The Tragic Death of Jock Sutherland Set the Pittsburgh Steelers Back 25 Years

As far as most casual fans are concerned, the history of the Pittsburgh Steelers begins on December 23, 1972 — the day of Franco Harris’s Immaculate Reception. Part of what made that moment so special was that for the preceding 39 years, the Steelers achieved basically nothing as an organization. Before the 1970s, their one moment of glory came in 1947, when they came within a hair’s breadth of the NFL Championship Game. The next year, the man who led the team there, Jock Sutherland, was tragically taken away.

Jock Sutherland brings the Pittsburgh Steelers hope

Jock Sutherland, pictured on left
Then-Brooklyn Dodgers coach Jock Sutherland and New York Giants coach Steve Owen look over new white footballs designed for night play. The 1940s were a weird time for pro football. | Larry Froeber/NY Daily News via Getty Images

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By 1946, the Pittsburgh Steelers — formerly known as the Pirates — had only two winning seasons in their history….kind of. The second came in 1943, when wartime losses forced the team to merge with the Philadelphia Eagles to become the “Steagles.” That team, somehow, went 5-4-1. After the war, the Steelers reverted to the norm, finishing 2-8 in 1945.

Things seemed to change for the better with the hiring of Jock Sutherland as the head coach for the 1946 season. He was familiar to Pittsburgh fans as the former coach of the Pitt Panthers football team, who he led to five (or nine, depending on who you believe) national championships.

Sutherland wasn’t new to the NFL, either. He spent two seasons as the head coach of the Brooklyn Dodgers (yes, there was an NFL team called the Brooklyn Dodgers) just before the United States entered World War II. During the war, he served in the United States Navy, where he rose to the rank of lieutenant commander.

1947 — the Pittsburgh Steelers’ best year so far

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In his second year as head coach of the Steelers, Sutherland’s charges finally turned it around. They caught fire with a six-game winning streak mid-season, the first time in franchise history they won more than four in a row. With the NFL’s last remaining single-wing offense, Pittsburgh rose from 5-5-1 in 1946 to 8-4 in 1947, finishing in a tie for first in the Eastern Conference.

This forced a tiebreaker playoff with the Philadelphia Eagles for the right to play in the NFL Championship Game. In theory, they should have held the advantage, since by chance, the league scheduled their bye week on the final week of the regular season. Unfortunately, by then, the Steelers’ magic had run out. Despite hosting the game at Forbes Field, they lost the playoff 21-0.

Jock Sutherland’s tragic death

1947 may have ended on a disappointing note, but hopes were high for the 1948 season. Things changed four months after the season ended when coach Jock Sutherland drove out to meet some family in Kentucky.

On April 7, 1948, Sutherland’s car ran off the road in the small town of Bandana, Ky. Passersby found him, as the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette phrased it, “in a dazed condition”. He was taken to a hospital in nearby Cairo, Ill., and diagnosed with “nervous exhaustion” before being flown back home to western Pennsylvania for further treatment. There, doctors found a malignant brain tumor, and his condition quickly deteriorated.

On April 11th, Jock Sutherland died. With him died the hopes of any success for the Pittsburgh Steelers for the next quarter-century. For the 1948 season, under new head coach John Michelosen, the Steelers tumbled to a 4-8 record. It would take until 1972 for Pittsburgh to sniff the postseason again.