While most people tend to overlook the Pittsburgh Steelers in the era prior to the 1970s dynasty, this Steelers History Series will look back on some of the history of the franchise, ripe with some nuggets you may not know and hope you will enjoy.
The Steelers first playoff game
1972 was a landmark season for the Pittsburgh Steelers. The story of winning their first ever championship (AFC Central Division) and playoff game with the “Immaculate Reception” have been well told.
Most people know it was not the Steelers first playoff game. That happened when the Steelers lost to the Philadelphia Eagles in a rare divisional playoff game in 1947. With all of the success the Steelers have experienced since then, it has become quite easy for the story of that team and the first great Steelers head coach to become lost to history.
When the war ended in 1945, the men came streaming home, and the Steelers began the rebuilding process. After a 2-8 season, Art Rooney became convinced that the team needed a real coach. In the past he had been content to hire friends and cronies, guys he could hang out with and who didn’t take their card playing too seriously. Now he set his sights on Jock Sutherland, the legendary University of Pittsburgh gridiron master.
Born to coach winning football
Dr. John Bain “Jock” Sutherland came from Scotland, attended the University of Pittsburgh where he played under the legend of American football “Pop” Warner, and graduated with a degree in dentistry. His true talent was not as a player or dentist, he was a natural born coach.
He took over the football program at the small college program of Lafayette, where he capped off five consecutive winning seasons as with a 9-0 team that many sportswriters named as the best college team in the nation. In 1924, he succeeded Warner as the head coach of the Pittsburgh Panthers and steered the Panthers to 15 years of dominance while compiling an unbelievable record of 111-20-12 (including 79 shut-outs). The Panthers were recognized as “National Champions” 9 times (with the University of Pittsburgh officially recognizing 5) including recognition in the 2nd year of the AP National Championship in 1937 (the standard that exists to this day).
Pro Football and Military Service
Sutherland turned his sights to the NFL and directed the Brooklyn Dodgers to a pair of back-to-back winning seasons before WWII interrupted his coaching career and he was called into service. He would attain the rank of Lieutenant Commander with the U.S. Navy. When he returned in 1945, the Dodgers franchise had ceased operations. Sutherland was approached by Rooney and Bert Bell and talked Sutherland into coaching the Steelers.
The impact was immediate. George Halas remarked that Sutherland’s hiring was “not only good for the Steelers but a great step forward for the league”. An excited fanbase agreed, as the day after the newspapers reported that Sutherland had signed with the Steelers, season ticket sales went through the roof, increasing from 1,500 in 1945 to 22,000 in 1946.
Sutherland’s Tenure with the Steelers
Sutherland brought credibility and a commanding discipline to the Steelers, along with his single-wing formation. The single-win was a run-oriented offense in which the center snapped the ball to one of two running backs. Utilizing the abilities of “Bullet” Bill Dudley, he led the Steelers to a 5-5-1 record in 1946. He led the Steelers their best season ever in 1947, where the team finished 8-4 and in a first-place tie for the Eastern Conference Championship with the Eagles.
The two teams had split the season series and the Steelers had a real chance to play for the NFL Championship. What happened next was a bid by the Steelers players to use the week off to struck for more pay. Sutherland and NFL Commissioner Bert Bell would not make any concessions and the players lost their bid for more money. What is more, they lost their focus, and the result of the playoff game was a disappointing 21-0 loss. Sadly, an even greater loss would soon follow.
Sudden Illness and Death
The newspapers praised Southerland for his coaching efforts after the season and anticipation was high going into 1948. Southerland was determined to continue the building of the Steelers and he set out on planned month-long excursion where he would combine vacation and scouting for the Steelers. On April 7, 1948, a passerby in the small town of Bandana, Kentucky discovered Sutherland in his car which had run off the road. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported that he was “in a dazed condition.” He was taken to a nearby hospital where he was initially diagnosed with “nervous exhaustion” before returning to Pittsburgh for further treatment. It was there where doctors discovered a malignant brain tumor and Sutherland passed away following surgery on April 11, 1948. He was 59 years old.
Art Rooney expressed his sentiment: “We are deeply grieved by Dr. Sutherland’s death. He put Pittsburgh on the professional football map. The football world lost one of its greatest citizens. I lost one of my finest friends.”
A National Hero
Legend had it that Dr. John Bain “Jock” Sutherland played in the first football game he ever saw. The Saturday Evening Post described him as a “National Hero” in one of its articles. He lost only once as a player and never had a losing season as a coach. He was a local legend to Pittsburgh. Mayor David Lawrence ordered the city to fly the flags at half-staff on the day of his funeral.
Dr. Sutherland, as he was referred to even as head coach, would prove impossible to replace. His unique ability to lead and the presence he brought was unique. One can only imagine what Dr. Sutherland could have built for the Pittsburgh Steelers organization and he deserves honorable mention as being among the Steelers legends.
- How The Pittsburgh Steelers Came to Be – Art Rooney
- How a day at Saratoga saved the Pittsburgh Steelers
- When Art Rooney played a prank on George Halas
- Byron “Whizzer” White and “Bullet” Bill Dudley: The Steelers first Franchise Players
- The Pennsylvania Polka – When Art Rooney sold the Steelers
- When Art Rooney was offered the chance to buy the New York Yankees
- What might have been – Jock Sutherland
- NEXT: Same Old Steelers – “Rogel up the Middle”
- Why the Steelers cut Johnny Unitas
- How Buddy Parker vs. Dan Rooney set up the Steelers Dynasty
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