With the current state of Steelers' ownership in negotiations, the unknown of the furure is unsettling to all Steelers' fans. We may well have reached the point where billionaires and not family-style operators are needed to run NFL franchises. But what is not unknown is the Rooney family and the contributions it has made to the Steelers, the City of Pittsburgh and the entire NFL. I thought we could pull together a little history and give this familty a salute they truly deserve. We may not know the future, but we certainly can appreciate the journey to where we are today.
When a professional sports franchise succeeds in any way, fans of that team stick out their chest and boast as if they had anything to do with it. When losing, or any kind of shame befalls a sports team, the fans also absorb the embarrassment. Ownership goes both ways. With the Pittsburgh Steelers, sources of pride include the Chuck Noll era with four Super Bowl titles and the Bill Cowher era of consistency and a trophy of their own.
The Rooney name is clearly another feather in the franchise cap. No matter how much a rival dislikes us, they cannot express anything but respect when it comes to any discussion about the Rooney family. That respect is unconditionally universal and no one enjoys it more than the fans of Pittsburgh.
Art Rooney was a sports entrepreneur. He made his livelihood in horse racing, boxing and amateur baseball. When the NFL was looking for new markets in 1933, Rooney was known and accepted. He paid $2,500 for a franchise in Pittsburgh. The Great Depression and war years were not kind to the pocketbook. Despite losing money for the first 13 years of the teams existence, Rooney's resourcefulness found ways to keep the franchise afloat. His creative thinking in combining his team with the Philadelphia Eagles and then Chicago Cardinals during World War II not only saved the Steelers, but perhaps the NFL itself. Other teams, like the Cleveland Rams, took the easy way out and simply folded.
No one was more colorblind than Art Rooney. His first team in 1933 featured one of only two African-Americans in the league (Ray Kemp). In 1956 the team had an explosive receiver named Lowell Perry. After six games of speed, promise and a couple electrifying touchdowns, Perry blew out a knee. It was typical of the team's fortunes back then. Rooney turned a young man's adversity into asset. He immediately added Perry to the coaching staff, the first African-American coach in NFL history. A decade later Rooney convinced a sportswriter named Bill Nunn to join the executive staff. Nunn was the first man of color to ever work in an NFL front office.
As a humanitarian, Art Rooney had no equal. After the hazards of Viet Nam tore up Rocky Bleier's foot and leg, Rooney refused to release him. Long after others had gracefully given up on Bleier, Rooney kept him on the payroll for as long as he wanted to attempt a comeback. Giving a break to a Viet Nam vet did not put Rooney in exclusive company. Common sense and public relations value would lead most owners in the same direction. What made Rooney's generosity extraordinary was that it extended years beyond any reasonable time frame. It was Rooney being Rooney. Bleier finally came back after five long years of rehabilitation. He was a huge factor in all four Super Bowl seasons of the 1970s. Ask Rocky Bleier what he thinks of Art Rooney.
When a rookie named Gabe Rivera became paralyzed in an automobile accident in 1983, Art Rooney was his instant source of strength and compassion. Rivera was a frightened young man laying in a hospital a long way from his Texas home. Rooney made certain, above and beyond, that every emotional and financial need was met to their fullest extent.
Rooney's human relations persona extended deep into the community he loved. Fans and well wishers came off the streets into the old Roosevelt Hotel to visit Mr. Rooney in the Steelers' offices. It drove the secretaries crazy. Rooney didn't mind. He thought everyone was important and treated them such. When he finally accepted his first championship trophy at the end of the 1974 season, his humility on national television made every viewer, fan and foe, want to hug the man.
Art Rooney, like the rest of us, was not without weakness. Being a warm-hearted and trusting human being is not a good quality when hiring coaches. Up until he turned the reigns over to his son, Rooney hired three decent coaches and 10 bad ones. One of the bad ones he hired three different times. Moreover, he gave these coaches carte blanch to do whatever they wanted. They could drill the team into the ground, trade away all their draft picks, cut Johnny Unitas and even not show up for games. Rooney's tolerance level was frustratingly high.
Art Rooney's weakness was his son Dan's strength. By the late 1960s, Dan was fervent about going through national searches when looking for a coach. The results were Chuck Noll and Bill Cowher (and recently Mike Tomlin).
Rooney's strengths and contributions go far beyond being two-for-two in hiring Hall of Fame coaches (assuming Cowher gets in). When the league was looking for a small group of owners to negotiate with the players in 1982 and 1987, Rooney was among them. He understood that it wasn't owners versus players. It was about the game and what was best for it. Rooney was disarming to both sides and got each to understand the other.
When the NFL reached crossroads in 1993 and embarked on the most critical labor-management negotiations in its history, Dan Rooney was called upon to chair the process. Rooney and Commissioner Paul Tagliabue pledges to keep the game fair and give the players what they deserved. The resulting Collective Bargaining Agreement was a landmark deal that included free agency for the players and revenue sharing among the teams. Since that agreement, the foundation of which still exists today, the NFL has enjoyed soaring prosperity to the envy of every other sport on every other level.
Rooney also chaired the NFL Diversity Committee. Given his father's propensity to establish watershed milestones for minorities, this committee was near and dear to his heart. Giving minorities a chance was a battle cry for years, but Rooney thought there was too much lip service and not enough action. His committee created what would be called "The Rooney Rule." This rule mandated that when an NFL team was hiring a head coach, a minority candidate must be interviewed. Teams have the ultimate freedom to hire whoever they want, of course, but at the very least this rule brings to public light those individuals of color who are the most respected and most ready for the challenge.
To be sure, fans of all NFL teams have sources of pride on which to hang their hats. There are championships to be cherished, great players to be cheered and coaches to be admired. It is not often that franchise ownership is one of those sources. In Pittsburgh, the word Rooney is synonymous with civic pride. And to Steelers' fans, the name itself is a badge of honor.