We had a good thing going with Pittsburgh, and it started with a summer fling half a century ago.
BY SHANE DONALDSON ’99
Long before New England came to be known as Patriot Nation, the University of Rhode Island had a brief summer romance with another National Football League franchise.
It was the summer of 1965, and the Patriots were only in their fifth season of existence. While the Pats toiled at camp—then held in Andover, Mass.—URI’s Kingston campus served as the training-camp site for the Pittsburgh Steelers.
That’s right. Seven years before Franco Harris etched his place in NFL lore by making the “Immaculate Reception,” and nine seasons before the rise of the vaunted “Steel Curtain” defense that led Pittsburgh to four Super Bowl titles in the 1970s, Dan Rooney convinced his father, Art, to bring his franchise to Rhode Island for training camp before the start of the 1965 season.
Elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2000 for contributions to the game, Dan Rooney remains the chairman of the Steelers to this day. In 2015, when his franchise was celebrating its 50th anniversary at its current camp site at Saint Vincent College in Latrobe, Pa., Rooney spoke with the Pittsburgh Post Gazette about the site that briefly hosted the Steelers.
“I remember we wanted to see the facilities at Rhode Island because we’d talked about it a lot,” Rooney said. “I went up to look at it after we played the Giants in New York one time, I remember that. Must have rented a car and drove up there.
“It had great fields, but this is funny, I remember the academicians weren’t too thrilled that we were going to be there. They were like, ‘What are we doing bringing a professional football team around here?’ But I’ll tell you, when we left, they were our biggest champions.
“They found out we were normal people, with college educations. They said, ‘We hope you’ll come back!’”
The Steelers did return for one week the following summer, but the cooler East Coast temperatures left new head coach Bill Austin unconvinced—and he took the team back to the summer heat of Western Pennsylvania.
Even after the Steelers left URI, the University and the NFL franchise were intertwined. Three of the best football players in Rhode Island history went on to wear the black and gold of the Steelers. The late defensive end Steve Furness ’72—arguably URI’s best pro player—won four Super Bowl rings as a member of the “Steel Curtain” defense from 1971–80. Furness was joined in Pittsburgh for two seasons by running back Rich Moser ’78, who excelled on special teams with the Steeler Super Bowl teams of 1978 and 1979. In Super Bowl XIV, he set a then-record with five special teams tackles. And finally, Newport native Kevin Smith ’91, a defensive back, spent the 1991 season with Pittsburgh. •