Friday, April 14, 2017

Dan Rooney, 1932-2017

Daniel Milton Rooney was born on July 20, 1932, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. His father, Art Rooney, founded the NFL's Pittsburgh Steelers on May 19, 1933.

This means that Dan Rooney was a Steeler for life. Not just for nearly all of his life, but, until now, for all of the team's life.

Art Rooney and his wife, the former Kathleen "Kass" McNulty, had 5 sons. They were Dan, Art Jr., Tim, Patrick and John. They would have 32 grandchildren and 75 great-grandchildren. Art Jr. said that Art Sr., known to all of Western Pennsylvania as "The Chief," always told his sons, "Treat everybody the way you'd like to be treated. Give them the benefit of the doubt. But never let anyone mistake kindness for weakness." Or, as Art Jr. put it, "He took the Golden Rule, and put a little bit of the North Side in it."

The Rooney family has long lived in the Troy Hill section of Pittsburgh's North Side, which included North Catholic High School -- now named Cardinal Wuerl North Catholic High School and located in nearby Cranberry Township. The Rooney boys would assist their father at Steeler training camp, and in games at Forbes Field and later at Pitt Stadium. Dan served as a ballboy, and sold game-day programs. The sons seemed to be the only ones to notice a young Pittsburgh native at the 1955 camp, but their father deferred to the judgement of his head coach, Walt Kiesling, who cut the rookie.

What's that? You've never heard of Walt Kiesling? I'm not surprised. But you have heard of the rookie. He caught on with the Baltimore Colts the next season. His name was Johnny Unitas.

In 1952, while a student at Pittsburgh's Duquesne University, from which he would graduate with a degree in accounting, he married Patricia Reagan, who was working in the Steeler offices. They had 9 children. In 1960, he became the Steelers' director of personnel.


From 1933 to 1968, 36 seasons, the Steelers had made the Playoffs exactly once, in 1947, because they'd tied the cross-State Philadelphia Eagles for 1st place in the NFL's Eastern Division. They held a Playoff at Forbes Field, and the Eagles won it. Art Rooney was already a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, and admired by all who knew him. But, let's be blunt: At this point, he was a failure as the operator of a football team. If he had died shortly after the Jets won Super Bowl III on January 12, 1969, it would have been said -- as is now being said of the late Chicago Blackhawks owner Bill Wirtz -- that the best thing he did for his team was to die, so that his son could run the team.

Indeed, his sons held what we would now call an "intervention," telling him that they should take over the operations of the team. He agreed -- and lived another 20 years, in which the sons turned the Steelers from a joke franchise into an icon of American sports.

Pretty much the first thing that Dan Rooney did was offer the Steelers' head coaching job to the head coach at nearby Penn State, Joe Paterno. Paterno turned him down. So he offered it to the defensive coordinator of the team the Jets had just beaten in the Super Bowl, who had been on the staff of the San Diego Chargers team that won the 1963 AFL Championship, and a lineman who had won 2 NFL Championships with the Cleveland Browns: Chuck Noll.

Dan's brother Art Jr. drafted Joe Greene, Jon Kolb and L.C. Greenwood in 1969; Terry Bradshaw and Mel Blount in 1970; Jack Ham, Gerry Mullins, Dwight White, Larry Brown, Ernie Holmes and Mike Wagner in 1971; Franco Harris and Steve Furness in 1972; and, in 1974, in perhaps the greatest single draft in NFL history, Lynn Swann, Jack Lambert, John Stallworth and Mike Webster -- 4 Hall-of-Famers in one draft.

Counting Greene, Bradshaw, Blount, Ham and Harris, 9 Hall-of-Famers. Counting Noll, 10 -- all based on the decisions of Dan Rooney and Art Rooney Jr. To put that in perspective: The team had 7 players from 1933 to 1968 who ended up making the Hall. In just 6 seasons, they picked up 9. (Since, they've had 3, although some of the players from the Super Bowl XL and XLIII who may make it are not yet eligible.)

It took a while, especially because Noll and Bradshaw had a contentious relationship. Moving from 1925-built Pitt Stadium into the new Three Rivers Stadium in 1970 helped. But in 1972, the Steelers won the AFC Central Division Championship, and reached the AFC Championship Game. They made the Playoffs again in 1973. In 1974, they finally went all the way, winning Super Bowl IX on January 12, 1975. Pete Rozelle said his happiest moment as NFL Commissioner was handing the Vince Lombardi Trophy to Art Rooney Sr. -- but it was because of the building done by Dan and Art Jr.

