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Steelers Steelers-Oilers/Titans rivalry plays its final act in Pittsburgh under the Monday night spotlight

Monday, October 29, 2001

By Ed Bouchette, Post-Gazette Sports Writer

Tonight, the best, most intense, most colorful and most important rivalry in Steelers history comes to a conclusion on this end of it.

No team -- not the Bears or the Eagles in the early days, not the Raiders in the Super Bowl years and not even the Browns -- meant as much on the field to the Steelers as the franchise that now calls itself the Tennessee Titans.

Born the Houston Oilers, the Titans end their 31-season history as the Steelers' twice-annual nemesis in the AFC Central Division this year (there was no division in the strike-shortened 1982 season). They play as division opponents for the final time in Pittsburgh when they kick off at 9 p.m. today at Heinz Field. Tennessee's next appearance in Heinz Field won't come until 2005 unless they would meet in the playoffs.

 
 
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They play one more time, Nov. 25 at Nashville, and then the longtime rivals will go their separate ways -- the Titans to the AFC South and the Steelers to the AFC North.

The Central Division, which began play in 1970 after Dan Rooney's insistence that the Oilers join the Steelers in the division, will disband after the season. The Steelers will play in Nashville next season then not again for three years.

The rivalry between Houston and Pittsburgh ended when the team moved to Tennessee, first to Memphis in 1997 and then to Nashville, but the intensity between the two never waned on the playing field.

"It's certainly going to be different," said Titans General Manager Floyd Reese, who joined the franchise as an assistant coach in 1986. "The rivalry and 'Pittsburgh Week' as we call it, has always been something that you knew was not going to be comfortable but always looked forward to, going way back to when I was coaching and Chuck Noll was coaching. It was always a bloodletting on both teams' parts."

Consecutive AFC championship games, Crazy George driving Noll crazy in the Astrodome with his drum, Bum Phillips' inability to kick the door down, Bum's ropes and stolen cowboy hat, Noll and Jerry Glanville nearly coming to blows, the Briefcase Game, the Steelers improbable overtime victory in the playoffs, Bubby Brister's refusal to play, Bill Cowher's first victory, the Memphis Steelers, matinee melees and enough trash talk to fill a dumpster.

"Every time we played those guys it was like a blood bath," said Tunch Ilkin, a Steelers tackle from 1980-92 and now in their broadcast booth. "There were cheap shots, elbows -- we're cutting them because we know they hated it."

The Steelers have won more division titles than any other team in the Central, 14, and the Oilers/Titans won the fewest of the original four teams with three. But if it weren't for the Steelers, the Oilers might have two -- and maybe three -- Super Bowl championships instead of none. The teams met three times in the playoffs. The Steelers played only one other AFC Central team in the playoffs, Cleveland after the 1994 season.

The Steelers beat the Oilers in consecutive championship games after the 1978 and '79 seasons in Three Rivers Stadium and went on to win their third and fourth Super Bowls. "I think you'd have to say we were the two best teams in football," said Rooney, the Steelers' president.

They also stunned the Oilers in '89 on Gary Anderson's 50-yard field goal to win a playoff game in overtime in Houston.

The individual competition was just as intense since 1970.

"We used to laugh," Reese said, "that after our games, it didn't matter who won or lost that they'd both probably lose next week because we were so beat up after playing each other."

It was that way long before Reese became involved.

First, Rooney insisted that not only Cleveland join the AFC Central with the Steelers in their move from the NFL, but he also wanted the Oilers.

"Getting Houston was a big thing," Rooney said. "Al Davis tried to shoot it down. It was my first argument with him. He said it wasn't set. I said 'This is set!' He said, 'No it isn't.' I said, 'I'm out the door if it isn't set.' "

It was set, and so was the rivalry.

The Oilers, at first, were pathetic. But they made their move in the mid-1970s, just in time to run into the Steelers' dominance. They helped the Steelers into the playoffs in '77 by beating Cincinnati on the final day in a meaningless game for the Oilers. The Steelers' players were so appreciative they bought briefcases for all of the Oilers.

In '78 the Oilers made the playoffs as a wild-card team and lost to the Steelers in the AFC title game. In '79, Houston went 11-5 to make it as a wild card again and lost again in the title game in Three Rivers Stadium. That winter, Phillips, their affable coach, claimed the door to the Super Bowl went through Pittsburgh and promised the Oilers would "kick the damn door in."

They never did.

Phillips once had his famous cowboy hat swiped off his head by a fan after a game in Three Rivers Stadium. Other fans heard about it, and "he said he got 300 hats" in the mail from Steelers fans, Rooney said.

It was just as rough-and-ready in the Astrodome. One year, Oilers management distributed small ropes for the fans to swing during the game -- a Texas version of the Terrible Towel. Dwight White got hold of one and twirled it mockingly on the sidelines during a Steelers rout.

An Oilers fan known as Crazy George would pound on a drum every time the Steelers had the ball, trying to disrupt their signals. It upset Noll to no end. He complained about it to the league office, but George was right back banging away the next time the Steelers came to town.

Noll saved his real anger for Glanville, who coached the Oilers from 1985-89. Noll thought Glanville encouraged dirty play. Glanville once referred to Noll as a snake.

Noll could stand it no more, and in a particularly dirty game in '88 at the Astrodome, Noll stunned Oilers cornerback Steve Brown near the Steelers' sidelines when he told him: "Hey, tell your coach I want to meet him after the game and I want to kick his ass." Noll then turned to Ilkin on the sideline and said, "Who do you think would win?" Ilkin took the politically correct stance. "My money's on you, Chuck."

After the game, which the Oilers won, 37-34, Glanville came over to shake Noll's hand. Noll clasped it, wouldn't let it go and angrily jabbed a finger in Glanville's face.

The Oilers saw that confrontation as a stamp of approval.

"That was a favorite of ours, simply because we felt like we had arrived," Reese said. "Before that, I'm not sure many people thought enough of us to have any reaction. All of a sudden to see someone like Chuck get that angry, we thought, geez, if nothing else, we did something to rile up the best coach in the business so we must be heading in the right direction."

That didn't happen, though. Noll's Steelers exacted their revenge one season later when they upset the Oilers, who had won their first division title, in the playoffs.

Not all of it was painted in glory. In '91, Brister refused to go into a game in the fourth quarter of an Oilers 31-6 victory in the Astrodome when offensive coordinator Joe Walton told him to replace Neil O'Donnell. "I'm no mop-up quarterback," Brister said.

In '92, Cowher, in his first season as coach, ordered a fake punt that worked and upset the Oilers, 29-24, in the season opener.

The Oilers moved, temporarily, to Memphis in '97. They did not draw more than 27,000 until the played the Steelers in the final game of the season in the Liberty Bowl, where 50,677 fans turned out, an estimated three-fourths of them Steelers fans.

Tonight, they will play in Heinz Field. It will be the sixth different stadium in which the two teams will have played this rivalry in the past six years. Things have changed, in one sense. The Titans are the defending AFC Central champions, and they reached the Super Bowl as a wild-card team in the 1999 season. The Steelers haven't made the playoffs the past three seasons.

But the Steelers lead the AFC Central today with a 4-1 record and can help end the short playoff run of the Titans (2-3) with a victory. Maybe, one final time, the teams can stage an epic as a way to bid adieu.

"The real sad thing is we will not have the rivalry with Pittsburgh after this season," Reese said. "Even though it was often unpleasant, it was always something to look forward to."

The unpleasantness made it so.

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