Pontiac, Mich. — Over the years just about every major American city has boasted of at least one pro sports championship somewhere along the line. Until Sunday, however, San Franciso had always been shut out, the hidden message perhaps being that no city so beautiful deserved to feel athletically superior.
Pro football's 49ers changed all that, though, by beating the Cincinnati Bengals with the aid of a memorable goal-line stand in Super Bowl XVI, 26-21, a drama played out before 81,270 spectators in Pontiac's Silverdome as well as millions of TV viewers.
Until this ultimate National Football League triumph San Francisco teams always seemed sentenced to life on the sports treadmill. Whatever urban pride existed was generated for the cablecars, Golden Gate Bridge, and general scenic splendor, not for heroism on the field.
The 49ers became the city's first major league franchise of any kind in 1946, well before baseball's Giants moved from New York in 1958. They could never win a championship, though, while the closest the Giants could come was in 1962 when they captured the National League pennant but lost the World Series to the Yankees. Meanwhile, the city's fans had to look on enviously as that blue-collar town across the bay, Oakland, beat their heroes to the punch in several sports.
The Oakland A's won the World Series three times, and football's Raiders were victorious in two Super Bowls (including last season's). The Warriors, to be sure, were once crowned pro basketball champions - but only after the club moved to Oakland and switched its geographic affiliation from San Francisco to Golden State. A ''thinking man's Super Bowl''
Now, at long last, the 49ers have done it, making an entire city proud. They won stylishly, too, not only in the Super Bowl, but throughout a long season that saw them wipe away the memory of finishing 6-10 in 1980 to turn in a league best 13-3 record. Assembled and fine-tuned by a coach, Bill Walsh, who puts a premium on finesse and speed, the 49ers became a symbol of a new kind of artistry in the brawny pro ranks.
On the sidelines, with his headphones and security blanket play chart, Walsh is sort of a California casual mission control operator in his golf shirts and cardigan sweaters. Besides being an innovative and respected strategist, he can keep a team loose, as he proved en route to Sunday's game.
The team bus got hung up in stadium traffic, causing some concern about making the kickoff on time. Walsh put the troops at ease, though, by telling everyone, ''Don't worry, I heard we're ahead 7-0.''
Scoring wouldn't be quite that easy in this duel of Super Bowl newcomers, but in the first half San Francisco appeared to totally master Cincinnati, an intelligent, well-drilled team in its own right.
Oddly, the Bengals got the game's first big break, a fumble recovery of the opening kickoff on the San Francisco 26.
The team to score first had gone on to win 13 of 15 previous Super Bowls, so you could sense Cincinnati licking its chops. All-pro quarterback Ken Anderson quickly moved the Bengals to the 11. But then the league's least intercepted passer was reintroduced to the NFL's youngest, most aggressive secondary. Dwight Hicks, the 49ers' only non-rookie defensive back, picked off a pass intended for Isaac Curtis to end the threat.
Enter poised quarterback Joe Montana and the slick 49er offense, an extension of Walsh's genius, which combined with Cincinnati's well-schooled squad to make this the thinking man's Super Bowl. To read some pre-game stories, in fact, ''Sweet XVI'' couldn't be enjoyed or appreciated without a combined scholastic aptitude test score of 1,300 or so. Walsh knew tricks of Silverdome turf.
Beautifully mixing both runs and passes, Montana directed a 68-yard drive climaxed by his own one-yard dive for a touchdown and a 7-0 lead. In the second quarter, Montana engineered another drive, this one a 12-play, 92-yard job that was the longest TD foray in Super Bowl history. For this and his overall leadership and marksmanship (14 completions in 22 attempts), Joe was selected the game's Most Valuable Player.
For Cincinnati, the nightmarish first 30 minutes grew worse when the 49ers drew on some old Silverdome experience.
''From playing Detroit here in our very first game of the season, we learned how wildly the ball can skid on the artificial turf,'' Walsh recalled (the 49ers lost that game, partly as the result of mishandled kickoffs).
Walsh had kicker Ray Wersching work on squibbing the ball in practice - a strategy that paid off when the Bengals' David Verser bobbled an intentional knuckle-kick before falling on it at the 4-yard line. The 49ers eventually converted this advantageous field position into a a 22-yard field goal. On the ensuing kickoff Wersching sent the ball fluttering madly, again with malice aforethought. Brothers Archie and Ray Griffin both attempted to field this careening kick before San Francisco pounced on it at the Bengal 4. Wersching quickly lined up for his second field goal in 13 seconds (a Super Bowl record for shortest elapsed time between scores), and hit a 26-yarder with five seconds left for a 20-0 halftime lead, the biggest in the game's history. Goal-line stand saved the day
One had to wonder what happened to the Bengals. They, too, had been a precision football machine all season, and it seemed a shame that the hard work used to turn last season's 6-10 squad around to 12-4 would end in infamy.
Surveying the lopsided halftime statistics, Cincinnati, which shed the thermal underwear worn in two playoff victories, looked like the emperor with no clothes. Bengal fans were probably secretly wishing the roof would blow off this first northern Super Bowl and everything would get back to normal.
Walsh was busy reminding his players, though, that Cincinnati was too good a football team not to come back. And sure enough, the momentum did swing in the Bengals' favor through most of the last two stanzas.
In the third quarter Cincinnati scored early to plant a seed of hope and then put the packed house in an uproar when it reached a first and goal late in the period. A year ago, the 49ers generally played turnstile defense on such occasions. But now the unit is fortified with new faces and plays with authority - as it had to in this situation, since 250-pound fullback Pete Johnson gives Cincinnati one of the game's strongest goal-line offenses.
With linebacker Jack Reynolds leading the charge, Johnson was stopped on second and one. Anderson tried to change up on third down, throwing to Charles Alexander, who was halted inches shy by Dan Bunz on a play that had touchdown written all over it. Then on fourth and a whisker, the 49ers again snuffed out a Johnson plunge. ''Nobody has stopped us on that play all year,'' said stunned Cincinnati coach Forrest Gregg. Bengals never gave up
To their credit, the Bengals never did throw in the towel. A 53-yard drive climaxed by a four-yard Anderson to Dan Ross TD pass early in the fourth quarter narrowed the gap to 20-14. But San Francisco's offense, which had gone uncharacteristically dormant throughout the third period, awoke to seal matters with two more Wersching field goals, after which another Anderson-to-Ross TD in the last seconds only served to make the final score closer.
No one with any grasp of 49er history ever felt comfortably ahead in this game. On two other days, one in 1957 and another in 1972, San Francisco had squandered big leads to lose playoff contests. But the tradition of frustration ended in this topsy-turvy season, in which two teams that were losers only a year earlier ventured all the way to Super Sunday.
It's hard to say if the pattern will be repeated next season, but, in its own variation of those words on the Statue of Liberty, the Super Bowl should once again beckon to the league's ''tired, poor, huddled messes, yearning to be winners.''