clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Is there a method to the Steelers' 'madness'?

A meditation on how the Steeler Way may be playing out in this year's free agency.

Casey Sapio-USA TODAY Sports

Neal Coolong did a great bit of storytelling about storytelling. It's not everyday that a discussion of the Steelers' front office behavior in free agency will include references to Beowulf and the movie Hoosiers and not be some kind of failed attempt at satire. Neal tried, and succeeded I believe, in getting us to think about how the organization was thinking about building and maintaining a team, and what we as interested outsiders think and believe about how they should be doing their jobs.

In the absence of having sufficient information concerning what is really going on we fall back on telling stories that we think basically represent reality and truth while sidestepping the inconvenience of the lack of there being few if any actual facts upon which conclusions can be based. Or, describing the process more accurately, storytelling allows us to sort through inadequate and competing sets of facts in order to present a narrative that may appear to make some sense. The story of coach Dale is appealing to me because it is the best representation given in this context of the general challenges involved in team building as I understand them as well as an accurate representation of the value system of the Steelers organization based upon my limited exposure.

So I was left to wonder if there was anything else that could further validate and enhance the Dale narrative and I came up with two facts about Steelers chairman Dan Rooney that on a stand alone basis are interesting enough, but when put into the context of 'method to their madness' might be extremely revealing.

Dan Rooney fired his brother. Dan Rooney lives in the house he grew up in.

I participated in the firing of a family member once. I was assisting my brother coach a girls youth basketball team and we fired (cut) my daughter. Before you call Child Protective Services let me explain (and it will sound worse before it sounds better). We (he cut her, I went along with the decision) didn't have to cut her. She was one of nine girls trying out for a team that could have a maximum roster size of twelve. She was younger than the other girls, playing "up" was the designation, and it wasn't like she was awful or anything like that, but her play was not 'above the line', to use a saying we are familiar with.

Nobody would have objected to us giving her a uniform, sitting her on the end of the bench and having her participate in garbage time. In fact, it would have been the easier path on a number of levels. Isn't that one of the purposes of parents getting involved in the coaching of their children, to give them a leg up? As you might imagine things got somewhat tense in the extended Cole household. My daughter vowed to never speak to her uncle again. Questions, shall we say, were raised over the purpose and wisdom of abusing the youngest member of the clan and me allowing such an abomination to occur. So why did we invite this heartburn? There was a principle involved but also an important bit of history (I keep coming back to that don't I) and context as well.

Some of you may have seen the movie Remember The Titans, the story of the trials and challenges faced by an integrated high school football team in a community with a history of segregation. Well, that's my community. Yes, the events depicted in the movie had occurred over forty years ago, and things weren't anywhere near being as bad twenty years later when all this transpired. But that's not to say that there weren't issues. We lived in Reston, Virginia a community noted for, among other things, being the first in what was the old Confederacy to practice open housing. If folks in this region got bent out of shape over an integrated football team how do you think they felt about integrated households, churches and so forth? Having served on county boards for football and basketball I can tell you that there were special feelings about Reston. Let me get specific.

I participated in the firing of a family member once. I was assisting my brother coach a girls youth basketball team and we fired (cut) my daughter. Before you call Child Protective Services let me explain (and it will sound worse before it sounds better).

A year or so before we fired my daughter one of my nieces was playing in the county championship game for 14 and Under girls. Her Reston team had a composition that was unusual for our area; an integrated (more than token numbers of black and white kids) team coached by a black man. They were matched up against the regular season champs coached by a guy who was also the league commissioner. The two teams had met in a few hard fought, bitter games during the regular season, and the championship game continued the pattern with the Reston team prevailing. During the awards ceremony following the game the commissioner (opposing coach) announced that though it was understood that the winner of the league tournament would represent the county in the state tournament, that rule would be waived and the regular season champion (his team) would be chosen.

It was too outrageous to be angry about. Astonished and actually a bit amused I asked those sitting around me "Can he do that?" I don't know if he could but he did. Fortunately, the girls on the team were so happy over defeating their bitter rivals they didn't care much.

The takeaway was reinforcement of some things that we already knew about the world our daughters were going to face, they better be good at what they did because they were unlikely to get the benefit of the doubt; and they weren't going to be coached by their relatives forever. So my daughter had to be fired.

And, of course it would have been prejudicial if the bar had only been set at that level for family members, we'd fire anybody, which is sometimes unusual practice in youth sports. It was our own version of 'the standard is the standard'. Or as my brother put it when confronted by a parent saddled with expectations of entitlement; "I cut my own niece, and I love her. You don't think I won't cut your kid?" Indeed, two years later I was head coach of a team with my brother and another man as my assistants. The other assistant had two of his daughters out for the team. I cut one of them. Let's just say our families weren't exchanging Christmas cards after that.

