Steelers Chairman Dan Rooney dies at age 84
Dan Rooney did not found the Steelers. He never singularly owned them. But if any man transformed not only a franchise but also a league with his foresight, guidance and influence, it was Rooney.
Rooney, the son of a National Football League pioneer who became one himself by helping build the Steelers into a preeminent franchise and the NFL into the most powerful brand name in sports, died, the team announced Thursday. He was 84.
Before Rooney took over day-to-day operations from his father, Art Rooney Sr., the Steelers were a poorly run punch line of an organization that cost only $5,000 to found and didn't win a postseason game until its 40th season.
But under Rooney's unwavering, patient guidance, the Steelers became six-time Super Bowl champions and an iconic franchise with a worldwide reputation for success, a sprawling fan base and a net value of more than $1 billion.
Rooney, elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2006, also became one of the most influential owners in American sports, recognized repeatedly by NFL Commissioners Pete Rozelle, Paul Tagliabue and Roger Goodell as being the NFL's most conciliatory and persuasive figure.
"The story of Dan Rooney," Goodell said, "is the story of the NFL."
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The NFL, barely a blip on the national landscape when Rooney Sr. started the Steelers in 1933, gradually built itself into an all-powerful entity that annually delivered the highest TV ratings of any programming and an $11-billion-a-year megaforce that makes more money than the movie industry.
Dan Rooney was there nearly every step of the way — counting scarce game revenue as a teenager, negotiating player contracts while still in college, ending labor disputes — as the NFL eclipsed baseball, boxing and college football to become America's favorite sport.
Fittingly, Rooney and the Steelers grew up together, only one year apart in age.
Born on July 20, 1932, Rooney began riding trains to away games at age 7 and was a training camp ball boy at age 14. He became a high school quarterback rival of Johnny Unitas' — a player the Steelers later would cut, to their longtime regret — while at North Catholic High School.
Rooney called himself the NFL's "last pioneer" because he was the only remaining owner with links to the sport's not-so-glory days when teams paid players $75 a game and a franchise existed in Portsmouth, Ohio.
"I wasn't there in 1920 (when the NFL was founded), but I knew the people who were there," said Rooney, who was friends with figures such as Wellington Mara, George Preston Marshall, George Halas and Curley Lambeau. "I was able to talk to them and experience them."
Rooney not only led the Steelers as they transformed under coach Chuck Noll from a one-win team in 1969 to a four-time Super Bowl winner by 1979, but he also played a major, league-wide role by helping to end two players strikes, ushering the league into free agency and negotiating once-unthinkably large TV contracts. He also originated the groundbreaking Rooney Rule for minority hiring of coaches and executives.
"Dan Rooney is the embodiment of the term business partner," New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft said. "His actions are always for both the collective good and the maximum long-term benefit (of the NFL). He is the rare business partner with whom you never have to question his motives."
Operating a champion
A journey that began with Rooney being best known as the son of the NFL's least-successful owner was neither short nor easy.
As Rooney gradually eased into more responsibilities following his graduation from Duquesne University in 1955, the Steelers badly trailed the Pirates in popularity and media coverage. They were known for trading away draft picks on a whim, making poor coaching hires and never developing a plan for long-term success.
"We didn't always get it right," Rooney said.
They didn't win their first playoff game until 1972, but by the time he briefly left behind day-to-day football work to become U.S. Ambassador to Ireland in 2009, the Steelers had won Super Bowls during the 1974, '75, '78, '79, 2005 and '08 seasons. They also played for the NFL title during the 1995 and 2010 seasons.
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While Rooney didn't officially become team president until immediately after that first Super Bowl win, he effectively ran the Steelers from his late 20s on. He swept away years of mismanagement by discarding his father's policy of hiring cronies or has-beens as coaches, dealing draft picks for end-of-the-line players and doing minimal, if any, draft preparation.
Arguably his three most important hires were Noll, a former Baltimore Colts assistant coach, as head coach in 1969; brother Art Jr. as scouting director and Bill Nunn, the Pittsburgh Courier sports editor, as a scout. Noll quickly discarded nearly every veteran player, began building through draft picks carefully scouted by Nunn and Dick Haley and vetted by Art Jr. and gradually assembled a Hall of Fame-caliber roster.
In addition to Nunn steering them to dozens of once-overlooked players at smaller black colleges such as John Stallworth, the Steelers drafted stars Joe Greene, Terry Bradshaw, Jack Ham, Franco Harris, Lynn Swann and Mike Webster from 1969-74. Four eventual Hall of Famers arrived in the 1974 draft.
The draft classes so dramatically reshaped the Steelers that, after experiencing their eighth losing season of the 1960s under Noll in 1969, they went 11-3 only three years later and won a playoff game for the first time via Harris' gift-from-the-heavens Immaculate Reception against the Oakland Raiders on Dec. 23, 1972.
