When the Post-Gazette reflected on the Pittsburgh Steelers first season that ended with a playoff berth, they praised Coach Jock Sutherland for turning in one of the best coaching jobs of the year.
The newspaper looked ahead to the 1948 season and suggested the team would be stronger and in the running for the title all the way.
After the NFL released the 1948 schedule at the beginning of March, Sutherland began drawing up game plans with his assistant Johnny Michelosen. Sutherland was also busy addressing several coaching clinics including the annual Western Pennsylvania Football Coaches’ spring clinic.
In his drive to improve the Steelers, Sutherland set off on a month-long tour of the south combining a vacation with football business. On April 8, newspapers across the nation were filled with reports of Dr. Sutherland being found dazed and suffering from amnesia in Southern Illinois,
After being flown back to Pittsburgh, Sutherland underwent two operations for a brain tumor. Sadly, he passed away on April 11 and a black cloud formed over Pittsburgh as the city mourned the loss of its great coach.
NFL commissioner Bert Bell said, “American football has suffered the loss of one of its outstanding advocates and teachers in the death of Jock Sutherland. For more than a quarter century as player and coach, he made many valuable contributions in the sport he loved so much.”
Art Rooney expressed his pain, “We are deeply grieved by Dr. Sutherland’s death. He put Pittsburgh on the professional football map. The football world lost one of its greatest citizens. I lost one of my finest friends.”
Pittsburgh was in deep shock from the sudden death of a favorite son. Mayor David Lawrence ordered the flags of Pittsburgh to fly at half-staff on the day of his funeral when eight of his Steelers players acted as pall bearers as he was put to rest.
Football in Pittsburgh continues without Sutherland
Although some fans wanted a big name coach to succeed someone of Sutherland’s statue, Rooney promoted Michelosen into the position saying, “I think we have made a good choice. Jock had been pointing Michelosen to succeed him, building him into the job. I talked with other football men in the league and they have a high regard for Johnny and agree with me that he should be given a chance.”
Michelosen found instant success when he acquired the signature of Ray Evans on a contract worth $21,000 a year. The University of Kentucky player was considered the superior passer the team badly needed, and Sutherland had been trying to sign him since he was drafted the previous December.
After the Steelers lost their four preseason games to NFL opponents, the signs indicated all was not well and so it would prove. They won just four of their six home games and lost every road trip to finish 4-8 for the year.
Coach Michelosen would produce a winning 6-5-1 season the following year when Pittsburgh finished second in the Eastern division. He coached the Steelers for two further years with 6-6 and 4-7-1 records before being notified his contract would not be renewed.
Michelosen then resigned saying, “The fans and the owners wanted a change.” He finally accepted that his single-wing football was history and had been replaced in the NFL by the open style offense of the T formation.
Art Rooney commented, “This was a tough thing. Wherever John goes, they’ll be getting a fine man.”
Michelosen accepted a position with the University of Pittsburgh as their defensive coach in 1952 and became their head coach in 1955 for eleven years.
There was no fairy tale story to be told of the Steelers season that followed Sutherland’s death. In the tough world of professional football, the Steelers failed to honor their beloved coach with a winning season.
Coach Sutherland had brought a brief ray of sunshine into the Steelers years of gloom which would now continue for another two decades.