American Icon Dan Rooney Dead At 84

At 84 years old, Dan Rooney, Chairman of the Pittsburgh Steelers, and national treasure, has died. Details on his death aren’t immediately available. But we do know a few things about how he lived.

Compared to owners like Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, Mr. Rooney was an introvert. But when he spoke people listened. He wasn’t a boastful man, and didn’t seek the limelight, so we don’t know his every tweetable thought. Through the efforts on and off the football field, Mr. Rooney leaves behind an amazing legacy, not just an owner of an NFL franchise, but as a human being. He was a leader of athletes, owners, a city and much more.

Under Mr. Rooney’s time leading the Steelers, the organization won an NFL best. six championships. In a small market nestled between three rivers in a blue collar community two stadiums were erected and a family dynasty solidified.

A Statesman

Of Mr. Rooney President Obama shared, “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. I knew he’d do a wonderful job when I named him as our United States Ambassador to Ireland, but naturally, he surpassed my high expectations, and I know the people of Ireland think fondly of him today.’’

In 2009 President Obama appointed Mr. Rooney U.S. ambassador to Ireland, a position he served with pride until his resignation in 2012.

Mr. Rooney was born July 21, 1932 in Pittsburgh, a year before his father Art Rooney Sr. founded the Steelers. He played high school football for North Catholic High School where he earned all-Catholic league second team honors, losing his first team placement to a guy named Johnny Unitas.

He graduated from Pittsburgh’s Duquesne University with a degree in accounting, soon after which he joined the Steelers. He served as president of the club from 1975–2003. Under Mr. Rooney’s tenure as President, the Steelers won four championships in six years — Super Bowls IX, X, XIII and XIV. And a fifth under Bill Cowher.

Art Rooney and his son Dan preparing for what would be a historic draft.

Art Rooney and his son Dan preparing for what would be a historic draft.

 

Mr. Rooney directly influenced the team in both the draft and through unprecedented consistency at head coach; with only three in nearly half a century. He was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2000.

If stability was his approach in the front office, his beliefs evolved in other areas of his life. Mr. Rooney, traditionally a republican, surprised many when he stumped for and vociferously supported Barack Obama’s run for President in 2008.

Some suggest that Mr. Rooney was a man who saw no color, just talent. But he did see color, and saw that he could have a hand in righting some inequities associated with darker skin, especially in a city with a blemished racial history.

When introducing Mr. Rooney before his Hall of Fame induction, famous Steelers defender Joe Greene shared “Dan has always lead with humility. When things go as planned, Dan is in the background. When things don’t go as planned, he’s in the forefront.”

Joe Greene and Dan Rooney

Joe Greene and Dan Rooney

 

The Rooney Rule

During the Paul Tagliabue-era of the NFL, Mr. Rooney presented his fellow owners with a measure he thought was a chance to fix the problem of under representation of minorities in high-profile jobs within the league. A notion more glaring, given the disproportionate amount of African Americans working as players.

Through his leadership the eponymous Mr. Rooney helped give the NFL the youngest head coach to win a Super Bowl, in African American coach Mike Tomlin. Far from perfect Mr. Tomlin boasts one of the most impressive draft resumes in the history of the league and a cluster of other honors.

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said in a statement, “Few men have contributed as much to the National Football League as Dan Rooney. A member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, he was one of the finest men in the history of our game and it was a privilege to work alongside him for so many years. Dan’s dedication to the game, to the players and coaches, to his beloved Pittsburgh, and to Steelers fans everywhere was unparalleled. He was a role model and trusted colleague to commissioners since Bert Bell, countless NFL owners, and so many others in and out of the NFL.

Goodell continued that Rooney was “A voice of reason on a wide range of topics, including diversity and labor relations, Dan always had the league’s best interests at heart. For my part, Dan’s friendship and counsel were both inspiring and irreplaceable. My heart goes out to Patricia, Art, and the entire Rooney family on the loss of this extraordinary man.”

Mr. Rooney was a man who regularly walked to home games. Unlike many owners who enjoy the rarified air of their luxury boxes, rarely interacting with the workers, Mr. Rooney could be seen regularly in the locker room after practices and games.

In a press release Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones shared “This is a sad day for anyone who has had an association with the NFL,” Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said in a news release. “Whether it be fans, players, coaches, broadcast personnel, media, team owners or club employees, Dan Rooney’s influence touched us all — and made all of our lives better.”

“The Rooney’s are a royal family in the National Football League, and Dan more than capably followed in the footsteps of his father, Art, a league founder,” Jones said. “He shaped the league with instincts, wisdom and a soft-spoken velvet touch. He was a steward and a guardian for the growth and popularity of the NFL, because he loved the game so much.”

“My job is to do what’s best for the organization and to make that decision regardless of what the consequences are to me personally,” Mr Rooney once shared. “I take my position very seriously. What I want is an organization that can be together, one where everybody in the place has the same goal, and that is to win.”

No team more exemplifies it’s city’s disposition and demographics than the Steelers. A win for the Black and Gold is a win for the city in a way few cities can even come close to understanding. Mr. Rooney’s steadfast mentality of “team first” was key in transforming a down-on-their-luck club that had never played in a title game, to one that is now peerless; even in a league that possesses football dynasties like the Patriots and 49ers.

During the Monday Night Football “black out” game in rickety old Candlestick Park in San Francisco in 2011, I found myself in. the Steelers luxury box. As Mr. Rooney sat five feet from me chatting with a guest, I noticed two things. One, that he was showing his age, noticeably hunched and frail. The other, as my focus pulled from him out the window overlooking the sea of black and gold Steelers fans who’d come from all over the country to cheer on their team, was that this man, with his desire to put his team first exemplified many of the best parts of what it is to be American. Strong vision. Leadership. And a kind of paradoxical strength and humility that inspired men, women and boys and girls around him.

I have to believe that Dan Rooney left this world in, and for a better place.