A lot of fans around here who root for the Pittsburgh Power may not realize that this is actually the second time Pittsburgh has played in the AFL. Our city was directly involved in the inaugural season of the Arena Football league all the way back in 1987.
The Pittsburgh Gladiators were one of the original four franchises of the AFL, along with the Washington Commandos, Denver Dynamite, and the Chicago Bruisers.
The Gladiators were coached by Joe Haering, a local football standout who was elected to the Western Chapter of the Pennsylvania Sports Hall Of Fame in 2010. Haering currently serves as the linebackers coach at SMU.
Haering was a tough as nails, old school coach who would get on you even when you were winning. In a 1989 game in Sacramento, as part of the "Travelling Circus" promotion to show the game to new fans, Chicago Bruiser quarterback Ben Bennett was ejected from the game for starting a brawl, but AFL commissioner Jim Foster overruled the decision. Haering proceeded to punch out the commissioner and earn himself a suspension.
Pittsburgh began that 1987 season 4-0, before losing their final two regular season games. They still finished as one of the top two teams and earned the right to play the Denver Dynamite in Arena Bowl I. The game was held in Pittsburgh's Civic Arena but the Gladiators lost 45-16 to become a footnote in Arena Bowl history.
The Gladiators featured league MVP Russell Hairston, who played wide receiver and linebacker. Hairston finished the season with 67 receptions for 1126 yards and 18 TD's. He also had four interceptions for 50 yards and a TD. In addition to league MVP, he was named first team all arena.
Offensive/defensive lineman Craig Walls was also a first team all arena player by virtue of his league leading 13 sacks in that 1987 season and WR/DB Mike Stoops was named second team all-arena. Current Iowa Barnstormers head coach Mike Hohensee was the starting quarterback for the Gladiators.
1988 saw the team finish with a 6-6 regular season record and once again qualify for the playoffs. This time the team lost in the first round to eventual champion, the Detroit Drive, by the score of 34-25.
Quarterback Mike Hohensee led the league in completion percentage (58.6%) and QB rating (104) and threw 32 touchdowns versus only 3 interceptions. Lineman Craig Walls was once again named first team all-arena after recording a league leading 12 sacks. He would later go on to become one of the members of the AFL Hall of Fame in 1998. Julius Dawkins, out of the University of Pittsburgh, led the team in receiving with 61 receptions for 927 yards and 21 TD's.
1989 saw the AFL play a shorter schedule. The Gladiators finished the regular season 3-1 and beat the Denver Dynamite 39-37 in the first round of the playoffs to advance to face the Detroit Drive in Arena Bowl III. Pittsburgh once again fell short in their quest for a championship, falling 39-26.
Standouts in that '89 season included a few first team all-arena players in quarterback Willie Totten and wide receiver Alvin Williams.
1990 would be the franchise's final season in Pittsburgh. The team did not have as much success on the field that year, finishing 3-5, but still made the playoffs, making them 4 for 4 in that category during their time in the Steel City. They would lose 61-30 to the eventual champion Detroit Drive. WR/DB Thomas Monroe was named Ironman of the Year and first team all-arena. WR/DB Julius Dawkins and OL/DL Keith Browner would earn second team all-arena nods.
The franchise relocated to Tampa Bay for the 1991 season and would go on to win four of the next six Arena Bowls and five titles overall. They remain active today.
Gone, but not completely forgotten.