The Steelers would reach 4 Super Bowls (IX, X, XIII and XIV), winning all of them, in a span of 6 years. All tolled, under Dan Rooney's operation, 48 seasons, they reached the Playoffs 29 times, won 22 Division titles (15 in the old NFC Central, 7 in the NFL North following the 2002 realignment), reached 16 AFC Championship Games (including this past season), won 8 AFC Championships, and won 6 Super Bowls, the most NFL Championships in the Super Bowl era. He also built Heinz Field, the Steelers' new home, for the 2001 season, and it is one of the best stadiums in the NFL.

With the 1st 4 Vince Lombardi Trophies

The Steelers became a cultural phenomenon, with their black and gold uniforms, their helmets with the "Steelmark" logo on only the right side with the left side remaining blank, their multi-ethnic working-class fan base, and their bright yellow Terrible Towels being waved in the stands (first at Three Rivers Stadium, then at Heinz Field).

The fact that the Steelers stood up, usually successfully, to the Dallas Cowboys and the Oakland Raiders, 2 of the most hated NFL teams nationwide, also helped boost their national image. Along with the Cowboys, the Raiders, the Green Bay Packers (due to their similar cultural stamp in the 1960s) and the Chicago Bears (ditto for the 1980s), the Steelers are one of the few NFL teams to have a nationwide fan base. In New York and New Jersey, 400 miles from Pittsburgh, you can see Steeler bumper stickers and window stickers on cars every day. A website called lists bars catering to Steeler fans in 48 States, all but Nebraska and South Dakota.

Art Rooney Sr. loved it -- but it was Dan Rooney, and, to a lesser but very significant extent, Art Rooney Jr., who made it happen.


Dan is widely credited with leading the negotiations that ended the 1982 NFL players' strike and passing the collective bargaining agreement that followed it. In 1989, Rozelle retired, and some owners wanted to make Dan the new Commissioner. He declined, saying he'd rather continue to run his team. Paul Tagliabue was elected instead. In 1993, Dan led the NFL in approving the salary cap. In 2006, when Tagliabue retired, it was Dan Rooney who called Roger Goodell, and told him that he'd been elected the new Commissioner.

Goodell repaid the compliment with this blurb for Dan's memoir My 75 Years With the Pittsburgh Steelers and the NFL: "The story of Dan Rooney is the story of the NFL."

Art Rooney Sr. died in 1988, and Dan became majority owner, replacing Noll with Bill Cowher in 1992. By that point, Art Jr. had reduced his involvement in the team. In 2003, Dan followed in his father's footsteps, and handed over day-to-day operations to his son, Art Rooney II (grandson of the founder and nephew of Art Jr.). It was Art II who oversaw the building of the teams that won Super Bowls XL and XLIII and lost Super Bowl XLV, and in 2007 replaced the retiring Cowher with his assistant, Mike Tomlin, the team's 1st black head coach.

That fact is significant because of "The Rooney Rule," which the NFL established at Dan's urging in 2003. Tony Dungy, a former Steeler defensive back and assistant coach, had just been fired as head coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers -- who ended up winning Super Bowl XXXVII under their new head coach, the white former Oakland Raider coach Jon Gruden. Dennis Green had also just been fired as head coach of the Minnesota Vikings, despite a winning record.

A group of civil rights attorneys, led by the legendary Johnnie Cochran, released a study showing that black head coaches, despite winning a higher percentage of games, were less likely to be hired, and more likely to be fired, than their white counterparts.

The Rooney family, like the great baseball executive Branch Rickey, consider themselves Abraham Lincoln-style Republicans, demanding fairness for all, regardless of race or religion. This was certainly an issue for the Rooneys, because Art Sr. was old enough to remember when being an Irish Catholic meant serious discrimination. Art Sr. had also helped to keep the Negro League's Pittsburgh-based Homestead Grays afloat for a time, and had no qualms about bringing black players to the Steelers once the color barrier had been broken in 1946. And one of Dan's key hires when he took control was Bill Nunn Jr., a black sportswriter who knew the football programs at what are now called Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), and became one of the team's top scouts.

Dan's "Rooney Rule" require teams to search among black, Hispanic and Asian candidates for all senior football operations positions within the NFL, regardless of a team's title for that position. Currently, 6 of the 32 head coaches in the NFL are African-American (Tomlin, Todd Bowles of the Jets, Hue Jackson of the Browns, Marvin Lewis of the Cincinnati Bengals, Jim Caldwell of the Detroit Lions and Anthony Lynn of the Los Angeles Chargers).

