1970: Among the most romanticized of turns of fate, a coin toss takes seconds and has dead even odds, yet can be the linchpin for ramifications that span decades.
Not to be melodramatic or anything.
But it is hardly a stretch to say that the Pittsburgh Steelers — the most successful franchise in the modern history of the National Football League and an internationally recognized sports brand — owe everything to a coin flip.
All those Super Bowls, Terrible Towels, and immortal moments, it can be argued, came down to a coin flip between Dan Rooney and his Chicago Bears counterpart Ed McCaskey that awarded the Steelers the rights to draft Terry Paxton Bradshaw, a 21-year-old quarterback from Shreveport, La., first overall in the 1970 NFL Draft.
Jack Sell’s Post-Gazette story from Feb. 14, 1970, explains: “… Chuck Noll isn’t superstitious. Neither is he a winner as last season’s 1-13 record affirms. That was the worst in the club’s 37 seasons of futility.”
“Actually it was because of Noll’s 13 that Bradshaw was here yesterday. The Steelers tied the Bears for the poorest mark in the two big leagues, then won a coin flip for first choice two days before the Super Bowl in New Orleans. The Bears blew a chance at No. 1 when they chewed up the Steelers for their lone victory in Wrigley Field, an ancient arena where the Gold and Black has never won a ball game.”
Sell wrote the story on the occasion of Bradshaw’s introduction to the Pittsburgh media a few weeks after his selection. “On Friday the Steelers entertained Quarterback Terry Bradshaw of little Louisiana Tech, their No. 1 draft pick. The red carpet was rolled out for a press reception and dinner in the LeMont Restaurant atop Mt. Washington where the young gridder could gaze down at Three Rivers Stadium, the battlefield he will be entering this year.”
That would never, ever happen today. One closely monitored press conference with the new pick at the team’s facilities is all the media would get.
But the Steelers weren’t sold on the Blonde Bomber until they saw him in person, as Sell reported in the Jan. 28, 1970, Post-Gazette, the day after the pick. “A personal scouting trip by Coach Chuck Noll of the Steelers to practice sessions preceeding the North-South game in Miami and the Senior Bowl in Mobile convinced him that Quarterback Terry Bradshaw, the 6-3, 215 pounder from Louisina Tech, was the top college football player in the nation. So he was drafted No. 1.
“‘Terry is an extremely accurate drop back passer and he can take off and run with the ball if necessary,’ Noll declared yesterday in a lull during the annual pro lottery proceedings in Hotel Roosevelt.
”’… You have to get closeups to judge accurately. Terry convinced me that he was the most valuable piece of property in the college ranks.’”
“Vice President Dan Rooney explained yesterday that his club delayed making their final decision on Bradshaw until late Monday night.
“‘We had numerous trade offers for the No. 1 pick but most of them were for a lot of junk,’ Rooney said. ‘But three or four were legitimate and we considered them carefully. However, we felt none offered us enough talent to equal the worth of Bradshaw.’
“… The 21-year-old Bradshaw is the first No. 1 draft pick from a college division school. The Little All-American QB lacks the glamour of O.J. Simpson, last year’s first choice by the Buffalo Bills from USC, but Bradshaw is being tabbed as a sure fire pro star.”
It’s entirely possible that the Steelers would have been good without Bradshaw. Dan Rooney had taken over operation of the team from his lovably losing father in 1969, intent on building a winner. That same year he hired head coach Chuck Noll to carry it out and they drafted Mean Joe Greene.
They added another Hall of Famer, cornerback Mel Blount, in the third round of the same draft as Bradshaw. They would add six more eventual Canton enshrinees — Jack Ham, Franco Harris, Lynn Swann, Jack Lambert, John Stallworth and Mike Webster — plus countless other role players over the next four years before winning Super Bowl IX.
But there’s something about a golden boy quarterback. Could the Steelers have become a football dynasty if Rooney had lost the coin toss and Bradshaw became a Monster of the Midway?
As Bradshaw is alleged to have said: “you can lose with me, but you can’t win without me.”
And win the Steelers did. With him.