Thursday afternoon, mere moments after hearing the news that Steelers owner and chairman Dan Rooney passed away at the age of 84, I arrived home from work to find a UPS package sitting in front of my apartment door.
The package was from frequent BTSC contributor Hombre de Acero and contained many delicious treats as a bit of a “thank you” for the work I do for his wonderful Steelers site, Steel Curtain Rising.
I found it ironic that I received this package from my good friend on the day Mr. Rooney passed away, because if not for him, I doubt very highly I would have ever developed such a passion for the Pittsburgh Steelers that it would one day lead to writing about them and having my opinions on the team read by thousands upon thousands of other fans.
If you’re my age or younger, this might be a truism that’s hard to fathom, but there was a time, way back in the day (before the NFL merger and even shortly after it), when the Steelers were the Cleveland Browns of their era.
Yes, it’s true, it’s oh so true.
Pittsburgh had some decent years in the early-60’s and were even serious championship contenders. Unfortunately—like they had done so many times over their first three decades—they came up short.
After that they were the “same old Steelers,” winning just 18 games between 1964-1968.
While Dan was working behind the scenes at the time, Art Rooney Sr., the founder and owner, was still in-charge of the day-to-day operations.
By 1969 that basically all changed, as Dan became the de facto (at least at the time) president of the team and insisted to his father that they seriously consider the defensive coordinator from the Colts to be their new head coach.
His name was obviously Chuck Noll; soon all parties agreed, and he would in-fact be the next head coach of the team.
I won’t get into a detailed history of what happened after that (this is all-too familiar). But it was Dan who said Noll taught the Steelers organization how to win. And while that is obviously true, it was Mr. Rooney who did his homework on Noll and who convinced his father that he was the right man for the job.
Without Chuck Noll working alongside Art Rooney Jr. and the legendary Bill Nunn (an African American reporter with extensive knowledge on players from small black colleges who Dan had convinced to come work for the team as a scout), there almost surely wouldn’t have been such a vast collection of talent brought into the fold—including nine future Hall of Famers.
Nine future Hall of Famers, can you believe that?
You might win five Super Bowls in 16 seasons, if you have the right coach and the right quarterback, but the only way you’re winning four in six years is if you have an historic and unprecedented pool of talent.
The Steelers had that, and that was because of Dan Rooney who had the foresight to hire the right people and get out of the way.
Those right people turned the Steelers from the Browns of today into the Yankees of the 1920’s and 1930’s. And what you see today, with the passion from the fan base and the Super Bowl or bust mentality? That all started in the 1970’s, after Mr. Rooney took the wheel and steered the franchise in a direction nobody thought it could ever go.
So, Dan Rooney, thank you for those four Super Bowls in the 1970’s that, by the age of seven in 1980, had already indoctrinated me in the ways of the Steelers.
Thank you for being such an influential NFL owner behind the scenes and helping to grow the league to the point where it’s without a doubt the most popular sports entity in the country.
After the dynastic 1970’s gave way to the doldrums of the 1980’s, and the Emperor (Chuck Noll’s nickname by the third Super Bowl) had finally decided it was time to get on with his life’s work in the early 1990’s, thank you for, again, having the foresight to hire and promote the right people—Bill Cowher, Tom Donahue, etc.—and reigniting the passion of the city and the fan base once more.
Thank you for Super Bowl XXX. Had you not hired the right head coach in Cowher, I doubt very seriously I would have realized my childhood dream of watching my favorite football team play on the game’s grandest stage once again.
Speaking of Super Bowls. While XXX ended in defeat, Super Bowls XL and XLIII ended in triumphs, thanks largely to the presence of Ben Roethlisberger (if the ‘90’s and early-2000’s taught us anything, it was that championships are almost impossible to win without a franchise quarterback).
If it wasn’t for you, Mr. Rooney, there may not have been a Big Ben.
Here is an excerpt from your biography: Dan Rooney: My 75 Years With the Pittsburgh Steelers and The NFL:
“After the 2003 season it was apparent the Steelers needed to look for a quarterback. Kordell Stewart’s “slash” style didn’t always get us where we wanted to be. Tommy Maddox played well for a while, but with him at quarterback we’d gotten away from our identity as a tough, hard-nosed team that ran the ball on offense and stopped the run on defense. Our 6-10 record in 2003 earned us the eleventh pick in the first round of the 2004 NFL Draft. During the process of evaluating and grading the college prospects, we looked carefully at the quarterbacks. Our staff had concluded that Eli Manning and Philip Rivers were the most polished of the prospects available, but there also was a big, strong, talented kid at Miami of Ohio named Ben Roethlisberger who intrigued a lot of our scouts. Manning and Rivers both were picked before our turn, and so our people seemed to have focused on Shawn Andrews, a big offensive tackle from Arkansas as our likely number-one pick.
But when our turn came, I couldn’t bear the thought of passing on another great quarterback prospect the way we passed on Dan Marino in 1983, so I steered the conversation around to Roethlisberger. Big Ben, six-foot-five, 240 pounds, was quick, tough, had a great arm, and could think on his feet. He was just what we needed.”
Did I say influential? Sure, Mr. Rooney knew when to stay out of the way, but he also knew just when to step in.
So, thank you, Mr. Rooney, for No. 7, a quarterback who was the most important piece in obtaining those last two Super Bowls.
Today, the Lombardi bounty is up to six, a number that is a point of pride for Steeler fans universally.
Speaking of six, that number may be one less, had Mr. Rooney not hit on the right head coach for the third time.
When Cowher resigned following the 2006 season, it may have been easy to go with one of the obvious candidates at that time—offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt or offensive line/assistant head coach Russ Grimm.
But there was this young, knowledgeable and poised defensive coordinator from the Vikings who came in and “blew their doors off,” as Mr. Rooney put it a time or two.
Maybe even more than a franchise quarterback, you can’t win a Super Bowl without a franchise head coach. So, Dan, thanks for having the gut instincts and courage to bring Mike Tomlin into the mix in 2007.
Also, thanks for helping to create Steeler Nation.
In the early-70’s, way before social media was even a thought in someone’s head, Steelers fans had their own special way of expressing love for their favorite players, through fan clubs and banners at old Three Rivers Stadium.
Franco’s Italian Army, The Steel Curtain, heck, even Banaszak’s Bunch; it seemed like every player on those Steelers teams was adopted by the fans.
Thank you for Myron Cope, because without the success starting in the early-70’s and the love-affair that soon followed, I doubt we would have been blessed with the iconic broadcaster, who, in 1975, invented the Terrible Towel, a unifying symbol for Steelers fans that remains alive and well, some four decades later.
Here’s an article I wrote four years ago that talks about the many black and gold faithful that have never even been to Pittsburgh. It’s a decent enough article, I supposed, but the comments, those are in the hundreds and include story after story of how people from all over the world became so passionate about your team.
Finally, I don’t know how different my life would be today without the Pittsburgh Steelers.
So, again, thank you for everything. Thanks for the championships, the many great players, the three legendary coaches, the passion I have for your team....
And, most of all, thank you for the memories.