More than any other person, it was Dan Rooney who put the Pittsburgh Steelers and Steelers Nation on the map. After decades of futility for the team founded in 1933 by his father, Arthur J. Rooney Sr., Dan’s efforts were chiefly responsible for lifting the Steelers out of obscurity and turning them into winners. Hiring the immortal Chuck Noll in 1969, followed by Bill Cowher in 1992 and Mike Tomlin in 2007, Dan Rooney paved the way for the Steelers to become the most successful franchise in NFL history, capturing six Super Bowl titles.
As the 2018 edition of the Black-and-gold prepares to kick off its training camp on July 26th, the main thing on the minds of Steelers Nation is the question of how this talented, perennial contender might find the key to that elusive “Stairway to Seven.” While the Steelers’ fan base often is accused of being spoiled by previous success, the explanation for this bravado has everything to do with already having “been there and done that.” Knowing the requirements for winning NFL championships, and having substantial experience in the winner’s circle, play key roles in building these great expectations.
In his 2007 book, Dan Rooney: My 75 Years With the Pittsburgh Steelers and the NFL, the team’s late owner left behind a clear roadmap incorporating all of the principal elements comprising what otherwise is known as “the Steeler Way.” As someone with ample experience both in the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat, Mr. Rooney identifies the following, four essentials which he believed every championship team must have:
- Talented players
- Excellent coaching
- Team closeness
- Good management
While anyone can and will argue the point, it appears that the 2018 edition of the Pittsburgh Steelers is already well equipped in three of these four departments. Beyond the obvious need to compensate for the huge loss of Ryan Shazier on the defense, it’s apparent that the Steelers possess the sheer athletic talent to compete with any NFL opponent.
Despite Head Coach Mike Tomlin’s persistent critics, his overall coaching record (including postseason games) of 124-67 (.649) currently places him 19th on the all-time list of NFL head coaches according to Athlon Sports — only two slots behind former Steelers’ head coach Bill Cowher. Furthermore, if Tomlin is able to maintain roughly the same winning pace in the future as he has during his first decade as the Steelers’ head coach, he will wind up near the top of the all-time list by the time he retires, eclipsing even Chuck Noll’s Hall of Fame record (Noll currently is ranked No. 9 all-time).
Additionally, the Steelers are known throughout the NFL as having one of the most competent and stable management groups of any team. With the Rooney family remaining largely in control of day-to-day operations, you won’t find too many people faulting the team’s front-office chops.
By the process of elimination, this brings us to the intangible factor which Dan Rooney described as “team closeness.” Sheer athletic talent often is given so much attention and weight in team rankings that crucial factors involving player psychology and team culture might be overlooked. Yet this difficult-to-quantify factor is precisely what Dan Rooney cited as indispensable to the Steelers’ championship teams.
Team closeness is a combination of factors involving both the caliber of players’ personalities and a team’s particular social culture. Herein, the key requirement is finding players who share a true passion for the game, plus a desire to be the best, both individually and as a team. For example, the great 1970s Steelers teams that won four Super Bowl titles within a 6-year span had several players whose leadership qualities were nothing short of outstanding.
In his book, Dan Rooney places Joe Greene at the top of this list. “Joe Greene could not abide losing,” wrote Rooney. “He took it personally. It’s what made him great, both as a player and as a team leader.” About Greene, his teammate Andy Russell said, “Joe was extremely strong in his attitudes, his opinions, and he wasn’t afraid to voice them in the locker room. He was a very positive influence in the locker room.” At one point in 1974, after the Steelers lost a game to the Houston Oilers which they had expected to win, Greene was so angry about what he viewed as a lack of passion for the game on the part of his teammates that he cleaned out his locker and was prepared to leave the team. If the Steelers’ former receivers coach Lionel Taylor hadn’t interceded to calm Greene down, Pittsburgh might have lost the very foundation of the Steel Curtain defense before ever winning its first Super Bowl.
This anecdote is significant because, although we hear plenty about NFL players these days openly wishing to receive one-way tickets out of town, when is the last time you heard about a team’s star player deciding to pack it in because his teammates weren’t performing up to his standards? Chuck Noll always said that the best way for players to lead is by the example of their own play on the field. And according to Dan Rooney’s account in the book, Greene’s example was a key element in forging the cohesion of those great Steelers teams.
That’s the thing about committing to an unwavering standard — it’s contagious. Similarly, Jack Lambert was no slouch when it came to sticking up for his teammates on the field or, on the other hand, letting them know when they weren’t making the grade. On offense, Terry Bradshaw and Franco Harris were both solid team leaders despite their sharply contrasting personal styles. Likewise, Lynn Swann and John Stallworth were team leaders whose influence was comparable to that wielded by Antonio Brown today.
The fact is, over the years, the Pittsburgh Steelers have had multiple players who were leaders both on and off of the field. That’s why, when he emceed the Steelers’ 50 Seasons banquet in Pittsburgh in 1982, famed sportscaster Howard Cosell said, “When you play Pittsburgh, you play the whole city. Yes, it’s still the City of Champions. It has nothing to do with victories. Pittsburgh has a winning character.”
This character which binds a team and an organization together isn’t always apparent in younger players. This is where head coaches in the NFL can play an especially valuable role as mentors. Just imagine how difficult the young, volatile Joe Greene must have seemed from a coaching perspective. Yet Chuck Noll was successful in channeling Greene’s high performance standard in a constructive direction, and Greene became not only one of the league’s best players, but also one of his team’s most effective leaders.
Quite plainly, “the book” according to Dan Rooney holds that, regardless of the talent on your roster or the solidity of coaching and management, you won’t win a Super Bowl if your team is divided, distracted or lacks leadership. So when we discuss the “Steeler way” and what it truly means, let’s keep in mind that Dan left us the roadmap. All we need to do is follow it.