They just missed knocking off the unbeaten Miami Dolphins in the AFC title game a week later but, two years after that, went into Oakland and upset the Raiders for the AFC championship, then manhandled the Minnesota Vikings, 16-6, in their Super Bowl debut.
TIMELINE: Rooney through the years
There were downturns after that four Super Bowls-in-six-years feat, including a dip in the 1980s as the drafts turned bad and Rooney was forced to fire Art Jr. But the Steelers nevertheless stayed on a patient, unswerving course that almost always served them well.
Rooney hired only three head coaches in a 45-year span beginning in 1969, and each of them — Noll, Bill Cowher and Mike Tomlin — won at least one Super Bowl.
Noll and Rooney were steadfast in believing they knew the proper direction for the franchise, and while there were occasional disagreements, the two retained a partnership for 23 seasons.
"He'll argue a point with you and keep yelling, 'No, this is right. You're wrong,' " Rooney said. "Sometimes you have to say, 'This is the way we are going to do it.' "
Noll won only two playoff games during his final 12 seasons yet remains one of only two head coaches to win four Super Bowls (Bill Belichick, New England). Cowher, a Crafton native, took over in 1992 and steered the Steelers to six AFC championship games, two Super Bowls and a 2005 season Super Bowl win during 15 seasons. Tomlin's teams played in two Super Bowls and won one in his first four seasons.
Tomlin was interviewed, in part, because of the Rooney Rule, which required teams to interview minority candidates for high-level openings.
Along the way, Rooney moved the Steelers into multipurpose Three Rivers Stadium — it opened in 1970 and was the team's first true home — and then into football-only Heinz Field in 2001.
Rooney also hired the team's first general manager, Tom Donahoe, although that title wasn't used until after Donahoe was succeeded by Kevin Colbert, who grew up on the North Side, in 2000.
As NFL matters took up more of Rooney's time, son Art II took over as president in 2003, with Dan Rooney becoming chairman. He kept that title except for the three-plus years he was chairman emeritus while ambassador in Ireland.
By the time Rooney turned 80 in 2012, the NFL long had established itself as America's most-watched entertainment. Super Bowls, TV and the NFL became synonymous partly because of Rooney, who helped negotiate the first league-wide TV network contract in 1961, insisted teams share equally in the revenue.
When the NFL and American Football League finally ended a decade-long and financially draining feud by merging for the 1970 season, Rooney agreed to end decades-long rivalries with the NFL's iconic franchises and shift into the AFC along with the Baltimore Colts and Cleveland Browns.
The move was unpopular in Pittsburgh — who wanted to play the Houston Oilers and Kansas City Chiefs rather than the New York Giants, Dallas Cowboys and Washington Redskins? — but it proved prescient as the Steelers quickly became an AFC powerhouse.
Later, it was Rooney's intervention and conciliation — he was a close friend of longtime players union chief Gene Upshaw — that helped end in-season players strikes in 1982 and '87.
Upon finding out Pittsburgh's patriarch, Dan Rooney, has passed, one NFL exec texted what many thought: 'Damn. He was a great human being.'— Adam Schefter (@AdamSchefter) April 13, 2017
Rooney also crafted, then persuaded other owners to accept, an unrestricted free agent system in 1992 that resulted in higher player salaries but led to more than a quarter-century without a game lost to a labor shutdown. During that time frame, Major League Baseball (1994-95), the NHL (1994-95, 2004-05, 2012-13) and NBA (1988-89, 2011-12) went through sometimes lengthy labor conflicts.
"When I first came into the league, Dan explained and helped teach me the nuances of the business," said Kraft, himself now one of the most influential owners. "I truly feel honored to have Dan as a partner and, most importantly, a friend."
Securing Steelers' future
The biggest crises of Dan Rooney's Steelers career came off the field.
Following his father's death in 1988, the Steelers' ownership reverted to Dan and his four brothers, each of whom owned 16 percent, with the John McGinley family also owning a percentage share.
But while the Rooney family has owned the Steelers continuously since their founding, except for a brief few offseason months in 1940 when Art Sr. sold the team only to quickly regain it, Dan Rooney nearly lost control in 2008.
Three of his four brothers were involved in gambling-related ventures — table gaming, slot machines and racetracks — that the NFL did not permit. And the Rooneys never had followed an NFL edict that the majority partner own at least a 30 percent share.
Initially, several Rooney brothers explored a buyout by Wall Street billionaire Stanley Druckenmiller. But after Goodell made clear the league wanted Dan Rooney to remain in charge, Dan and Art II brought in numerous minority partners — including moviemaker Thomas Tull — to help them acquire the mandatory 30 percent.
That buyout was costly and forced them to take out loans, but it allowed the Rooneys to maintain control, and the franchise went on to win a sixth Super Bowl that season.
Rooney began reducing his workload at age 80 after returning as ambassador from Ireland in late 2012, but he still worked multiple hours at the team's South Side practice facility nearly every day and attended all league functions.