Saying that the Rooney name has always been attached to the Pittsburgh Steelers doesn’t say enough. The Rooney name was there before the Steelers name was — the team that Art Rooney founded in 1933 was named the Pirates, just like the baseball team. They became the Steelers in 1936.
In pro football history, the Rooney name is on the level of Halas and Mara. Now a member of the second generation of the family is gone. Dan Rooney, who died Thursday at age 84, was chairman of the team and ran it after the patriarch passed in 1988.
Under the father’s leadership, the team went from perpetual losers to the gold standard for success, with their four Super Bowls in the 1970s. Under Dan — not yet a year old when Art founded the franchise — they won two more, after the 2005 and ’08 seasons, and reached two others.
But it wasn’t just because they won those Lombardi trophies that the Steelers were — and are — the bar every other team tries to reach. It’s because, even in the relatively lean years, the Steelers never wavered in the way they conducted business and constructed a team.
When Dan Rooney took over as chairman after his father’s death, Chuck Noll — hired in 1969, when the younger Rooney became general manager — was still coach. The Steelershave had only two coaches since then, Bill Cowher and Mike Tomlin, and each has won a Super Bowl for them.
It might be a long time before another franchise goes nearly 50 years with only three coaches. Even the Patriots, where Bill Belichick has ruled for 17 years, have a long way to go.
Rooney’s moves and his presence, on the team and in the NFL, packed an enormous punch. The hiring of Noll, a disciple of Paul Brown fromthe fierce geographic rival Cleveland Browns, was genius. At 37, it was his first head-coaching job, and he kept it for 23 years.
On Rooney's watch, the Steelers also hired a local sportswriter named Bill Nunn as a scoutbecause of his knowledge of talent at historically black colleges. The Steelers built their dynasty through the draft, particularly with the legendary 1974 draft that produced four future Hall of Famers, all of whom were keys to the four Super Bowl wins.
The hiring of Tomlin in 2007 was groundbreaking — he was only 35, a coordinator for only one year, and the Steelers’ fellow franchises were still trying to formulate policies and strategies for hiring coaches of color.
Rooney simply hired him without checking off any boxes or fulfilling any mandates,because he saw Tomlinas the best choice for the long-term future. Last season, Tomlinbecame just the eighth coach ever to win 100 games in hisfirst 10 years in the NFL.
One of those eight is Tony Dungy, inducted in the Hall of Fame last summer, who gives Rooney, Noll and the Steelers all the credit for giving him a chance to be an assistant coach at age 26, after his playing days were over.
Rooney’s name, of course, will live on for years as part of the “Rooney Rule” he crafted in 2002, when he chaired the NFL’s diversity committee under then-commissioner Paul Tagliabueto open up the hiring process. It has since been expanded to women candidatesand to front-office positions.
And as for thoseaforementioned "relatively lean years"… in Dan Rooney’s 30 years as chairman, the Steelers lost 10 or more games three times. The last time was 2003.
Coming of age around and within a team that was a long-standing laughingstock, Dan Rooney spent the prime of his life building and maintaining a franchise that’s among the best not just in his sport, but in all sports.