For non-Pittsburgh sports fans that ever wonder why the city also known as the “Steel City” is commonly known as The City of Champions (which so happens to also be the name of this web site), the answer boils down to one amazing year, 1979.
In the sports seasons of that year, the baseball and every football team in Pittsburgh both pro and amateur completed their campaigns with post-season appearances. Only the Duquesne Dukes football team failed to make a bowl game but still finished with a winning record of 5-4.
With the Pittsburgh Pirates winning the World Series; the Steelers winning their fourth Super Bowl in six years; the Fiesta Bowl finishing with the Pitt Panthers defeating the University of Arizona; Carnegie Mellon University’s football team going undefeated and making the second round of the Division III playoffs before bowing out to Ithaca; and the Penguins finishing third in their then Norris Division despite a losing record but making the playoffs, Pittsburgh earned the nickname, “City of Champions.”
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The two major teams, the Steelers and Pirates stole the show, as the Lombardi Trophy returned to Pittsburgh and the men of the Buccos rode the song “We are Family” by Sister Sledge to a championship over Baltimore. The two leaders of those squads Terry Bradshaw and Willie Stargell shared the cover of Sports Illustrated on December 24, 1979, sharing that magazine’s Sportsmen of the Year Award. The sale price of that issue would be unheard of today, as it was listed for just $1.50.
The Black and Gold playing at home in Three Rivers Stadium on the gridiron in 1979 would finish the regular season with a record of 12-4. In the divisional playoffs, the Pittsburgh Steelers beat up on the Miami Dolphins 34-14. A week later they ousted the Houston Oilers for the AFC title by a margin of 27-13.
The season was capped off with a defense of their NFL championship by knocking off the feisty Los Angeles Rams 31-19. Terry Bradshaw was the game’s Most Valuable Player despite The Blonde Bomber throwing three picks.
To counter those mistakes, Bradshaw tossed two touchdowns and passed for 309 yards. John Stallworth was the receiving star with just three catches but good for 121 yards. He and Lynn Swann each scored once and Franco Harris added two more touchdowns on the ground.
During the regular season, Harris had rushed for 1,186 yards and Sidney Thornton added another 585 to go with Rocky Bleier’s 434. Terry Bradshaw finished with 3,724 yards passing and tossed 26 touchdown passes. He also was intercepted 29 times. In the air, John Stallworth and Lynn Swann combined for nearly 2,000 yards receiving and 13 touchdowns. On defense, Jack Lambert and Donnie Shell led the team in interceptions with six and five respectively.
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On the diamond in Three Rivers, earlier that year in October, the Pittsburgh Pirates had wrapped up a season that found them finishing first in the National League East with a record of 98-64. With Willie Stargell handing out stars to be placed on the caps of those who excelled, the team got fully behind Pops and he led them to the post season in a matchup against the Cincinnati Reds.
The Big Red Machine was no match for the Bucs dropping three straight games. In the World Series, Pittsburgh fell behind Baltimore three games to one but came back with three straight victories to cap off their fifth world title ever.
Appropriately enough, it was Willie Stargell who was the hero in the final deciding game as the big man had four hits in five at bats nearly hitting for the cycle with a single, two doubles, and a blast for a round tripper that provided the first scores of the game. On the season, Bill Madlock had the highest average with a .328 mark while Pops had the most homers with 32. On the base paths Omar Moreno was a thief with 77 stolen bases. Chuck Noll was the Head Coach for the Steelers while Chuck Tanner managed the Pirates to the amazing season.
On the ice in 1979, the Pittsburgh Penguins would only win 30 of 80 games played accumulating 73 points in the standings at the end of the regular season. Still, with the system in the NHL that allows more playoff teams than baseball or football, the Pens were in. However, behind the coaching of Johnny Wilson, they didn’t last long. Facing the Boston Bruins in the first round, Pittsburgh bowed out quickly losing the best-of-five series three games to two.
Rick Kehoe was the Penguins leading scorer in 1979 with 30 goals and 30 assists. Not far behind was Greg Malone with 51 points. In the nets, time was shared between three goalies, Greg Millen, Rob Holland, and Nick Ricci. Millen had the most playing time, starting in 44 games and registering an even record of 18-18.
While those three major teams all made their respective playoffs, in college sports it was also a huge year for two of the three major universities in town. The biggest school, the University of Pittsburgh, found success on the football field where the team won 11 of 12 games including the Fiesta Bowl triumph over Arizona 16-10.
Jackie Sherrill was the head coach and his defense was led by Foge Fazio. A freshman quarterback from Central Catholic High School in Pittsburgh led them to that bowl game. His name was Dan Marino. Randy McMillan led the ground game with 802 yards rushing and in the air, the leading receiver was Benji Pryor who caught 45 balls for 588 yards.
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Not to be outdone, the smallest of the three colleges in Pittsburgh, Carnegie Mellon University put together one of the most amazing seasons in their football history. With a nine-game regular season schedule, the Tartans proceeded to knock off each of those teams with the closest margin coming in the season’s final game against Thiel with CMU victorious by a 21-13 score.
With four shutouts during that 1979 campaign, CMU won by scores of 20-0, 35-0, 27-3, 41-0, 33-14, 32-7, 26-0, and 27-7 before that final victory of the season. In the first round of the Division III playoffs, the Tartans narrowly defeated Minnesota-Morris 31-25 before battling small school powerhouse Ithaca and losing 15-6. Ithaca would go on to win that conference’s title, the Stagg Bowl. For 1979, CMU was presented with the Lambert Trophy given to the best small school in the Northeast United States.
The third of the schools not mentioned are the Duquesne University Dukes. Their football team failed to make the playoffs in 1979 but still won five of nine games in Division III. On the hard court however, the Dukes basketball team finished 17-10 with high school superstar B.B. Flenory leading the team averaging 15.4 points-per-game just ahead of Doug Arnold’s 15.3. Invited to the NIT Tournament, Duquesne upset Pitt but lost to St. Peters in the next round.
Those same Pitt Panthers on the courts would finish 17-12 led by Coach Tim Grgurich as they faced Mike Rice’s Dukes in that NIT loss. Sam Clancy who would later switch sports and play pro football was a member of that Panthers basketball team.
Will there ever be another year for any city in the country like what Pittsburgh experienced in 1979? There was a recent article in the New York Times titled “Boston and Pittsburgh, America’s Most Successful Sports Cities” and Boston ranks first for having the most championships won over the course of the last 50 years with a mark of winning 10% of the time in that span. Pittsburgh comes in second with an 8% championship run. For those fans like this author that had the privilege of witnessing the events of 1979, it is a year that is etched in memory.