As a former Pittsburgher my well-known Steelers loyalty is as much about the team’s culture of inclusion, loyalty and integrity created and nurtured by the Rooney family as it is about the game. So when I heard of Steelers Chairman Dan Rooney’s passing on April 13 at age 84, I was genuinely heartbroken. As a great high school football player who became an NFL owner, Rooney’s impact on sports diversity and the people who knew him is the stuff of legend.
What made Rooney so extraordinary is that he was just such a genuinely good, ordinary guy in spite of the power that came with his team ownership, Hall of Fame and U.S. Ambassadorship status. No matter your station in life, he always treated you like a valued human being.
While he may be remembered most for the Rooney Rule, the landmark rule in diversity hiring he brought to the NFL, he was so much more. In today’s troubled world Dan Rooney stood apart. Like a beacon of personal integrity and caring, his professionalism was mixed with a deep loyalty and commitment to the people who played the game he loved, to the NFL and especially to the people of Pittsburgh.
Ed Bouchette, covering the Steelers for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette since 1985, best described Rooney: “He was like a father, a friend, a mentor, a boss who inspired others around him. He was a people person and he never forgot where he came from. He epitomized Pittsburgh — hard working, humble, no nonsense, tell it the way it is and never forget where he came from. That’s him, that’s Pittsburgh.”
Coming from a large American-Irish family with a strong Catholic upbringing, Daniel Milton Rooney (DMR to his family) grew up in football, eldest son of Art Rooney Sr., the powerful founder of the Steelers known as the Chief. DMR was a quiet man who preferred to be behind the scenes but he was universally respected, loved and admired not only among other NFL franchise team owners but also by players, officials, media and fans alike. Referring to him as “a Mount Rushmore figure,” Peter King of Sports Illustrated said of him, “There was no owner better than Dan Rooney, maybe ever, at combining the good of the game with the good of his team.”
The Steelers were founded in 1933 by his dad with DMR always tagging along, first attending training camp before age five and later working as the team’s water boy. Following his 1960 graduation from Duquesne University with an accounting degree, DMR began official employment as the Steelers’ director of personnel. By 1969 he’d taken charge of the team’s day-to-day operations and by 1975 was appointed team president with full control of the franchise.
The Chief raised his sons to never act like big shots, a definite sin in the Rooney household. The lesson of humility was one DMR learned well, according to Gene Collier of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette who said, “Even at the height of influence, kingmaker to NFL commissioners, ambassador to Ireland, architect of the Rooney Rule and benefactor to countless cultural and literary initiatives from Pittsburgh to Dublin and back, Rooney was never in his own view above even the most menial undertakings.”
Since DMR’s 1969 daily operations takeover, the Steelers have had only three head coaches – Chuck Noll, Bill Cowher and Mike Tomlin, and all three have won at least one Super Bowl. Commenting on DMR’s extraordinary gift for hiring coaches, Cowher said it was just as important to Rooney that the coach would fit in well with the people of Pittsburgh: “The person was more important to him than what you did. What do you stand for? He didn’t judge for accomplishment. He just judged you for a person.”
Rooney’s loyalty and belief in his coaches and his extraordinary willingness to allow them time to develop has been the foundation for the team’s trip to eight Super Bowl Championships and winning six, the most of any NFL team. In an interview with Gerry Dulac of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Cowher said that when the team missed the playoffs three consecutive seasons under his leadership, he wasn’t fired. When times were tough, Cowher said DMR “… would almost say, ‘So what lessons have you learned?’ He had this ability to listen to you and let you talk your way through a problem and let you pick yourself back up.”
Although trying to avoid the public spotlight, Rooney was still a very involved owner behind the scenes, becoming a confidante and mentor to three consecutive NFL commissioners; Paul Tagliabue, Pete Rozelle and Roger Goddell, all of whom admired him greatly. Part of that involvement included quietly helping to settle two players’ strikes in the 1970s and ‘80s and being a prime mover behind the salary cap, ensuring that there was parity between all the NFL franchises.
A consensus builder, Rooney helped lead negotiations for the collective bargaining agreement of 1982, and was also largely credited both by owners and players of having ended a strike that lasted half of the season because both sides trusted him. He listened to what everyone had to say and honored both sides.
King recounts that at a league meeting Rooney heard some team owners grumbling about the Steelers’ refusal to raise ticket prices. A visiting team receives a percentage of the ticket revenue for every game, meaning that Pittsburgh games wouldn’t be as profitable for visiting teams as owners wanted. But Rooney said, “I’m not concerned about your share. You’ve got enough money—we’ve all got enough money. I’m concerned about our fans and their ability to afford the tickets.”
In honor of his many contributions, DMR was inducted into the Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio in 2000, making it only the second father/son combo to receive this honor. When introducing DMR at the induction ceremony, Hall of Famer “Mean” Joe Greene said that “Dan has always led with humility. When things go as planned, Dan is in the background. When things don’t go as planned, he’s in the forefront.”
As head of the NFL’s diversity committee, DMR proposed the rule that diversified professional football. Named in his honor, the Rooney Rule requires all NFL teams to interview at least one minority candidate when filling head coaching vacancies. Originally meant to open coaching positions to minorities and make the league more diverse and inclusive, this hiring practice grew to include the hiring of women in sports’ front-office positions and now has spread to the national workplace.
Used first in 2003 when almost 70 percent of the players were African-American and the number of minority coaches stood at just six percent, Rooney hired Mike Tomlin in 2007, making him the Steelers first African-American coach. NFL Hall of Famer Ozzie Newsome, now general manager of the Ravens tweeted this about Rooney: “He humbled me with the respect he showed to the Ravens and myself. He is the father of the Rooney Rule, which has meant so much to minorities working in, and wanting to work in the NFL. We will all miss him.”
Reflecting on his boss’ passing, Tomlin shared this: “After every game, win or lose, Mr. Rooney would enter our locker room, look me in my eye and shake my hand along with every player who stepped foot on the field. He embodied professionalism and was a man who created a family-like atmosphere that will continue on. Football examples only scratch the surface of how he impacted mine and the countless other lives he touched.”
But some of the most revealing tributes to Dan Rooney have come from his players. In declining health over the past several years, the once-robust young man had become an old man bent over and walking with a cane. It could be easy for younger men at the peak of their physicality to dismiss this 84-year-old man who was now about eye-level with their waists. But that wasn’t the case.
Perhaps Steelers wide receiver and punt returner Antonio Brown’s Instagram tribute best reflected the feelings of those who proudly wore the Steelers black and gold under DMR’s leadership:
“Dear Mr. Rooney, when we first met in 2010 you embraced me with open arms. You made me feel welcome. You looked at me as more than just another jersey number. One of the most genuine, and humble human beings I’ve had the pleasure of knowing. You motivated me not only to excel on the field but also in life. This season, the number 84 on my uniform will represent the 84 years you spent on this earth making an impact on the lives of others. I’ll miss you my friend. Thank you for everything -AB
Dan Rooney wasn’t a saint; like any of us, he made mistakes. But he represented the very best a true athlete and human being has to offer the world. I dearly hope that others involved in sports will remember him and then try to emulate him. We need more Dan Rooneys in this world!
By Connie Wardman
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