It was early spring in 1969. Commissioner Pete Rozelle had locked the NFL owners in a hotel room not allowing them to leave until a deal could be reached on the realignment plan for the merger between the NFL and AFL. With 26 total teams ( 16 NFL and 10 AFL) it was decided that three NFL clubs would have to move to the new AFC to balance out the two sides. After a long and bitter rivalry between the two sides, no NFL franchise wanted to move to join the old AFL teams. This was holding the whole merger process up, and time was running out. The Chicago Bears, New York Giants, and San Francisco 49ers were deemed untouchable and were left out of any discussions of being moved. The rest of the teams dug in their heels not wanting to be viewed as doormats that could just be thrown out of the original group of NFL teams. Rozelle was forced to sweeten the pot by offering three million dollars to each club that agreed a move. That got the ball rolling, and eventually the Baltimore Colts, Cleveland Browns, and the Pittsburgh Steelers volunteered to be the franchises to join the newly named AFC. The rest is history, as the NFL became the most successful pro sports league in the world.
So what led the Steelers to agree to be one of the teams to make the leap? It’s in large part due to four major reasons:
- The Cleveland Browns – A big reason both these franchises agreed to leave the NFC was the fact the other was coming along as well. These teams could sell to their fan bases they would keep the long-standing rivalry in tact. To a lesser extent, the same could be said for the then Baltimore Colts. All three teams were close geographically and all had decent rivalries with one another.
- A new division – – It was always the plan to have one team from the old NFL go into each of the three divisions that were to make up the new conference. In order to further entice both the Browns and Steelers, commissioner Rozelle came up with a new division that also included the Bengals and Houston Oilers. The Bengals fit in perfectly as a rival with the Steelers and Browns. Meanwhile the Oilers had become an attractive franchise because of their new home field marvel the Astrodome. It was a stroke of genius by Rozelle to give the already leaning franchises more to like about joining the AFC.
- A new hope – The Steelers had really struggled through the 1960’s. They managed only one winning season in the decade, and hadn’t made the playoffs since 1947. Pittsburgh felt they would find more success with what they thought were inferior teams from the old AFL. If there was any franchise in the NFL who needed a fresh start it was the Steelers, and the Rooney’s knew it.
- MONEY – When you want to find a motivating factor in any situation, look no further than the almighty dollar. As mentioned earlier, any team that agreed to move would receive three million dollars. In 1969 that was very good money. Not to mention the fact that any teams that stayed behind would have to pony up close to $700,000 to cover the payments to the departing franchises. After years and years of losing Pittsburgh wasn’t the strongest franchise in the NFL by any means. A move meant a net of close to four million dollars at a time when the team could really use it. In retrospect, it’s may be the best decisions the Pittsburgh Steelers have ever made. They parlayed that with another great decision when they hired new coach Chuck Noll. The rest as they say is history.