by David Finoli
Photo courtesy of Behind the Steel Curtain.
As the Pittsburgh Steelers prepare to take on the Las Vegas-Oakland-Los Angeles-Oakland Raiders this Sunday evening, there isn’t much excitement cascading among NFL fans for a national broadcast consisting of two 1-1 teams that have been outscored by a combined 60-106. It’s a damned shame because this is an historic rivalry...well it used to be.
It’s not like it hasn’t been close lately. In the 21st century, they’ve played 13 times with the Raiders holding a slim 7-6 advantage, but the games lacked character, save the Kenny Pickett-led dramatic 13-10 comeback on Christmas Eve 2022 only four days after legendary Steeler Franco Harris unexpectedly died. The matchup isn’t like it was in the 1970's when the two squads and fan bases hated each other. The games were generally wars with the winner often heading to the Super Bowl.
Those memorable contests featured many Hall of Famers, with Oakland counting 15, that included coach John Madden, owner Al Davis and executive Ron Wolf, and the Steelers chipping in with 14 of their own including coach Chuck Noll, owners Art and Dan Rooney as well as one of the greatest scouts the NFL has ever known Bill Nunn.
The two squads combined for five Super Bowl championships during that incredible decade (is it time to mention now that Pittsburgh won four of them) and met 11 times with the Raiders winning six. Out of the 11, five were post season affairs with three of them determining the American Football Conference champion. Some were decisive victories while others were classic battles. One even ended with the greatest play in the history of the National Football League...and most controversial.
Through it all it was a rivalry like no other. The Steelers vs Browns, Steelers vs Bengals or the Steelers vs Ravens don’t even come close. Hell, it was even one that ended up with the two combatants going after each other in a court of law. Dare I say it was the finest the league has ever produced in one decade.
It started off so innocent, in 1970, a time where Oakland was one of the toughest franchises produced in the old American Football League, and Pittsburgh had been the traditional doormat in the NFL standings. The Steelers were coming off a disastrous 1-13 campaign in 1969 but had been playing better to start 1970, winning their previous two games to stand at 2-3 when they traveled to Oakland’s Alameda County Stadium to face the Raiders for the first time. Raymond Chester opened the scoring for the home team with a 37-yard catch off the arm of Daryl Lamonica before Preston Pearson tied it for Pittsburgh on a 2-yard run. Oakland scored the next 17 points and easily won the game 31-14. Only Nostradamus could have predicted this would become such a storied rivalry after that game.
The Steelers won only 11 games in 1970 and 1971, but through the draft, boasted some of the best young talent in the league. Terry Bradshaw, Joe Greene, Jack Ham and Mel Blount were just beginning their Hall of Fame careers and in 1972 they drafted a running back out of Penn State by the name of Franco Harris. He wasn’t even the best back the Nittany Lions would produce in 1971 as he shared the backfield with Lydell Mitchell, who was the more productive running back in Happy Valley. As it turned out, Mitchell had a fine career running for over 1,000 yards three times while amassing 6,534 yards and being named to three pro bowls.
Not bad, at least until Franco said, “Hold my beer.” As it turned out, Pittsburgh made the proper choice. Harris ran for almost double that amount—12,120 to be exact—second in NFL history at the time. He also accumulated over 1,000 yards on eight occasions, including that first season when he out rushed Mitchell 1,055 to 215, and became a Steel City icon with a play that people still talk about 51-years later.
They entered the 1972 campaign as one of the dark horse favorites to capture the franchise’s first division crown when they started the season against the Raiders, who were 4 ½ point favorites. They added to the excitement when Henry Davis returned a blocked a punt early on for a 7-0 advantage, a lead Pittsburgh would increase to 27-7 by the end of the third quarter. Lamonica brought them back with two touchdown passes, including a 70-yard bomb to Mike Siani to cut the Pittsburgh lead to 34-28, but the Steelers hung on for a memorable opening day victory at Three Rivers Stadium. It was a win that would propel them to an 11-3 season, which indeed allowed them to capture that first central division crown. The win gave them a spot in the post season for only the second time in their 39-year history, the first since a 21-0 loss in 1947 to the Philadelphia Eagles for the eastern division championship. Ironically, the first-round game would match this exciting, young squad against these same Oakland Raiders, once again at the stadium where the three rivers met. It was here the rivalry truly began.
What most people don’t remember about this game was what an embarrassingly bad offensive contest it truly was. The two teams would combine for only 468 yards of offense, 90 of which came on two plays. Pittsburgh held a 6-0 lead late in the game on two Roy Gerela field goals in the third and fourth quarters when those two plays took this boring affair from snoozer to a legendary status.
A young Kenny Stabler came into the contest at quarterback to replace the struggling Lamonica and ended up running untouched into the end zone from 30-yards out to give Oakland a 7-6 lead late in the game.
My dad Domenic had been used to the Steelers always blowing their opportunities at the time and turned to my brother Jamie and me and said, “Let’s get out of here. At least we’ll beat the traffic.” (It’s at this time I’ll mention my dad hated traffic).
We were coming out of gate C when we heard the roar of a lifetime. We knew we missed something big, perhaps a third Gerela field goal to win the game. No, it wasn’t that; it was much bigger than that. It was Franco catching a deflected pass off Jack Tatum (we say it was Tatum while Oakland faithful insisted it was off Pittsburgh’s Frenchy Fuqua). At the time, an offensive player couldn’t catch a pass that deflected off another offensive player.
