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Steelers raising cash across the country

| Friday, Dec. 19, 2008

They're the Steelers' Seven.

Named Wednesday as potential partners in Steelers' chairman Dan Rooney's bid to buy out his brothers, they include a longtime Pittsburgh steel family, a truck-stop king from Tennessee Titans territory, and a former football player on the Maine-Endwell High School Spartans who later made the "300" movie about Spartans of an older vintage.

Blessed by 31 NFL team owners, Rooney's plan calls for wooing investors to buy up to $262 million in Steelers' stock. So far, he's landed Pittsburgh's Paul family, Pilot Corp. chief executive officer James Haslam III and Hollywood financier Thomas Tull.

Steelers spokesman Burt Lauten won't say how much team stock will go to which new partners. In a written statement, he added "other investors are still being vetted and the documentation is still being finalized."

The Pauls are Donna, 67, and Robert, 71, plus children Larry, 44, and Stephen, 41, and Karen Zimmer, 39. Their core holding is Ampco-Pittsburgh, a diversified metal fabrications firm with $347 million in annual revenues. Robert Paul runs it. A former National City Bank director, he sits on the Cleveland Fed and is the son-in-law of former Ampco chief Louis Berkman, 99, who goes to work every day.

Berkman and Paul money is in phone and media communications, banking, steakhouses and real estate. The Urban Active Fitness gym slated to open soon at East Liberty's Bakery Square is a Paul product, along with Meyer snowplows and Swensen spreaders.

They give generously to the Red Cross, Cornell, Harvard and the University of Pittsburgh. Dr. Larry and Stephen Paul oversee family commercial and charitable ventures at the Los Angeles-based Laurel Crown Partners, investment arm of the Louis Berkman Investment Co.

Diehard fans, the brothers jet to Heinz Field games, and their season tickets date to 1969, when Chuck Noll's squad went 1-13. Larry Paul said they wanted to buy into the NFL for years and were ecstatic when the Steelers hit the market. He sees their undisclosed ante for part of the club as a way to stay "in the social fabric of Pittsburgh."

"This is the Rooneys' team," he said. "No one should be confused by that. We're just riders on the bus."

There's a good chance Rooney's bus will fill up at one of the 340 Pilot Travel truck-stops and convenience shops freckling the face of America. Launched as a $6,000 gas station in 1958 by University of Tennessee football star James "Big Jim" Haslam, family-owned Pilot Corporation annually vends 4.5 billion gallons of gas.

James "Jimmy" Haslam III of Knoxville, Tenn., runs Pilot. None of the Haslams would say how their "stop 'n shop" innovations came to dominate Dixie fuel sales or how the family rose to become one of the south's most powerful political dynasties.

Jimmy, 54, and his kin are conservatives. Brother and former Pilot prez Bill Haslam left in 2003 to become Knoxville's Republican mayor. Jimmy "bundled" big donations for George W. Bush's presidential runs. In 2006, he handled the campaign finances of Republican Bob Corker's victorious senate campaign.

Initially a Mitt Romney and Fred Thompson booster, Jimmy Haslam eventually cut a $2,300 check for 2008 GOP presidential candidate John McCain.

"He went with McCain even though McCain might be a little liberal for him," joked W. Bruce Wheeler, emeritus Tennessee professor of history and the author of 2005's "Knoxville, Tennessee: A Mountain City in the New South."

Corker met freshman Jimmy Haslam in 1973 on the Knoxville campus. A quarter century later, NFL staffers asked about his longtime pal's character. Corker told them, "You couldn't have found a better partner than Jimmy." He added that Haslam confided his undying respect for Dan Rooney.

The senator told the Trib that Haslam, his former college roommate, was "tireless," "humble," "articulate," "highly intelligent, "tenacious" and "the hardest working CEO in the country."

Corker said his pal rises at dawn to review faxes charting gas prices nationwide. Haslam, he said, motors America's byways, visiting far-flung truck stops to winkle out the candid opinions of long-haul drivers and construction crews at Pilot's lunch tables.

The Haslams lavish many of Knoxville's nonprofits, ranging from the city's orchestra to more than $40 million donated to the University of Tennessee. Jimmy's cash even built the "Body Farm" lab at the school's Forensic Anthropology Center.

"Jimmy Haslam is a powerful man, but he's a generous man," said historian Wheeler. "And when he gives his money, you won't see him sticking his nose into who he's helping. When it comes to the Steelers, he won't be a Jerry Jones. You aren't going to see him on the sidelines."

The Haslams own the Tennessee Smokies, a Cubs' AA affiliate in the Southern League that's managed by former baseball star Ryne Sandberg.

Tom Tull, 38, grew up in Endwell, a suburb of Binghamton, N.Y., where he watched the Steelers on TV. According to local media reports, he played football for Maine-Endwell High's Spartans. Through a publicist, he declined to discuss it.

After graduating in 1992 from nearby Hamilton College, he began businesses, from laundromats to an Atlanta media firm. He launched California video game developer Brash Entertainment in 2007 while also helming Burbank-based Legendary Pictures, according to news releases.

He departed Brash's board in October after questioning the quality of their games. Brash folded a month later. Tull's Legendary, however, keeps churning out hits, including the "300" epic about Spartans fighting in ancient Greece.

"Thomas Tull is a bright guy," said Bill Chardavoyne, Brash's former chief financial officer. "He's very creative, engaging, respected, approachable and easy to work with."

He credits Tull's success to "his ability to hire the right people for the job." He called Tull's current process of greenlighting films "bullet proof." But he never knew Tull loved the Steelers until yesterday.

"But I always knew he was a big-time Yankees fan," said Chardavoyne.

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