July 23, 2010

1976: Steelers Win Last College All-Star Game

Beginning in 1934, the Chicago College All-Star game served as the preseason kickoff to each NFL season. Conceived by Arch Ward of The Chicago Tribune (who also developed major league baseball’s annual All-Star Game), it matched the previous season’s NFL champion against a squad composed of top college players, many of whom were about to enter the pro ranks (in 1935, the runner-up Chicago Bears represented the NFL; following the pre-merger seasons of 1968 and ’69, AFL champions that won the Super Bowl participated). The game was sponsored by The Tribune on behalf of Chicago Charities and played at Soldier Field, with the exception of two contests during World War II that were held at Northwestern University.

Initially, the games were competitive (the first ended in a scoreless tie), but typically the NFL squad won and as time went on the contests were often mismatches. Pro coaches complained about college prospects reporting late to training camp because of participation in the all-star contest, and of the additional exposure to injury. As salaries grew larger in the 1960s and ‘70s, the players themselves were averse to the prospect of potentially being sidelined. When NFL veterans struck during the 1974 preseason, the game was cancelled.

What would prove to be the last College All-Star game was held on July 23, 1976. The Pittsburgh Steelers, winners of the Super Bowl following the ’75 season, represented the NFL against an all-star squad that included such future pro stars as Oklahoma’s Selmon brothers (DE Lee Roy and DT Dewey), RB Joe Washington, G Jackie Slater, WR Duriel Harris, QB Richard Todd, and two-time Heisman Trophy winner Archie Griffin (pictured running at bottom). The team was coached by Notre Dame’s Ara Parseghian.

There were 52,895 fans on hand at Soldier Field for the Friday night contest. A heavy downpour had occurred about 40 minutes prior to the game, but it had passed before the opening kickoff. There was little scoring in the first half as Pittsburgh’s “Steel Curtain” defense shut down the All-Stars, holding them to a net total of 54 yards. Roy Gerela kicked a 29-yard field goal in the first quarter and kicked two more, of 32 and 23 yards, in the second period to give the Steelers a 9-0 lead at the half.

Pittsburgh pulled away early in the third quarter. First, the Steelers gained an easy two points when All-Star center Ray Pinney’s snap sailed over the head of punter Rick Engles and through the end zone for a safety. RB Jack Deloplaine returned the ensuing free kick 32 yards to the All-Star 26 yard line, and three plays later RB Franco Harris ran 21 yards for a touchdown and 18-0 Pittsburgh lead.

Shortly thereafter, the Steelers regained possession after the All-Stars punted and QB Terry Bradshaw connected with RB Tommy Reamon on a 25-yard pass play to the two yard line. Reamon bulled over for the score, and while the extra point attempt was missed, the Steelers held a 24-0 lead that would end up being the final score.

The All-Stars got an apparent break when Pittsburgh reserve QB Terry Hanratty, under a strong rush, threw a desperation pass that was intercepted by safety Shafer Suggs. Suggs returned the pickoff 16 yards to the Steelers’ 39 yard line. A penalty moved the ball to the 34, but by this point a torrential rain had struck and the officials called time with 1:22 remaining in the third quarter.

The players left the flooded field, but many of the young fans in the crowd ran onto it and ripped down the goal posts. Unable to restore order and after consultation with NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle, the officials called off the remainder of the contest.

It was a miserable conclusion to a series that had provided 42 games over a span of 43 years. Chicago Tribune Charities chose to discontinue the game in 1977, and the annual summer all-star event was no more. As was to be expected, the NFL teams won 31 times, the All-Stars 9, and there were two ties. At its height, it was popular with the fans, and attendance had reached as high as 105,840 in 1947. It had served a purpose when the NFL was struggling for recognition and the college game was more popular – a situation that had changed considerably by the 1970s.