Dan Rooney's greatest gift to Pittsburgh: Transforming steel town into City of Champions

Every now and then, when someone in the media wants to push the too-easy button that triggers the nostalgia impulse of Pittsburgh Steelers fans, the most popular ploy is to rank the greatest Steelers ever in some order.

Even among such a grand collection of Hall of Famers, it long has been assumed that the correct answer at No. 1 is Mean Joe Greene. If one is limiting the discussion only to those who have worn the team’s jersey, that is accurate.

The greatest of all Steelers, though, in the strictest sense, has been Dan Rooney.

STEELE: Rooney helped make Steelers gold standard among sports franchises

His father, Art, founded the team and ran it for decades. Art's money, guile, perseverance and charm kept the team going for decades. But when Dan took charge of the operation, it became a truly professional football team. Art Rooney made them the Steelers. Dan Rooney made them the Steelers we know today.

Mr. Rooney, as he was referred to throughout the organization, died Thursday at age 84. It is a day many had dreaded as he grew frail in recent years.

No one who loves the team had wanted to imagine it operating without his presence around the complex, in the owners' box, and in the locker room shaking hands with Steelers players following most every game.

Those of us who grew up in the Pittsburgh area, in the Steelers era, were too young at first to understand the impact Dan Rooney had upon the franchise and its operations. He was the one who chose Chuck Noll as the team’s coach in 1969, near the end of another lost decade. He helped assemble the organization that built the 1970s dynasty, with Greene at the foundation and so many greats assembled around him — on the field and in the front office.

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Joe Greene and Dan Rooney at the 2007 Hall of Fame Game. (Getty Images)

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I’m not sure there’s ever been a place that needed a team more than Pittsburgh needed the Steelers in the '70s. First understand that Pittsburgh is not a city. It is, of course, but it is much more than that. I’ve lived in several parts of the country now, and Pittsburgh is the only one that defines its entire region. That may be on account of the Steelers; I wasn’t around before they became great and thus cannot be certain.

When the Steelers were winning Super Bowls and Receiving Immaculately and all that, the town’s steel industry base was collapsing. That affected Duquesne, Homestead, Homewood, the South Side and Ambridge, the latter a town actually named after a steel mill. The Steelers were something around which the entire region could rally — and, if necessary, take along when moving to another part of the country where jobs where more abundant. Dan Rooney gave all of us the football team we needed.

He presided over not only the hiring of Noll, but also Bill Cowher in 1992 and Mike Tomlin in 2007. Each of the coaches Rooney hired has lasted more than a decade in the position, advanced to multiple Super Bowls and won at least once. In each of the past five decades, the team has played in at least one AFC championship game. They have not had a losing decade since the 1960s. They’ve won more than 90 games in three of the past four decades and, with 72 wins and three years remaining in the ’10s, are on course to make it four of five.

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Although I worked at Pittsburgh newspapers for a decade and have covered a few Steelers games over the years, only once did I have the opportunity to interview Dan Rooney. When Sporting News was compiling a book on the greatest running backs in NFL history, one of those chosen was John Henry Johnson. Mr. Rooney was one of the few who could give a first-hand account of what made Johnson great. He could not have been more pleasant or helpful with the project.

But my connection to Mr. Rooney was mostly the same as any other Steelers fan, except the breed that demands a Super Bowl victory every year or is furious at the “failure.” Those of us who were raised on Dan Rooney’s Steelers, the team that has had just three head coaches since 1969, understand one of the ingredients of excellence is patience. If everything is working and proper care is given, eventually it is likely to work better.

Dan Rooney never seemed like the other NFL owners, the ones whose suites resemble mansions and who made their money in other fields. He looked like someone in the football business. He looked like a Pittsburgher, and the best of us.


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