So 18.8 percent of the head coaches are black, and 7 of the general managers, or 21.9 percent -- as opposed to 12.6 percent of the general U.S. population, but 67.3 percent of NFL players. In addition, 1 head coach, Ron Rivera of the Carolina Panthers, is Hispanic. About 17.6 percent of Americans are Hispanic, but only 0.6 percent of NFL players are Hispanic.

In 2008, Dan and Art II bought out Dan's brothers, who wanted to increase their involvement in gambling establishments. Art Sr. had owned Yonkers Raceway in New York's Westchester County and Suffolk Downs in Boston. His son Tim runs Yonkers Raceway today.

A wing of the Rooney family lives in Florida, and controls horse and dog tracks there. Pat Rooney's son Tom is a Republican Congressman, representing a district southeast of Tampa Bay. His brother, Patrick Jr., is in the State House of Representatives, representing northern Palm Beach County.

Despite the family's Republican record, in 2008, Dan Rooney endorsed Senator Barack Obama of Illinois for President. He did not cite any unhappiness with Republican handling of the economy or the Iraq War. He did say, "When I think of Barack Obama's America, I have great hope. I support his candidacy, and look forward to his Presidency."

Some people believe Dan's endorsement won Pennsylvania for Obama. I doubt that it made much of a difference: The State had gone for the Democratic nominee in every election since 1992. And Obama would have won the election even if he'd lost Pennsylvania.
Dan would also give the 44th President a Number 44 jersey
at the White House ceremony honoring the Steelers
after winning Super Bowl XLIII in 2009.

But Obama remembered Dan's efforts, and also remembered his long record of support for Irish-American charities (inherited from his father), and named him U.S. Ambassador to the Republic of Ireland. He served in the post from July 1, 2009 to December 14, 2012.

Art Rooney Sr. and Dan Rooney are only the 2nd father-and-son combination to both be enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. The other is Tim and Wellington Mara of the Giants, with whom they would be linked by their descendants: Art Sr. and Tim were good friends, linked by the horse-racing business, and Art's son Tim Rooney had a daughter Kathleen, who married Chris Rooney, grandson of Tim Mara. Actresses Kate Mara and Rooney Mara are great-granddaughters of the founders of the Steelers and the Giants.

"Mean Joe" Greene made the presentation speech when Dan was elected to the Hall of Fame in 2000, saying "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."
Dan Rooney with a not-so-mean Joe Greene
at Heinz Field, September 8, 2013

That included always being there for his players, just as his father had, showing them that he was never going to be an absentee owner. As Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said this past January:

I have played with guys that have come from other teams. They look shocked when they see our owners, whether it's Mr. Dan Rooney or Mr. Art Rooney II, walking around the locker room and walking around practice. They don't ever see their owners. We see our owners every single day. I think it's just a blessing to know that they care about us, and that's one of the reasons we want to go win.

But it became harder for him as old age caught up to him. Recent photos showed him seriously stooped over. Dan Rooney passed away at the age of 84 yesterday, April 13, 2017. No cause was listed with the initial announcement, but it's been said that his health was deteriorating in recent weeks, and he missed the annual NFL owners' meeting a few weeks ago in Phoenix, his first time missing it since his father handed him the keys to the kingdom in 1969.

Bill Cowher said, "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."

No less an opponent than Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones called it "a sad day for anyone who has had an association with the NFL," noting that Rooney "made all of our lives better."

"He shaped the league with instincts, wisdom and a soft-spoken velvet touch," Jones said. "He was a steward and a guardian for the growth and popularity of the NFL, because he loved the game so much."

Obama hailed him as well: "Dan Rooney was a great friend of mine. But, more importantly, he was a great friend to the people of Pittsburgh, a model citizen, and someone who represented the United States with dignity and grace on the world stage."

Dan Rooney knew what was important around the world. He knew what was important around the block, too.

Surely, he was taught by his father the words of Rudyard Kipling, because he certainly lived them:

If you can dream, and not make dreams your master
If you can think, and not make thoughts your aim
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
and treat those two impostors just the same...

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue
or walk with kings, nor lose the common touch
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you
If all men count with you, but none too much
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
with sixty seconds' worth of distance run,
yours is the Earth and everything that's in it

and, which is more, you'll be a Man, my son!

Dan Rooney was a man for all seasons -- not just 84 seasons of professional football, but for any season, for any occasion.

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