Calinger: Rooney quietly built a championship legacy, on and off the field

By J.W. CALINGER
ISL Correspondent

In this day and age, when outlandishness rules, it often is difficult for a person to understand exactly why a person can be so beloved when they’re not constantly calling attention to themselves and doing something outlandish.

This is especially true in sports, with so many players being known as much for what they do after scoring touchdowns as for actually scoring them. We have this attitude about owners, too – most of the owners whom fans can name off the top of their heads either are known for trying to be their own coaches and general managers (Dan Snyder of Washington), for finding other ways to call attention to themselves (Jerry Jones of the Cowboys), or for being the grand exception to the rule (the stockholders of the Packers).

J.W. Calinger

J.W. Calinger

Steelers owner Dan Rooney, who died yesterday at the age of 84, didn’t belong to any of those categories. He was someone who was relatively quiet. We rarely saw him on the field or in press conferences, even when he was in better health than he was recently. He didn’t make commercials or do anything ridiculous just so people knew who he was. All he did was build one hell of a team and a tradition.

One can argue that in his own way, Dan Rooney was the MVP of the last 50 years. His father, founder Art Rooney Sr., started the team and found ways to keep it going through the Great Depression and World War II, well before the age of television and big contracts for players. For that, we remember and honor him, and rightly so. It took his son, though, to make the Steelers into champions.

Art Rooney, Sr. was a survivor and, probably, a great guy to have a beer and a cigar with. At heart, though, he wasn’t a football guy or a businessman. His son, though, was both. According to the Hall of Fame website, Dan Rooney had a degree in accounting from Duquesne University, and joined the Steelers after graduating. Per Wikipedia, he became Director of Personnel for the Steelers in 1960, and was running the day-to-day operations of the team by 1969, when he made the greatest personnel decision of his life.

It was Dan Rooney who chose the Baltimore Colts’ defensive coordinator, Chuck Noll, to be the Head Coach of the Pittsburgh Steelers. In turn, Noll chose players like Joe Greene, Terry Bradshaw, Franco Harris, and other players whose names Pittsburghers can rattle off from memory. Since that one decision, the Steelers have won six Super Bowls and, in a statistic that’s even more unbelievable, have had only three head coaches since Noll first took the job.

Rooney’s effect wasn’t just limited to the Steelers, though. He helped implement policies for the entire league. Perhaps the most famous is the “Rooney Rule”, which requires teams to interview minority candidates for coaching positions. We might say karma rewarded him when a former player of his, Tony Dungy, became the first African-American head coach to win a Super Bowl and, later, when another African-American head coach, Mike Tomlin, won a sixth Super Bowl for Pittsburgh.

Even in retirement, Rooney wanted to keep busy, and it took no less than the President of the United States to get him interested in something else. In 2009, having turned over the operations of the team to his son, Art Rooney II, he accepted President Obama’s nomination to become the Ambassador to Ireland.

Steelers fans love our workhorses. Even the most high-profile, apparently flashy ones are known for their toughness and for being able and willing to “grind it out”. We remember Jerome Bettis for knocking over tackles and Troy Polamalu for the most theatrical of interceptions and sacks, but we also remember Mike Webster and Dermontti Dawson for blocking nose tackles, Aaron Smith for tying up guards and tackles so the likes of LaMarr Woodley could make sacks, Joe Greene for fighting his way up the middle to be a nightmare for quarterbacks and running backs, and Heath Miller for being the fellow who didn’t get many chances to make a huge play, but who made the most of the chances he had.

In his own way, Dan Rooney was a workhorse. He didn’t get the glory on national TV that many owners pursue with a passion these days but, as a Patriots fan might say, he was “Do your job” before “Do your job” was cool. Perhaps his greatest talent was the ability to apply innovative principles, by Steelers standards, to the team, and to find a coach who would do the same, yet still have so much of the Old Guard attitude in him, the one that leads a person to figure that if they do well at what they do, the right people will know it and love them for it. And so, an unassuming-looking retiree with a dress shirt, tie, and Nike team jacket could get men twice his size choked up with respect and gratitude and, certainly, is getting the whole of western Pennsylvania choked up now.

I’m not worried about the future of the team. Art Rooney II has been running it for over a decade, and while I disagree with some of his choices, the way a proper Steelers fan should, the organization remains solid nonetheless. Still, we didn’t just lose a man and a boss, but one of the last links to the history of the NFL, and one of a very small number of people who demonstrated what a good owner ought to be like. In an era when attention so often is an owner’s top priority, this is more of a loss than most people understand.

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