By Tony Grossi | ESPNCleveland.com
The Morning Kickoff …
Rivalry refresher: The Browns and Pittsburgh Steelers have played twice a year since 1950, give or take a few interruptions.
They were natural rivals as soon as the Browns joined the NFL. When the league asked for volunteers to switch conferences after the merger with the AFL in 1966, the Browns and Steelers joined hands and jumped together.
Except for the decade of the 1970s – when the Steelers won 15 of 20 games -- the Browns dominated the Steelers. From 1950 through 1995, the Browns held the series lead, 52-41. The Steelers had four league championships (1974, ‘75, ’78, ‘79). But so did the Browns (1950, ’54, ’55, ’64).
Art Modell’s decision to dodge personal bankruptcy by moving the Browns to Baltimore in 1996 was like a chainsaw to this rivalry.
The Browns were reborn as an expansion team in 1999. Since then, the Steelers have won 24 of 29 meetings. Is that so hard to understand? What if the roles had been reversed and the Steelers had been the franchise in ICU for three years? Wouldn’t the lopsidedness be reversed?
View from the other side: Steelers President Art Rooney II has lived through the history of the rivalry, so he understands.
“I think it is getting healthier,” Rooney said to ESPN Cleveland. “I think it’s fair to say it’s not what it once was. But I think that’s a function of the two teams for the past few years had their ups and downs. I think this game (on Sunday), there’s a lot on the line for both teams. Both teams are in the hunt. That’s really what it takes, I think, for a rivalry to get some spark. That’s what is needed, probably.”
While the Steelers formally voted against Modell’s move to Baltimore and eagerly supported Cleveland’s desire to regain an expansion franchise in 1999, the fact is they have benefitted from this seismic shift in the rivalry. They gained an AFC North division pushover in the expansion Browns and a new, fierce rival in the Baltimore Ravens – the former Browns.
“Certainly there are a lot of our fans who still consider Cleveland to be a big rivalry,” Rooney said. “But there’s no doubt, because of the competition we’ve had with Baltimore and the fact we’ve had a lot of meaningful games with them, that has created a rivalry with them.
“It’s probably fair to say that’s our biggest rival right now.”
Since the Browns returned in 1999, the Steelers and Ravens have made the playoffs 19 times. Each has won two Super Bowls.
“If you go back to the 70s, we had a great rivalry with the Raiders,” Rooney said. “That really grew out of the fact we played them in playoff games for five years in a row. I think that’s what it takes. When you’re playing games with a lot on the line, that creates a rivalry. This game coming up this weekend, there’s a lot on the table for both teams, so it’s a very meaningful game.
“From our standpoint, we still look at it as an important rivalry, even though it may not be as intense as recent history. I think all it’s going take is more games where a lot is on the line for both teams. Who knows? Maybe this is the year that that happens twice. We’ll see.”
The teams meet again in the 16th game in Pittsburgh on Dec. 29.
“I think it certainly looks this season that the Browns have improved themselves,” Rooney said. “I think Jimmy’s (Haslam) made a lot of changes up there that are going to probably lead to more improvement as the years go on. So that’s going to be important in terms of making sure the rivalry stays healthy and continues.”
A new chapter begins: When two brothers of Dan Rooney decided to retain business interests in horse racing casinos in late 2008, they had to sell their 32 percent ownership of the Steelers to comply with NFL rules. The Steelers looked for new partners. One of the investors recruited by investment services firm Morgan Stanley was Jimmy Haslam, who bought a 12 ½ percent stake.
For four years, Haslam soaked in the Steelers’ operation. He attended every Browns-Steelers game in Cleveland and Pittsburgh during those years. When the Lerner family sought to sell the Browns in 2012, Haslam jumped at the opportunity to buy. He paid $1.05 billion to enter the NFL fraternity.
“Jmmy and I, we spoke almost once a week about how things were going and where things were going,” Rooney said of Haslam’s four years as a minority partner. “We had a great relationship.
“It wasn’t like he was in the facility every day. Our conversations more often than not were on the phone. Not that he wouldn’t come to visit. And he came to almost every game.”
I asked Rooney whether Browns fans should be concerned about the future of the Haslam ownership because of the federal probe of Haslam’s family-owned Pilot Flying J company.
“It’s hard for me to say anything about it because I don’t know enough about it to make an intelligent comment,” Rooney said. “Jimmy feels confident he’s going to work through it. I certainly believe him. I think he’s a good man. I know his whole family. They’re good people. I have no reason to doubt him when he says that to me.”
Haslam recently agreed to dump $90 million into FirstEnergy Stadium as long as the city of Cleveland picks up the $30 million tab for the rest of planned renovations. Haslam’s responsibility as Browns owner includes accelerating the time lost by the Modell move and restoring the rivalry with the Steelers. That can only happen with wins in meaningful games – like Sunday’s.
|Tony Grossi covers the Browns for ESPN 850 WKNR, ESPN 1540 KNR2 and www.espncleveland.com. |
He has covered the Browns with distinction since 1984 and is one of 46 voters for the National Football League Hall of Fame. Email your “Hey Tony” questions to firstname.lastname@example.orgFollow Tony on Twitter @tonygrossi
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