Reflections of Dan Rooney



Dan RooneyHe’s the Chiefs’ son and that ever present shadow hangs over him. But Dan Rooney has carved out his own, more private lifestyle as the man who makes the Steelers tick.

Art Rooney Sr. is the elder stateman of the Steelers. He owns the football club, gives it character, a homey favour. He hobnobs with the right politicians, surrounds himself with priests and counts newsmen among his legion of friends.

He built an image as a down to earth, generous, loveable man. Everyone agreed that he deserved a championship after suffering 42 years without one.

It was his eldest son Dan who gave it to him.

The 42-year-old Steeler vice president and general manager, like his father deeply religious, streamlined a paternal organisation into an efficient business enterprise. In 1975, some eight years after he took the reins, the Steelers won their first Super Bowl.

“I believe in being business-like,” says Dan. “I think a person has to do his job, hold up his own end. My father always worried about everyone’s feelings constantly. Sometimes it infuriated me. But that’s just the type of person he is. He worries about people.”

Dan rooted out much of the organisation’s dead wood. He and his brother, Art, set up a scouting system other NFL clubs envy, and personnel, publicity and ticket departments which he says he’s proud of.
Dan hired Chuck Noll as coach in 1969 and it’s no surprise that Noll’s cool, efficient approach to the job is much like his own.

Dan Rooney, greying, limps from nagging arthritis which makes getting out of bed in the morning difficult and thwarts his skiing and tennis. But Dan Rooney is a perfectionist.

In a soft-spoken way, he demands perfection, not only of those around him, but also of himself. He takes it personally when the stadium scoreboard fails to work, when something goes wrong with the game program, when the Steelers lose.

Atmosphere is an integral part of his purpose. Create a proper kind, he believes, and athletes will assimilate to it, think positive and reduce the chances for failure.

“In sports, you’ve got to get athletes to believe it, they have to believe they can do it,” Rooney said in his office in Three Rivers Stadium.

“You can never give an athlete an excuse to lose. You can never say ‘you have to win on the road’ or ‘the officials were to blame.’”

“Sooner or later, it gets down to the fact that you beat yourself. When something goes wrong, it’s a temporary setback. We had setbacks this year, but we overcame them.”

“Chuck put things on that basis in the playoffs, and that’s how I believe it’s got to be done.”

“He said, ‘We’re going out, we’re going to win the playoffs. We’re not going to let Oakland stop us, we’re not going to let bad officiating stop us, we’re not going to let visiting crowds stop us. Nothing, nothing is going to interfere. We’re not going to let the press interfere with us in New Orleans. We’re just going to make the most of it.’”

That’s what the Steelers did. They won the Central division, defeated Buffalo and Oakland in the playoffs before burying the Minnesota Vikings for the Super Bowl title.

At the Super Bowl festivities however, Dan Rooney was in the background.

Once he was standing in the lobby of the Steelers hotel watching two busloads of reporters herd past him and into the interview room. A couple of them nodded to Dan. Someone asked him if any of the writers knew him. “The Pittsburgh writers do,” he said smiling. “Most of them walk by. It doesn’t bother me. Honestly.”

During Super Bowl week, he had two brief television interviews while his father was constantly in demand and on stage with reporters.

“I prefer it that way. I like to keep my equilibrium. This is my father’s week. He’s been waiting 42 years for this. I’m not jealous.”

“The organisation can run better with me in the background. Everybody that has to know me knows me. I don’t feel like I’ve been in my father’s shadow. I’ve operated pretty much as I wanted to. I wanted to be someone who got things going and I think I have.”


AP photo of Dan Rooney and Chuck NollThe first major change to the Steelers which turned them into winners, after too long as the Same Old Steelers, transpired at the end of the sixties. Dan Rooney took over the day to day running of the Steelers when the team was seeking a new head coach.  Rooney was instrumental in hiring Chuck Noll and they brought four Lombardi trophies back to Pittsburgh.

For all the years with Art Rooney at the head, they were known as Rooney University. Under Dan Rooney, they became the Pittsburgh Steelers and learnt how to win consistently.

Dan sees himself and the Steelers as image makers. He created the steel emblem the organisation uses and he held a Steel Day at the team’s training site in Latrobe and invited officials from steel companies.

“People look to the Steelers for pleasure,” Rooney acknowledged. “The Steelers have a major part in what Pittsburgh is and what it’s going to be. It’s a subtle thing, but when people outside of the city think of Pittsburgh, they don’t think of U.S. Steel or Heinz Co. The Steelers or the Pirates are the first things that come to their mind.”

As a youth, Dan Rooney dreamed of being an architect, studied accounting but loved the Steelers. He began working at the training camp at the age of 14.

“I’m the oldest and I had first crack at being general manager and I liked the business.”

While attending Duquesne University, he worked summers for a construction company in which his father had part ownership. “I really related to the thing. I did well. First labouring, then I started making out schedules, finally ended up running a batch plant. My father saw that and asked me if I wanted to stay in the business. I said ‘no.’ As soon as training camp started, I’d go to camp.”

Dan Rooney could have gone into the racing business as his father owned a farm in Maryland. “But I didn’t have a whole lot of interest other than going there and having a good time,” he says.

“Then he started getting into the horse track business and asked if I wanted to get into it. He always saw that the football club had great limitations. But I said ‘no’ again and I started to work for the club on a fulltime basis after college.”

He sold program ads, put the program together before finally moving into the front office. From there it was making the minor decisions and keeping in daily contact with the league office.

“When you are available for small decisions, you’re also available for the big decisions.”

His first one came in 1963 when President John Kennedy was shot. NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle had to decide if games would be played that Sunday and Dan conferred with Rozelle. “I felt we shouldn’t play the game, but as soon as he made the decision I immediately said ‘okay.’ I believe that when a person in authority makes a decision, people should get behind it.

Dan Rooney never fails to give his father credit for the part he’s played in his life. “My father has set the stage, he brough me up. He’s given me great guidance. I am what I am to a great extent because of my association with him. And that’s important.

“There is no way I could have gotten to where I am in the organisation without him. I couldn’t have competed with him for publicity. He handles that so well. A lot of people can’t. It goes to their head. The organisation just wouldn’t have worked as well if I had been that way.”

“We’re not going to be short any challenges just because we have won a Super Bowl. That’s the goal every year. But I’m going to be spending more of my time developing new sources of revenue for the club. Inflation has hit us hard.”

The above article was printed in the News (Frederick, Maryland) with an AP tag four months after the Steelers won their first Super Bowl.

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