Ring of Famer
Join Date: Dec 2002
Wait, Where's His Fur Coat?
Unbelievably interesting profile of Dan Rooney
in the Times today.
Although former Bronco Nick Eason gets in a backhanded jab at Bowlen, there's not much Bronco-related stuff in there. But it is an amazing look at how Rooney operates, and why the Steelers have such tight continuity.
What the heck, here's the story:
PITTSBURGH — Draw a straight line between the goalposts at either end of Heinz Field, extend it south, and you’ll find that they line up directly with the fountain at the Point, where this city’s three rivers meet — a happy symmetry probably lost on the Terrible Towel-waving hordes attending Steelers games. The axis was Dan Rooney’s idea, and in addition to its implicit civic gesture, there is another, more private geometry at work: follow the line in the other direction and it runs right into Rooney’s house, as if his life, the life of the Steelers and the life of Pittsburgh were aligned.
Son of Art Rooney Sr., who secured a football franchise here in 1933 and founded the team that came to be called the Steelers, Dan grew up on the city’s blighted North Side, on a street that had already seen better days when his parents moved there in 1939. Now 76 and the Steelers’ chairman, he bought the house from his brothers after their father’s death and with his wife, Patricia, moved back into the neighborhood. Judging from the parking lot directly opposite and the Wendy’s on the corner, it seems safe to say that Rooney is the only millionaire living on what used to be known as Millionaire’s Row. His house — red brick, two stories, with a small front porch — is a third the size of your average suburban McMansion.
The oldest of five brothers, Dan was a talented quarterback for North Catholic High School. When the city’s all-Catholic team was announced at the end of the 1949 season, he was disappointed to find his name on the second team. The first-team slot had gone to Johnny Unitas.
Rooney walks to the Steelers’ home games, on a broken sidewalk, past an abandoned gas station and underneath the overpass for Route 65.
For away games, he travels with the players. “I wasn’t used to the owner flying on the plane,” said the backup quarterback Charlie Batch, recalling his surprise when he arrived to play for the Steelers after leaving the Detroit Lions. “And not only was he on the plane, he was sitting in the seat that doesn’t recline, in front of the bathroom.”
Rooney goes to Mass every morning, then commutes to the Steelers’ training facility on the South Side. He drives a Buick. In the office by 8:15, he checks in with the coaches, the players and his son Art II, the oldest of his nine children and the team’s president. He watches practice. He eats lunch in the cafeteria with the players and the staff.
“Some owners treat you like a rental property,” said defensive end Nick Eason, who has played in Denver and in Cleveland. “They have some maintenance guy to take care of it, they just come by to check on it, they look and they leave. Mr. Rooney comes around, he always sticks his hand out to you. ‘Hey, Nick’— and I’m like, he knows my name?”
Nose tackle Casey Hampton said: “A lot of owners, this is a hobby, but for him, this is his business, what he does. He’s here, shakes your hand, talks to you every day. Every day.”
With defensive end Aaron Smith, Rooney talks about flying. With Batch, a Pittsburgh native, the subject is high school football. “With me, it’s usually my hair,” the platinum-blond kicker Jeff Reed said. Rooney asks about their wives, their girlfriends, their children. He asks about punter Mitch Berger’s dad, who grew up a Steelers fan and came to opening day. Strong safety Troy Polamalu said he treats all the players as his equal, “from Hines Ward to a free-agent rookie.” Some players have his cellphone number. One day a couple of years ago, cornerback Ike Taylor was exhausted and, at Rooney’s invitation, took a two-hour nap on the couch in his office while Rooney worked elsewhere.
Ward, a receiver, said it was Rooney’s example that taught him the importance of a handshake. “I never used to shake hands. It was always just, ‘Hi, how ya doing?’ But something about him made me realize it’s all in the handshake, and every time I meet somebody now, I shake their hand.”
Embracing the Past
The night before home games, Dan and his wife turn out for the team dinners at a local hotel.
“Every team says it’s a family, but it’s bull a lot of the time,” Berger said. In a 13-year career in which he has worn 10 uniforms, he said there had been times when he played mostly for himself. His five months with the Steelers have been different. “I’m glad I got a chance to experience the way it should be before everything’s said and done.”
The Steelers family encompasses not only the current team but past players as well. “You come back, and you’re still a part of here,” Ward said. “We know the history of the team. Not only do we represent ourselves but all the players who wore the black and gold before us.”
The former linebacker Andy Russell, who played for the Steelers for 13 years, said: “Here I’ve been out of the game over 30 years, and they jump up and come over and shake my hand and tell me how pleased they are to see me. You know, I’m thrilled to see them. It’s a brotherhood.”
As is his way, Dan Rooney, takes none of the credit. Sitting behind a football-shaped desk overlooking the practice field here last week, he steered the conversation away from himself.
“It started with my father,” he said. “He gave me the values. He treated players, coaches, general staff as people. He was concerned about them.”
That culture now permeates the entire organization — a sort of ego-free zone in which players and coaches can occasionally seem as if they’re competing for a Nobel prize in humility. “We don’t care who gets the credit, and all we want to do is win,” Coach Mike Tomlin said.
Rooney has consistently looked not just for skilled ballplayers but for athletes who would hold themselves accountable to each other and the community. “Those are the kind of people he assembles here, and it makes it a fun place to work,” Tomlin said.
The result has been stability and continuity. Now in his second season, Tomlin is the Steelers’ third head coach in 40 years — testimony to the Rooneys’ loyalty, patience and understanding of what it takes to build a winning team.
