The year in 1979 sports was centered on the city of Pittsburgh, highlighted by the arrival of basketball’s two biggest stars and home to other seasons that looked an awful lot like 1978…
STEEL CITY CHAMPIONS
A World Series-Super Bowl parlay is rare, but the city of Pittsburgh pulled it off in 1979. The Steelers won a second straight Super Bowl and fourth in six years. The Pirates won their second World Series title of the decade.
The Steelers faced a growing challenge within their own division, from the Houston Oilers. Pittsburgh was able to hold off Houston to win the AFC Central title. When the Oilers upset Dan Fouts and the San Diego Chargers in the divisional round of the playoffs, it set up a second straight AFC Championship battle between Pittsburgh and Houston.
The ‘79 AFC Championship Game was closer than the previous year and it was marked by dispute over “was it a catch or wasn’t it” on a third-down pass the Oilers attempted into the end zone in the third quarter. But the Steelers still controlled the line of scrimmage and won the game 27-13.
A rematch with the Dallas Cowboys would have been anticipated at the start of the playoffs, but the Cowboys were upset in the divisional round by the Los Angeles Rams. It deprived NFL fans of watching what was then the league’s best rivalry in the last year for legendary Cowboy quarterback Roger Staubach. But the Steelers-Rams Super Bowl was still pretty good.
Pittsburgh trailed 19-17 in the fourth quarter when wide receiver John Stallworth caught a 73-yard touchdown pass, going back over the wrong shoulder to make the play. The Steelers won 31-19.
The Pirates had a tougher road. They had to survive a tough NL East pennant race with an up-and-coming foe of their own, the Montreal Expos. The close-knit nature of the Pirates was underscored by their use of the song “We Are Fam-A-Lee” as their theme and the fans of Three Rivers belting out the song became a national storyline.
The National League Championship Series went a little easier, as the Pirates dispatched the Cincinnati Reds in three straight. But when Pittsburgh lost three of the first four World Series games to the Baltimore Orioles, the run looked over.
Even when the Pirates easily won Game 5, they still had to go on the road to finish the Series. Terrific pitching got them a win in Game 6. More of the same had them in striking distance in the sixth inning of Game 7, trailing 1-0. The great veteran first baseman, Willie Stargell, lifted a two-run homer just past the glove of Oriole right fielder Ken Singleton. The Pirates won the game 4-1.
It was the first World Series-Super Bowl Parlay for a city since Baltimore pulled it off in 1970. It would not happen again until New York did it in 1986. And a city with only one team per sport would not turn the trick until Boston in 2004.
MAGIC & BIRD
It remains the most-watched college basketball game in history. Michigan State and Indiana State met in the NCAA final at Salt Lake City. The Spartans were led by Magic Johnson. The Sycamores were carried by Larry Bird. The greatness of the two players was already being chronicled by contemporary media and their ultimate meeting highly anticipated.
The game itself was anticlimactic. Magic had more help, notably Greg Kelser in the low post and Michigan State’s 75-64 win was comfortable. But the NCAA Tournament was on the map and a significant benchmark in the development of the cultural event we know as “March Madness” was cleared.
While Magic and Bird were the focal points, there were two other nice storylines at the 1979 Final Four. Ray Meyer, the long-time beloved head coach at DePaul, made his first and only Final Four. DePaul’s sizzling games with UCLA in the regional final and Indiana State in the national semis were the best games of the tournament.
Penn shocked everyone by winning an East Regional that was gutted up and down with upsets, the first time this sort of chaos had ever descended on an NCAA regional. The Quakers remain the last Ivy League team to get to the Final Four.
Well, maybe reruns is a little too strong. But the seasons in college football, the NHL and the NBA had strikingly similar looks to what took place in 1978…
*Alabama and USC had shared the national championship in 1978. They opened 1979 as 1-2 in the polls. They finished 1-2 in the polls. One half of football was the difference. USC took a 21-0 lead on Stanford, only to give it all back after intermission.
The 21-21 tie was the only blemish on the Trojan record and it was the break Alabama needed. A great defense keyed the Crimson Tide’s run to a perfect season. When Alabama easily dismantled sixth-ranked Arkansas in the Sugar Bowl they had a share of the national championship. Ohio State, who also enjoyed a perfect regular season, was nipped by USC in the Rose Bowl. The Tide were outright national champs. The Trojans were #2.
*USC did get to the top of the voting in the Heisman Trophy race, behind little Charles White, a running back with tremendous cutback skills and shiftiness. For the second straight year, White and Oklahoma’s Billy Sims were the best two backs in the nation. Sims had won the award in ‘78, but settled for second behind White in 1979.
*The Montreal Canadiens were aiming for their fourth straight Stanley Cup. In 1977 and 1978, the Canadiens had beaten their archrival, the Boston Bruins in the Finals. This year, Boston and Montreal matched up in the semifinals. The series went to a Game 7.
The Bruins led 4-3 with under three minutes to play. Then they drew a penalty for too many men on the ice. The great Montreal scorer, Guy LaFleur, tied the game on the power play. The Canadiens won in overtime and then cruised through the Finals. It was getting harder, but Montreal was still knocking out Boston and winning Stanley Cups.
*The NBA Finals saw a rematch of the Seattle SuperSonics and the Washington Bullets. The Sonics took a measure of revenge for losing Game 7 on their home floor in 1978. With Dennis Johnson playing great basketball on both ends of the floor, Seattle won the championship in five games.
No discussion of 1979 sports would be complete without reference to the terrible tragedy that befell the New York Yankees. The two-time defending World Series champs were having a rough year on the field. Off the field, it turned tragic on August 2. Thurman Munson, the catcher and team captain crashed his private plane and died. The death sent shockwaves through all of baseball. RIP to the Captain.