during the second half of the game, a game that, many contended, would not have culminated in victory without the foresight and enterprise of Tony Parisi.