Not only is this potentially painful, awkward stuff, its extremely risky. At the time I didn't know how my daughter would react. If she had turned away from the game I would have understood. As it turned out she ended up being one of the top recruits from Virginia and went on to a very successful college basketball career (as did two of my nieces).

And, bringing it all back to the Steelers, actually having a standard and sticking to it is unusual. One of the most fundamental myths in our culture is that of the work ethic, that anybody can advance if they are just willing to work hard and persevere. This isn't necessarily untrue, but it definitely is not the truth in all cases. It has been reported that over 40 percent of the hires in the private sector are the result of recommendations and referrals from those already in those workplaces. The relational system of employment parallels and often overwhelms systems of merit. The point and attraction of the relational system is not that its corrupt, but that its expedient. What's the expedient path? Pay a free agent more than he's worth. It gets the fans and media off your back and provides for a lot of misleading hype, you pass the costs on to the customers, if things don't work out you can always fire the player, the coach or both. That's the Dan Snyder story in a nutshell.

On the other hand, what we are seeing (and suffering through) is the Steeler Way, the Pittsburgh Way in operation. The dictionary defines expedience as doing what is advantageous as opposed to what is right. You can't do what is right if you lack confidence, patience and pain tolerance. Let's take the issue of passing on costs as an example.

Snyder's organization does everything it can to diminish public transportation links to FedEx Field and parking costs are exorbitant, a financial benefit for him and one of the reasons that the Redskins are one of the most profitable sports franchises. Pittsburgh just opened a rail link that deposits travelers to the doorstep of Heinz Field. If you board this service in downtown Pittsburgh on a game day it cost you nothing to ride to the stadium. This is so because the Steelers chose to subsidize the service. Perhaps if they were falling all over themselves paying top dollar for free agents so we could have something to intellectually masturbate over during the off season they wouldn't provide that subsidy. They could jack up ticket prices, Steeler Nation is sufficiently football mad that enough us would flirt with personal bankruptcy to justify it, and there's enough corporate money out there. The Rooneys are cheap, remember.

We have come to associate 'the standard is the standard' as just some pithy BS that Mike Tomlin employs to get through a press conference. There is a standard. It existed before Tomlin got here, it will be in place after he is gone. It is not a club that we can beat the franchise over the head with when they go 8-8, insisting that they fire someone, cut someone, draft someone, pay someone, do something, anything to salve my angst. The standard in part is a covenant that this organization has with its home community that it is going to provide the best service possible while not ripping off a community that has been challenged economically for many of the past forty plus years, and some of its residents who are constantly challenged in this manner regardless of the macro circumstances.

The problem is, using the Hoosiers analogy of the barbershop (or the beauty parlor), that the patrons of the barbershop are relative Know Nothings that imagine themselves to be Know It Alls sitting around reinforcing their ignorance. 'You gotta play a zone defense'. There exists little evidence that many people know a good free agent pick up when they see one. No one I know of said when Pittsburgh picked up Jeff Hartings or James Farrior, 'Now there goes a Pro Bowl player.' Well after the fact we'll say 'Hey that Mewelde Moore was a great pickup'. But the the general reaction when they come on board is 'Meh'. And the few times folks do get excited, say for Duce Staley, it doesn't necessarily turn out the way we expected.

Now, if Dan Rooney does a Fredo on his brother and continues to live in a sketchy neighborhood even though he's a billionare, he'll probably be polite but I doubt if he cares much or respects what you or I or the media thinks he and his organization ought to be doing in free agency. Because I didn't care about what people thought about me firing my daughter. But let me offer just a wee bit of unsolicited advice about free agency. Bill Parise, James Harrison's agent, said in a recent interview that they were expecting the process to settle into a new situation to take several weeks. This would jibe with some of the calmer, heads in the media that say that the smart players in free agency are the ones who get involved later in the game when the prices, among other things come down. So maybe getting overly involved in the 24 hour sports news cycle might not be the best thing for your blood pressure or to gain an accurate assessment of what's going on.

For those of you in Steeler Nation who have ties to the team but not necessarily to the city or who are young and don't truly understand in this a historical era the legacy that drives the Steelers value system, let me remind you that the Steelers are going to do things the right way, as they see it, not the easy or expedient way. It may be hard, they may lose in the short term. But win or lose (and they will win their share and more) they're going to do it right.

Welcome to Pittsburgh.