There are years when the assorted personalities coalesce and years when they don’t. “It’s very important that a team come together, that they develop respect for each other — you can call it love,” Rooney said. “We went to Miami to play the Dolphins one season, and there was a hurricane. The lights went out in the hotel, and all of our players came out of their rooms and sat in the hall, where there was emergency lighting. Believe it or not, that helped to bring these guys together.”
The contracts the Rooneys offer are not always top dollar compared with other teams, and players looking for a big paycheck sometimes go elsewhere. The Steelers lost Alan Faneca to the Jets, Joey Porter to the Miami Dolphins. Dan majored in accounting at Duquesne University. As a negotiator, he has a reputation for being both tough and fair.
Ward held out in 2005 and was summoned to a meeting with Dan Rooney at the start of training camp. “I hated to do it,” Ward said, “but as a player, you come to a point in your career where you have to stand up for what you think is right. The business took precedence over the relationship. There were no hard feelings between us. He said, ‘Look, we want you to be a Steeler, we’re going to commit to you and try to get this thing to work right.’ And just hearing that made me change my mind. I’m still here, and I’ve got a chance to retire as a Steeler.”
Hard bargains aside, the money seems never to have been the goal where the Rooneys are concerned. Dan has no apparent interest in luxury items. His cluelessness when it comes to clothes is a running joke, within his family and among the team. Art II said, “One of my brothers will see a picture of him and give me a call and say, ‘Make sure he doesn’t wear that suit again.’ ” Casey Hampton has offered to take him shopping.
He has no second home — no country house, no Florida beachfront condominium. His sole extravagance is flying: he pilots his own plane to training camp and league meetings. Apart from an annual trip to Ireland, he rarely travels. When he does, it’s not often to destinations catering to members of his income bracket. In 2003, with the help of experts from the Senator John Heinz History Center, Rooney and members of his extended family retraced Lewis and Clark’s expedition, which began in Pittsburgh 200 years earlier and ended at the Pacific coast in Oregon.
A confirmed workaholic, Rooney shows no signs of slowing down.
“Some nights, we have to kick him out of the office,” Art II said. Their working relationship is modeled on the one Dan had with his father, and the dynastic succession is unfolding at the same gradual pace. “My grandfather never really retired, and I don’t expect my father to ever really retire,” Art II said. “This was their life, and that’s a blessing.”
Art II now oversees the Steelers’ day-to-day operations. Dan continues to manage the Steelers’ role in the league.
“I sit next to him at league meetings,” said John Mara, a Giants co-owner. “Dan is usually fairly quiet — he takes everything in. Then he’ll get up and walk towards the microphone, and the whole room goes silent, because we all want to hear what he has to say. For a while now, he has been the conscience of the league, somebody who always speaks with the league’s best interest at heart.”
Mara and N.F.L. Commissioner Roger Goodell cite Rooney as a mentor. During recent negotiations to restructure the Steelers’ ownership to comply with league policy, the prospect that the team might pass out of the Rooneys’ hands arose for the first time. In the end, Dan’s brothers agreed to sell shares, allowing him and Art II to remain in control, a resolution greeted with relief throughout the league.
“There is great admiration and respect for Dan Rooney, but it was also a question of respect for the principles of our system,” Goodell said. “Family ownership and involvement have been critical components of the league’s success.”
Rooney has taken a leadership role through many of the most important issues that the league has faced, from the collective bargaining agreement that ended the strike in 1982 to the search for a new commissioner in 2006. But the most conspicuous and far-reaching of his contributions is the rule that bears his name, adopted in 2003, requiring that at least one minority candidate be interviewed for coaching positions.
According to Paul Tagliabue, then the commissioner, the idea for a mandatory interview policy came from the league’s lawyers, who knew that it had proved effective in business. Tagliabue thought it would be better if the initiative came from the owners. He asked Rooney to take the lead. Mara said: “He was probably the only person in the room who could have gotten that passed. He obviously practices what he preaches.”
Rooney says that the rule has already had an effect, although there is still considerable progress to be made. When people cite Tomlin’s hiring as an example of the changes that the Rooney Rule can bring, Rooney is proud to set them straight: the Steelers had already interviewed Ron Rivera, then the Chicago Bears’ defensive coordinator; technically, the interview with Tomlin was not required.
Bill Nunn, who began scouting black colleges for the Steelers in 1969, once said that Rooney “doesn’t see color” — a quality Rooney attributes to his father and his old neighborhood. “In those days growing up on the North Side, we didn’t think about your skin color or your accent or what church you went to,” he wrote in his memoir, “Dan Rooney: My 75 Years with the Pittsburgh Steelers and the NFL.” “What mattered was that you lived up to your word, pulled your own weight and looked out for your friends.”
Leading by Example
Although the Rooneys are not the wealthiest family in Pittsburgh, many in town consider them the most powerful. When Dan Rooney, a lifelong Republican, endorsed Barack Obama for president last spring, it gave Obama a needed boost in western Pennsylvania. Even though his endorsement infuriated a vocal contingent of Steelers fans, Rooney continued working for the campaign, accompanying Obama to meet with steelworkers.
Two days after the Steelers won the American Football Conference championship, on Jan. 18, Rooney attended the inauguration. He and other idealists were having a good week.
There was a time, back in the ’60s, when Pittsburgh followed other teams’ lead and hired its own squad of cheerleaders, the Steelerettes — but Rooney did away with them when they proved to be “an unnecessary distraction” from the game itself. Steelers fans, he reasoned, like their football straight, without exotic dancing girls shaking pompoms on the sideline.
Rooney continues to put his faith in football. With the industry that was the team’s namesake gone and half the city’s population scattered, the Steelers inspire a devotion that goes beyond the game, a nostalgia for old-fashioned Pittsburgh virtues: hard work, self-reliance, discretion, humility. Rooney has infused his team with the code of honor he lives by.