Dan Rooney: much-loved Steelers scion who left a lasting mark on the NFL

Les Carpenter
Dan Rooney receives the AFC Championship trophy after the Steelers defeated the Ravens 23-14 in January 2009. Photograph: Jay Laprete/EPA/Rex/Shutterstock

Unlike many scions of blue-blood NFL family dynasties, Dan Rooney was not an imposing man. He wasn’t tall, and seemed increasingly frail in the later decades of his life. He did not always exude the physical power of the great Pittsburgh Steelers machine.

But strength isn’t always measured by the grip of a man’s handshake, or his ability to boom into a room. In the money-first world of professional sports owners, Rooney, who died Thursday at 84, showed courage many others might have avoided. Because of that, he won’t be remembered as another rich kid who rode his father’s football team to a $2bn lottery ticket, but rather as an owner who actually stood for something.

His legacy is the NFL rule named for him, the one that stands as the league’s most progressive piece of legislation: an edict requiring teams to interview at least one non-white candidate for head coach and general manager jobs. But his more enduring impact comes in the fact that Dan Rooney actually lived up to the Rooney rule, hiring Mike Tomlin, an African American man, to be the Steelers’ coach in 2007, and then sticking with him for a decade through seasons both good and bad.

It also comes in the man he supported for president a year after he hired Tomlin.

Pro sports owners are not always a political lot. Certainly not the traditional NFL families like the Rooneys. Their interests in government usually come when they beg legislatures for tax dollars for new stadiums. When they write checks to candidates, their motives are almost always fiscal. Rooney, as the face of a conservative franchise in a conservative league, had never been one to celebrate his politics.

Then, on 3 January 2008, he watched Barack Obama speak. Obama had just won the Iowa caucus, the first step in his march to the presidency, and there was something about the way Obama spoke that moved Rooney. As the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s Gene Collier wrote later that year, Rooney was taken with Obama’s ability to connect with people. He called his son, Jim, that night and said he thought Obama was “more than just a good politician.” And he wanted to speak out.

Dan Rooney had become concerned about the way the Republican party was heading, Jim Rooney told Collier. The Iraq invasion bothered the Steelers owner. He thought the US had stumbled into a war that had no purpose. “He’s become disillusioned with how deeply they have aligned themselves with this ultra-conservative movement,” his son said.

The elder Rooney met Obama at a rally in Pittsburgh that April, and then built his support for the candidate, openly endorsing him on 27 October at another Pittsburgh rally where he presented Obama with a Steelers jersey. That simple act unleashed outrage from many of the team’s fans.

“Shame on you,” one woman wrote to Rooney in a letter Collier quoted. “I will consider October 27 the day something dear to me died.”

Another fan told the paper that Dan Rooney’s father, Art, “would be spinning in his grave.”

Rooney never backed away in the face of this criticism. He never cowered from the attacks as many owners do in such situations, citing their need to “protect their brand”. He plunged ahead, accepting Obama’s invitation to be the US ambassador to Ireland, a post he held between 2009 and 2012.

You can tell a man’s impact by the reaction to his death, and the outpouring for Rooney on Thursday was immense. Obama said he was “a great friend of mine, but more importantly he was also a great friend to the city of Pittsburgh.” Former Steelers star Troy Polamalu called him a “humanitarian (and) true patriot.” Receiver Antonio Brown said Rooney was “one of the most genuine and humble human beings I’ve had the pleasure of knowing.”

As a football man, Rooney’s instincts were sharp. He helped choose the team’s legendary coach Chuck Noll, and ran the Steelers through the Super Bowl runs in the 1970s before taking over as the owner when his father died in 1988. He had a patience few other owners have had, and created one of the most successful and stable organizations in sports, with only three coaches in the last five decades.

But where he will be remembered most is at the end of every regular season, when a new batch of coaches and general managers are fired and teams scramble to find their successors. The Rooney rule keeps owners from their own impulsivity, hurriedly hiring men who look – and think – like them. It requires franchises to look at minority candidates they might otherwise not consider, listen to their pitches and maybe make a choice they might not have made before.

“Every club should have that as their goal, to go out and get the best guy for the job whether they are black or white,” John Wooten, the chairman of the Fritz Pollard Alliance, a group dedicated to making teams aware of top black coaching candidates, told the Guardian in January.

Until Rooney’s diversity committee came up with the Rooney rule in 2003, those candidates were almost always white. Rooney himself might have selected a white coach when Bill Cowher retired in 2007 had he treated Tomlin’s interview as a mandatory obligation the way many owners do, to be sure they are in compliance. Instead, he listened, heard Tomlin’s pitch, and realized Tomlin was the right choice for the Steelers.

Ten years, seven playoff and two Super Bowls later, Tomlin stands as proof of how Rooney’s rule should work.

The edict is not perfect. Too many teams still listen absently as non-white candidates try to sell themselves for coaching jobs they will not get. Change just doesn’t come with an extra paragraph in the league’s bylaws. It takes an evolution in philosophy. Much like a lifelong Republican who heard Barack Obama and allowed himself to believe in a new message.

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