| Follow Us: Facebook Twitter RSS Feed


The Rise of the Steeler Nation (And What it Means to Pittsburgh)

The Steeler Nation was in its infancy on January 20, 1979, when I flew to Miami to cover Super Bowl XIII for a now-defunct publication. Sure, there was a lot of town spirit back then, but the idea of nationhood had not yet entered the public consciousness.

And yet.

The airplane that Saturday morning was full of Steeler fans, all heading for the Orange Bowl the next day. As they marched through the Miami airport, they played Jimmy Pol’s memorable Steeler Polka. For my part, while I generally didn’t – and don’t -- go in for such shenanigans, I felt an immediate connection with these strangers, and proudly joined their flying wedge as they frightened the locals and flattened little children in their wake.

Even in 1979 there was so much pride in this team, and this town, so long battered by economics, so badly betrayed by corporations who had promised to stand as custodians of the civic weal, that Pittsburgh seemed ready for a renaissance of its own – a people’s renaissance. A re-birth of recognition – of everything we loved about Pittsburgh. We found it wrapped up in something we could unabashedly cheer: a football team.

Later that day, two guys were hawking Super Bowl T-shirts at the hotel parking lot--there was nothing official in the gift shop if that can be believed – and I bought two. The second was for my former Pitt roommate, who had moved to California.

Suddenly, I was a made guy.

Asked in 1975 to come up with a gimmick for the fans, Steeler broadcaster Myron Cope famously protested that he wasn’t a gimmick guy. Nevertheless, his creation, the Terrible Towel, was the stuff of genius – and serves as the perfect symbol of the Steeler Nation. Small and Iight, it’s something everybody can buy or create or scrounge from the kitchen. Then manipulate appropriately. As such, the Terrible Towel is egalitarian, democratic, all-inclusive, immediately conferring membership on anyone who hoists one.

Hung from Mount Everest and the Great Wall of China, taken into space and flown over Afghanistan, it is the world’s most recognizable sports banner. And says one thing: Pittsburgh.

“I have led a trivial life,” Cope dismissed his achievement in his typically self-deprecating way. “A piece of terrycloth will be the monument to my career."

Love and Equality
“I love the spirit of the Pittsburgh fans. You can’t go anywhere on game day without seeing everyone dressed in black and gold. I’m proud to be a Pittsburgh fan.”
Janet Falkowski
Pittsburgh Public Schools

“Whether you’re a stockbroker or 7-11 clerk, you’re equal in the Steeler Nation. There’s a commonality that allows you to take part without the fear of discrimination. The Steeler Nation truly brings Pittsburghers together.”
Amy Michalic
Foreclosure Officer
Land America

Stuff...and More Stuff
From Dick’s in the Waterfront to Honus Wagner Downtown, Mike Feinberg in the Strip to Buzzy selling T-shirts at the corner gas station, Steeler merchandise simply flies off the shelves. Commented one harried – but obviously happy – retailer, “you name it, they’ll buy it.”

“Isn’t it exciting?” asks Dr. Audrey Guskey, Duquesne University marketing professor and a nationally renowned consumer trends expert. “It’s given us such life and energy, unified the whole community -- all demographic groups. I think it’s a beautiful thing, and it’s incredible, from a marketing perspective. The great thing is it wasn’t created by marketers. It comes from the heart of the people.  We’re dreaming it.”

Coast-to-Coast Loyalties
“The Steeler Nation is the greatest, most dedicated group of fans in the world. Wherever I travel across the US, or even in other countries, I always meet Steeler fans. And there is always an instant connection and camaraderie. It’s truly an amazing thing.”
Dan Onorato
Allegheny County Executive

“I moved to Los Angeles 32 years ago, and when I wear my Steelers jacket people ask if I’m from Pittsburgh. More often than not, so are they. We take pride in our roots as Pittsburghers. The Steelers have earned national respect because they are consistently tough. That for me epitomizes the Steelers and Pittsburgh -- playing through adversity.”
Vince Lascheid III
Lascheid Industries, Inc.

“As a Steeler fan who was at Three Rivers Stadium for the Immaculate Reception, I have often thought about what is special about our team. It is an attitude that skill, dedication, and character come before stardom. The Steelers are a blue-collar, lunch-bucket team: you tighten your chin strap and summon the inner reserve to be better than the guy across the line.”
CJ Riley

“The Steelers are resilient, passionate, fight-to-the-end warriors – like Pittsburgh itself!”
T.J. Troup
Scholastic Football Coach
Tustin, CA

“The connection between the team and town is unique and incredibly strong. Pittsburgh is a hardworking, no-nonsense town, and we like our players to be that way too. The Steelers definitely epitomize that work ethic, and Pittsburghers respond to it. That’s something you don’t find in other cities.”
Dan Onorato
Allegheny County Executive

“As Pittsburgh began to lose the steel industry, the Steelers started to become relevant. Pittsburghers could ignore the decline of their livelihood by following those amazing Steeler teams of the 1970s. They became the tie that bound everyone together, even if they had to go stand in the unemployment line Monday morning. Now that Pittsburgh and the Steelers are successful, we know how to act -- root for our Steelers.”
Jesse Mendelson
Corporate Executive Board
Washington, DC

“The Steelers means civic pride – and much-needed revenues for local governments, hotels, restaurants, and souvenir vendors. The Steelers are a reason to party -- and a distraction from the world.”
Melvin Stein
Associate General Counsel
United Steelworkers

“To have the Steelers in the Super Bowl again brings a tremendous amount of attention to our region; it gives us the opportunity to be in the international spotlight for two weeks. The PR value is immense.”
Dan Onorato
Allegheny County Executive

“The Steelers’ outstanding performance brings great opportunities to tell Pittsburgh’s exciting story. The success of the team is felt not only in the hearts and minds of Steeler fans across the globe, but in the economic impact returned to the city as a result of the teams’ continuing great performance. Hotels, restaurants, retailers, and attractions all report increases in attendance and sales. And now the national media is again focused on Pittsburgh, presenting the chance to let the world know what a great place this is to live, work and play.”
Joe McGrath
President & CEO

The Feeling is Mutual
“I absolutely love you guys.”
Coach Mike Tomlin addressing the Steeler Nation
AFC Victory Party
Heinz Field
January 18, 2009

To receive Pop City weekly, click here.
Abby Mendelson is the author of the book, The Official Steelers History, which is available in bookstores everywhere and at amazon and bn.com.
Captions:  Dan Onorato at a Steelers rally; Steelers fans; KPNX Phoenix checking out the Strip; Audrey Gusky; more media attention; Heinz Field.

Photograph of Dan Onorato courtesy Margaret Stanley, Allegheny County Photographer.  All other photographs copyright Brian Cohen.

Signup for Email Alerts
Signup for Email Alerts