Many people have left their mark in the National Football League since it’s inception back in 1922. One such man is Dan Rooney, son of Pittsburgh Steelers founder Arthur Joseph Rooney Sr., also known as “The Chief.” Dan Rooney held various roles within the Steelers organization, most notably as President, Owner, and Chairman. For the five-year anniversary of his passing on April 13, 2017, we reflect on how Mr. Rooney ran the team, and was an instrumental factor in its long-term success.
Dan Rooney’s Background
A Pittsburgh native and high school quarterback, Dan Rooney started with the Steelers after graduating from Duquesne University. Even though his father was the owner of the team, Dan Rooney didn’t start at the top of the organization. He worked his way up the ranks, starting as a ball boy and working his way to Director of Personnel in 1960. By early 1969, Rooney was named the Manager of Day-to-Day Operations for the team. In this role, he instilled a culture change by implementing his philosophy and managerial style which emphasized open, practical, and efficient management. This philosophy helped the Steelers to become a powerhouse both on and off the field.
Dan Rooney believed in a balance between the business side of the game and the relationship side he had with his players. He knew the importance of dynamic tension, the need for athletes to be pushed, but also their need to be able to push back. Dan Rooney had an uncanny ability to sense when to step in and when to hold back. He appreciated the sacrifice players made to be in the NFL and he never took for granted the short time span of a player’s career. Under his guidance, the Steelers won multiple division and AFC championships as well as a record six Super Bowls.
On the topic of championships, Dan Rooney’s instincts were acute in hiring head coach Chuck Noll. As the defensive coordinator of the Baltimore Colts, Noll had a 13-1 record before the New York Jets with Joe Namath ended their winning season. Dan Rooney recognized Noll’s football aptitude and hired him in 1969. For 23 years, Noll coached the Steelers, winning four Super Bowls, four AFC titles, and nine division championships. He was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1993.
Chuck Noll wasn’t the only great hire made by Dan Rooney. After Noll retired in 1991, Dan Rooney quickly found the next great Steelers head coach when he signed former Kansas City Chiefs defensive coordinator Bill Cowher. Cowher made an immediate impact as he won the AP NFL Coach of the Year in 1992, his first year in Pittsburgh. He would continue this success over the next 15 years by winning six division championships, two AFC titles and a Super Bowl. Even though it was Cowher who coached the team to their fifth Super Bowl victory in 2005, he wouldn’t have gotten there if it weren’t for Dan Rooney making a historic choice in 2004.
The Steelers had a terrible season in 2003, finishing with a record of 6-10. At the time, the offensive line was hobbled due to injury, and was made worse with departures in free agency, so both Cowher and GM Kevin Colbert were looking into drafting a lineman to help re-establish the run game and protect quarterback Tommy Maddox. The two of them had their eyes set on University of Arkansas offensive tackle Shawn Andrews. Dan Rooney knew that the team needed a quarterback more than an offensive lineman, and that the 2004 draft class had many top quarterback prospects. He also remembered how the last time he passed on a talented signal caller was in 1983 with Dan Marino. That decision haunted him for many years after. Dan Rooney had the authority as Chairman and Owner to draft who he wanted, so with the number 11 pick of the 2004 NFL Draft, he selected a quarterback from the University of Miami of Ohio, Ben Roethlisberger. Safe to say, Dan’s gut instinct was spot on as Pittsburgh appeared in three Super Bowls winning two of them, giving the team a total of six championships.
Dan Rooney was very active in creating a revenue sharing model for the NFL. He realized that the NFL could descend into chaos, pitting big market teams with high revenue against smaller market teams with lower revenue. The competitive balance would be gone. In 1961, an agreement to sell the NFL television rights to CBS was put into place. The money that was received from selling these rights was to be split equally among the teams. Last year, the NFL split $8.78 billion among the 32 teams. This plan works to even out the disparity of teams with lower attendance and lower revenue.
The Rooney Rule
Dan Rooney’s most enduring legacy would have to be the so-called Rooney Rule, created as an affirmative action policy which gave minority applicants a chance to rise to the position of Head Coach of an NFL team. The rule was put into place in 2003 because of the 2002 firings of both Tony Dungy of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Dennis Green of the Minnesota Vikings. Dungy had a winning record and Green had one losing season after ten years of winning ones. At that time, a study was performed that concluded that Black head coaches were less likely to be hired and more likely to be dismissed than white head coaches. Since the establishment of the Rooney Rule, there have been more African American coaches in the league, yet many people would say there is still an imbalance. As of 2022, the number of head coaches from a minority background is six. Mike Tomlin, the current head coach of the Steelers is one of those six. As time goes on, the Rooney rule should continue to give opportunities to underrepresented minority coaches to move into the role of head coach.
Ultimately, Dan Rooney will be remembered as the man who made the Pittsburgh Steelers the pillar of excellence in the NFL that we as fans know them as today. However, his impact will forever be felt across the whole league as the rule named after him will continue to pave the way to the future.
What do you think? What do you believe Dan Rooney is best remembered for? What do you most remember him for? Be sure to let us know in the comments section below.
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