The funeral service for Dan Rooney was held last week in Pittsburgh after his passing at the age of 84. He was more than one of the 32 owners of NFL teams. He had a major influence on every one of the principal issues the league faced in the past 40 years. He was the one owner who was front and center on selecting commissioners, dealing with the players and, in general, growing what has become easily the most popular sport there is.
He was the architect of one of the NFL’s power franchises, taking what was regarded as a hapless, perennially losing operation and turning it into a dynasty that won six Super Bowls. When you walk into the lobby of the Pittsburgh Steelers offices on Water Street, there they are. In a trophy case. Six Lombardi trophies. Is there anything more impressive? I don’t think so.
He was also my friend. When I came to Pittsburgh as Sports Director of KDKA-TV, I met Dan and his father Art Rooney, the Steelers founder. Dan and I forged an almost immediate bond. He was 34, I was 24. Art was lovable, everyone’s pal, tough when he had to be, sure, but the sentimental side of this great man was what captured anyone who met him. Dan was more of a businessman, got his degree at Duquesne University in the city, and his management skills elevated the team to incredible heights.
It was Dan Rooney who hired Chuck Noll as Head Coach after a two-win season. Later, Rooney also hired Bill Cowher and Mike Tomlin as head coaches. That makes three in almost 50 years. He’s had the same number of general managers in that time as well. How is that for stability?
Dan was never quick to fire people after disappointing seasons. He solved problems in other ways. Noll won four Super Bowls. Cowher one, and Tomlin has won one as well.
Two days before the 2008 Presidential election, I visited with Rooney in his office as I always did when assigned by CBS or Fox to a Steelers game. We almost always had lunch or dinner together during my time before the Sunday broadcast. I asked him, “Dan, are we having lunch tomorrow (Saturday)?” He said he couldn’t because he would be campaigning for Barack Obama the next day. Rooney was Obama’s campaign manager in western Pennsylvania. Dan told me he was a lifelong Republican but thought Obama was the man for the time — just as he thought Noll, Cowher and Tomlin were the men for their times. The rest is history.
Eventually Rooney was named the U.S. Ambassador to Ireland, proudly serving his country in Dublin for four years. I visited him at his residence during that time, and right in front of his home on a huge grassy field was a goalpost. It was there for his grandchildren to use when they visited him. They could play a little football.
When he didn’t make the trip back to Pittsburgh to see his team play in person, he was able to watch the games on a specially built television setup.
Dan Rooney was never far from the Steelers or from the National Football League.
The Rooney Rule has been in operation for years to make sure minority candidates are interviewed and considered for head coaching openings.
The last time I saw Dan was at Super Bowl 49 in Glendale, AZ. My wife, Jamie and I were guests of another friend, Jerry Richardson of the Carolina Panthers, another great owner and human being. We were told that every team shared a suite with another club. On the morning of the game, we were informed the Panthers would be sharing their suite with the Pittsburgh Steelers. Dan and his wonderful wife, Pat, would be there. It was a fabulous reunion with the man I had known for half a century. It was also an opportunity for them to meet Jamie.
It was a special day and the photo of the four of us will be cherished along with one that hangs in my office, Dan and I talking before a Steelers game back in 1967.
May he rest in peace.