Art Rooney founded the Pittsburgh Steelers in 1933, and the “Steel City” began its quest to become a football town. Little did we know at that time, the Rooneys would not only transform the city of Pittsburgh, but they would change the way that football organizations were run forever.
Dan Rooney, Art’s son, began working for the Steelers in 1955 after graduating from Duquesne University. Dan’s professionalism, intelligence and ability to lead allowed his father to pass off control to him in the 1960’s. As President of the Steelers, Dan quickly turned the franchise into a perennial playoff contender.
In 1974, he helped assemble one of the best draft classes in NFL history including Hall-of-Famers Jack Lambert, Lynn Swann and Mike Webster. The very next year, Pittsburgh won its first of four Super Bowls in six years (1975, 1976, 1979, 1980). Quarterback Terry Bradshaw and the “Steel Curtain” defense are still widely regarded as one of the best teams in NFL history.
Rooney, who was inducted into the NFL Hall of Fame in 2000, had an impact that stretched far beyond the 110 yards from end zone to end zone. He was a man who cared more about his community than the trophies in his trophy case, and that made him stand out among professional owners in his era. ESPN analyst and former Steelers running back, Merril Hoge talked about his former boss on Mike and Jamele’s The Six this afternoon. He mentioned that in 1989, when the city of Pittsburgh fell under some hardship and many of the steel mills began to close, Dan Rooney asked Hoge and another player to represent the team in an organization that he helped form. The organization is now known as the Highmark Caring Foundation, and it helps provide health insurance to the less fortunate youth of Pittsburgh. That was just one of the many philanthropic ventures that Rooney was a part of in an effort to better the Pittsburgh community off the field.
Arguably, the most important initiative that Rooney helped push forward is the Rooney Rule, an effort to bring equal opportunity to the NFL. This rule was implemented in 2003, while Rooney served as chairman of the NFL’s diversity committee. Under the Rooney Rule, NFL organizations needed to begin interviewing minority candidates for both coaching and front office positions. We saw this monumental initiative take an immediate effect on the league, as Indianapolis Colts coach Tony Dungy and Chicago Bears coach Lovie Smith became the first African Americans to face off in Super Bowl history in 2007. The Colts won, and Dungy became the first African American coach to win a Super Bowl.
Rooney passed of the presidency to his son, Art Rooney II, in 2003 and assumed the role of chairman of the Steelers. Of course, Pittsburgh went on to win two more Super Bowls in 2006 and 2009 to give them six total, which is still the most among NFL franchises.
Pittsburgh’s current head coach, Mike Tomlin, became the second African American coach to win a Super Bowl when the Steelers defeated the Cardinals in an instant classic in 2009.
Rooney was later appointed the United States Ambassador to Ireland in 2009 by President Barack Obama.
Dan Rooney passed away at the age of 84, but his legacy has been cemented in NFL history, in the Pittsburgh community and in the hearts and minds of football fans everywhere.
He was a true champion in every sense of the word.
Rest in Peace.