The Rooneys of Pittsburgh Hold to Their Trusted Path

By Leonard Shapiro
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 30, 2006

Dan Rooney still lives in the brick house in which his father raised his own family on the north side of Pittsburgh, no more than a 10-minute walk from Heinz Field. On game days, the Steelers' owner often walks to the stadium, occasionally stopping to talk with fans, many of whom he has known for years, many of whom also adored his father Art, the cigar-chomping "Chief" who brought professional football to the city in 1933.

"Dan operates the team pretty similarly to the way his father did," said Ed Kiely, 88, a retired team executive who joined the Steelers in 1950. "If you wanted to raise ticket prices, the Chief would say, 'How will it affect the fans three years from now?' He was always looking out for the fan. Dan is a good bit like his father, who was everybody's friend. They both believed in the same thing. The game was the show; football was everything. As long as a Rooney is running this franchise, I don't think that will ever change."

And a Rooney will be running the franchise for the foreseeable future. As the Steelers headed to Detroit today to complete final preparations for the team's sixth Super Bowl appearance on Sunday against the Seattle Seahawks, Dan's son, Arthur II, also will join his father on the charter flight. Dan, 73, is listed as the team's chairman, and three years ago, his oldest son Art, 51, a practicing attorney and former team counsel, was named club president.

Unlike many of the NFL's current owners, who made their fortunes in other arenas, football is the primary Rooney family business and has been since the Chief, who died in 1988 at 87, purchased the team for $2,500. It is said that Art Rooney, a fine boxer, baseball and football player and a gambling man who loved to take a chance on the horses and the stock market, put up the money after a big score at the racetrack.

Kiely disputes that, saying the big score actually occurred in 1937 at Aqueduct in New York, four years after Rooney bought the team, originally known as the Pirates. "And Art would never say how much he won at the track that day," Kiely recalled. "If you asked, he'd always say 'Oh, it was pretty good.' "

"I played for the Chief for eight years," said Tunch Ilkin, a former Steelers offensive lineman who is the team's radio analyst. "He would call you on Christmas day just to give you his best wishes. . . . Dan Rooney is very much like his father. A little quieter maybe. But he always welcomes the old guys when we come around. There really is a sense of family, community, service. It's not phony. It's just the way they are. Kind of normal."

Dan Rooney was a fine high school quarterback at North Catholic High, and was always around the team. Arthur II also played quarterback at the same school. When Dan graduated from Duquesne University in 1955, he joined the organization full time, working in a variety of positions on a team that always struggled financially in the early days, and went through some very lean years on the field as well.

With the Chief usually spending summers at the New York racetracks, Dan ran training camp his first year on the job in '55, the same season a ninth-round draft choice from the University of Louisville joined the club.

Quarterback John Unitas was a rookie quarterback with the Steelers but didn't get much of a look from head coach Walt Kiesling, who had him No. 4 on the depth chart behind starter Jim Finks, backup Ted Marchibroda and No. 3 Vic Eaton, who also punted. Unitas never even got on the field for the team's first five exhibition games.

"His accuracy was incredible," Dan Rooney told Michael MacCambridge, author of "America's Game," a history of the NFL. "I'd watch [Unitas] throw for hours and it made me sick to think that Kies wasn't giving him a look. My brother Timmy, who was 15 then, wrote my father a letter telling him Unitas was not only the best passer in camp, but probably the best passer in football, but the coaches weren't giving him a fair shot. My dad wrote back and said, 'Why don't you leave the coaching to the coaches?' "

The Steelers, who had only four winning seasons from 1933 to 1955, cut Unitas three weeks before the start of the regular season, and that mistake led to more losses. They had only four more winning seasons until Dan Rooney, with his father's blessing, hired Chuck Noll to coach the team after the 1968 season. Noll began his career with a victory in the 1969 season opener, followed by 13 straight losses that year and losing seasons the next two.

But Dan Rooney said he could see marked improvement every year, and stayed the course with a coach who went on to finish 11-3 in 1972, then win four Super Bowl titles from 1975 to 1980 and earn a place in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, where the Chief and Dan Rooney also are enshrined.

In a league in which there were 10 head-coaching changes during or after the 2005 season, the Steelers have had only two head coaches in 36 years.

"We feel if you have good people, you should keep them going," Dan Rooney said last week. "I just feel like if you have a down year, you don't get all excited about it and make all kinds of changes. That's just foolish."

Rooney was stunned a few days after the end of the 1991 season when Noll walked into his office and told him he wanted to retire, recalled longtime team publicist Joe Gordon, who spent 29 years in the organization, retiring in 1998 but still occasionally handling special projects.

"Dan came into my office and said Chuck was coming in for the usual meeting they had at the end of the year," Gordon said. "An hour later, Dan walked in again and I'd never seen his face look so ashen. He said 'Chuck is retiring.' We couldn't believe it. But you know what? Look in our press guide and even now, Chuck is listed as a consultant. Dan is very, very loyal to him. That's the Rooneys. Loyal to a fault."

The Pittsburgh press guide does not contain an official biography of Dan Rooney or Arthur, or a picture of either man. Gordon said he had to convince Dan Rooney to include a few biographical paragraphs about the owner in the history section. When Art Rooney promoted Dan to club president in 1975, the Chief walked into Gordon's office and told him to simply make the fix in the team's organizational chart in the press guide, with no fanfare and certainly no news conference. When Dan promoted his son to the same job three years ago, that's how the team handled it.

"That was typical of how they do things," Gordon said. "In '75, after we won our second Super Bowl, the Chief told me about the change and he said to me, 'I'm gonna move myself up to, now what do you call it?' I said, 'You mean chairman,' and he said, 'Oh, yeah, that's it.' Then I went back to Dan's office to tell him about it and he just shook his head and said, 'I guess it's okay, if that's what he wants.' "

Dan Rooney has remained loyal to Noll's successor, Bill Cowher, a Pittsburgh native who is the NFL's longest-tenured head coach at 14 seasons. The Steelers have been to only one Super Bowl over that stretch, losing to the Dallas Cowboys at the end of the '95 season. There was a stretch of three straight non-playoff seasons from 1998 to 2000 and going into this postseason, Cowher had a 1-4 record in AFC championship games, with all four losses on the Steelers' home field.

But Rooney has never wavered in his support of Cowher, including a messy power struggle between Cowher and former general manager Tom Donahoe, another Pittsburgh native, that ended with Donahoe leaving the organization after the 1999 season.

"Basically, Bill and Tom weren't talking to each other, and obviously something had to be done," Gordon said. "Both guys actually offered to resign and Dan chose Bill. The rationale was pretty simple. Dan always felt it was a lot easier to get a good personnel man than it was to get a good coach. They had to fix it, and it's obvious they made the right decision."

Dan Rooney also has long been a major force among his fellow owners. He was one of Pete Rozelle's closest advisers and allies, a role he continues to this day with Rozelle's successor, Paul Tagliabue. He has served on many league committees and now chairs its diversity committee charged with increasing the ranks of minorities as head coaches and in front offices.

"He has always been a voice of reason with us, going back to the early days of the union," said Gene Upshaw, executive director of the NFL Players Association. "When it came down to the nitty-gritty of working out a deal, there were always two guys you could count on -- Rooney and Wellington Mara [the late New York Giants owner and one of Rooney's closest friends]. Dan always felt the players should be involved in the business of football.

"He's been in the game his whole life. He grew up with the league and [has] seen it grow up from what it was to what it is. For him, it was always about the league, it was always 'think league.' Now you got all these mavericks, all these guys who think only about themselves and their bottom lines. Thank God there are still enough people like the Rooneys who always look at the bigger picture."

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