The referees debated for several minutes. Madden was in their face, insisting it wasn’t a touchdown, as was linebacker Phil Villapiano, who claimed even if the 60-yard touchdown play was good, he was clipped on it. After the heated debate, the referees signaled touchdown and a 13-7 Pittsburgh victory, their first post season win ever. The hate between the two teams became intense and yes, the hated rivalry was on.
The two teams met twice in 1973 with the Steelers winning in Oakland 17-9 before the Raiders finally got their revenge with a dominant 33-14 first round victory at home. They smashed Pittsburgh in the regular season in 1974, 17-0 in Three Rivers and the Steelers looked despondent, like a team stuck in neutral instead of developing into a Super Bowl contender. It was so upsetting that even Greene considered quitting before being talked out of it by receivers coach Lionel Taylor. What we didn’t know at the time was the 1974 rookie class would produce an amazing five Hall of Famers and eventually they righted the ship and won the division before returning to the AFC championship contest, and once again they would face the Raiders—this time in Oakland.
At the end of the third quarter, they were losing 10-3. My cousin Richard and I were watching the title bout at my Aunt Louise’s house and were not exactly confident. While we had our doubts, Harris and Rocky Bleier were thrashing though the Raider front lines for 111 and 98 yards respectively. Franco scored twice in the final frame as Pittsburgh outscored the home team 21-3 on their way to their first Super Bowl appearance. One they would win against Minnesota 16-6, bringing their legendary owner, the Chief, to tears. The Raiders on the other hand were bitter at their misfortune and would be even more so a year later.
In 1975, both teams once again had outstanding years with the Steelers posting perhaps the greatest season in franchise history at 12-2 and the Raiders capturing the west with an 11-3 mark. For the fourth consecutive season, they met in the post-season, and the second year in a row it was for the AFC title.
The game this year was to be held at a very frosty Three Rivers Stadium where the temperatures were in the mid-teens while the ever-increasing winds would drop the wind chill below zero. The groundcrew tried to keep the turf in peak conditions during the week by placing a tarp over it with heaters underneath. As the week went on with the weather worsening and the wind beginning to rip the tarp, the field became icy. The crew decided to put hot water over it to melt the ice, a decision that wasn’t exactly in the best interest of solving the issue. The field predictably became an ice rink. The only problem was this wasn’t the Winter Classic, it was a championship football game for a spot in the Super Bowl.
Raiders owner Al Davis was livid when he saw it and accused the Steelers of doing it on purpose to limit his high-powered offense. He demanded that NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle postpone the game as he claimed the turf was unplayable. Rozelle refused and the comedy of errors took place. There were 13 turnovers as the two bitter rivals battled in a highly physical affair. Touchdowns by Harris and John Stallworth gave Pittsburgh a 16-7 lead late in the game, but Oakland kicked a field goal then recovered the onside kick to give themselves a chance at a remarkable comeback victory. Stabler then launched a 35-yard pass to Cliff Branch, who pulled it in at the Steeler 15, but Blount tackled him as time expired and Pittsburgh went on the Super Bowl X, where they defeated the Dallas Cowboys 21-17 to defend their NFL championship.
A year later, Pittsburgh got off to a miserable 1-4 start while losing Bradshaw in the process. The defense then produced one of the greatest streaks in NFL history, allowing only 28 points in the team’s final nine games, all victories, to lead them into the playoffs again. After thrashing Baltimore 40-14 in the first round, they earned a trip to Oakland to face their now common post-season opponent for the fifth time in five years. They met for the AFC championship unfortunately, without Harris or Bleier, who were both injured, and Oakland finally defeated the Steelers 24-7 and went on to win their first Super Bowl title.
While it was a disappointing ending to a memorable season for Pittsburgh, it was the 1976 opener that led to the most bizarre moment in the storied rivalry’s history. The Steelers were dominating the game 28-14 in the fourth quarter when the defense suddenly fell apart. The Raiders scored the game’s final 17 points and won 31-28 on a 21-yard Fred Steinfort field goal. Even though it was an exciting contest and an excruciating loss for Pittsburgh, it was the post conference with Noll after the game that made it so memorable.
Late in the first half, Bradshaw dumped a screen pass to Franco, but it was Lynn Swann who was injured on the play when Raider defensive back George Atkinson slugged Swann in the back of the head, knocking him out of the contest. Noll was still seething at the play and was frustrated that while the NFL talked about making such a play illegal, they never enacted the rule. After going off against the league, he referred to Atkinson as part of the criminal element in the game. While the play was a cheap shot, Atkinson claimed that it was a case of defamation of character and decided to sue the team and its head coach for three million dollars (he also included an Oakland columnist in the suit who made the claim that Atkinson “could have killed Swann instead of giving him a concussion. He could be facing a murder rap”).
The case went to court in San Francisco during training camp before the 1977 campaign and while it was eventually dropped, during a tense questioning of Noll, he admitted that cheap shots by his own players, including Glen Edwards, Mel Blount and “Mean Joe “Greene could be classified as part of the criminal element in football. Blount was livid and threatened to sue Noll himself for six million, claiming he’d never play for the man again. After a 56-day holdout, the two settled their differences and Blount continued his Hall of Fame career with Pittsburgh.
During the 1977 season, Pittsburgh ended the decade’s most dramatic rivalry with a 16-7 loss at Oakland, a game where the Steelers dominated play but committed five turnovers against zero for the Raiders.
The hatred continued into the 1980's, but the Steeler dynasty was coming to an end and the team had some miserable seasons while also losing all three matchups against the Raiders. Since then, it has never come close to the intensity NFL fans enjoyed during the memorable 1970's and it is a shame, because what they saw at that point has arguably never been matched before by two teams in the annals of the professional version of the sport.