An oft-stated maxim of the business world maintains that success begins at the top of any organization. During their 40-plus-year run of sustained excellence, Pittsburgh Steelers owner and team president Dan Rooney exemplified this perspective, proceeding with a patient, steady approach that yielded 15 division titles, eight Super Bowl appearances, and six championships from the onset of his tenure.
Rooney, who passed away Thursday at the age of 84, prized continuity and character above all else. Few statistics are more astounding in the hectic, win-now-or-else environment of contemporary sports then the three head coaches the Steelers have employed since 1969, when Rooney personally hired Hall Of Famer and four-time Super Bowl winner Chuck Noll. That’s three head coaches in 48 years. Lesser franchises average that many every half-decade.
The flip-side of Rooney’s unwavering commitment to his approach was a visionary sensibility for growing the game. During his tenure, Rooney used his considerable influence among owners to help grow the NFL from niche sport to national obsession. His leadership was crucial in navigating the league through its last true existential crisis — the strike-disrupted season of 1982 — and later eased the NFL into the era of free agency with his canny architecture of the salary cap. Along with commissioner Pete Rozelle, he placed a premium on parity, helping to avoid the haves-and-have-nots stratification of Major League Baseball.
The sense of fairness transcended his approach to collective bargaining and extended to hiring practices. In response to a deplorably bereft league-wide track record of providing opportunities for African-American head coaches, the so-called “Rooney Rule” was instituted in 2002, requiring NFL franchises to interview minority candidates for coaching and front office positions. In keeping with his own principles, Rooney surprisingly hired 35-year old Mike Tomlin in 2007 to take over for the retiring Bill Cowher. Tomlin has rewarded the decision with two Super Bowl appearances, one championship, and an atmosphere of sustained excellence.
In 2008, Rooney — a lifelong Republican — surprised many by endorsing the presidential candidacy of Barack Obama. It was a meaningful vote of confidence from the steady businessman and savvy talent scout from Western Pennsylvania. In 2009 Rooney left day-to-day operations of the Steelers to his son Art Rooney II to serve as Obama’s Ambassador to Ireland.
It is tempting to look at our contemporary political and corporate landscape and wonder where men like Dan Rooney have gone — a careful, fiscal conservative who inherited a family business and grew it with patience and temperance; a traditionalist who recognized the urgent necessity of providing meaningful opportunity amidst changing social climates; a man who seemed to perceive no inherent contradiction between compassion and business acumen. God, could we use a little more of that right now. He will be fondly remembered by the Steel City and beyond.