Dan Rooney, the Steelers' Core

By Michael Wilbon
Thursday, January 29, 2009

TAMPA The hardest thing to do in football is catch Dan Rooney in a misstep.

He lets an all-pro like Joey Porter go, and the replacement, James Harrison, becomes the NFL's defensive player of the year. Whomever he hires as coach, whether it's Chuck Noll, Bill Cowher or Mike Tomlin, leads the Steelers to the Super Bowl. The policy that finally brought the NFL out of the dark ages when it came to head coaching diversity? It's called the Rooney Rule. He's a life-long registered Republican, just like his dad Art, yet worked passionately to put a Democrat, Barack Obama, in the White House.

Just this year, and against some pretty long odds, Rooney engineered a deal that will keep the Steelers in the family, as they have been since 1933. And now Rooney's Steelers prepare to play in the team's seventh Super Bowl and perhaps win a sixth, which no team in NFL history has done.

Rooney, who accepts credit for essentially nothing and understates everything, told longtime Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reporter Ed Bouchette last week: "It's been tremendous. There's been no year as eventful."

That doesn't mean Rooney will change anything. In fact, it guarantees he won't. "The man breeds the Steelers culture," linebacker James Farrior said of Rooney, now 76. "It's some formula he has. He's an awesome dude. We see him every day. The man stands in line with everybody else in his own lunchroom. He's been doing it his way for many years."

Rooney's way includes, still, walking from his family home to the stadium on game days. Everybody in Pittsburgh has a story. Charlie Batch, the Steelers' third-string quarterback, grew up in Pittsburgh. "My family, on game days, parks in a certain area, and he walks right past them every week. No bodyguard, no security. When he's around town, he drives himself, pays to park, walks."

Ryan Clark, the former Redskins safety who now delivers his hard hits for the Steelers, couldn't help but notice the difference between Rooney and another owner with the same first name -- Snyder of the Redskins.

"I'm not saying one way is better than another," Clark said, "But you're standing in line to get lunch, and you have to force him to go ahead of you. He sat at my bedside when I was sick [in the hospital]. He's a fascinating guy. He drives a Grand Prix. I can't help but compare it to Dan Snyder's driver and limousine, and the helicopter he'd land at practice. My first reaction to being around Mr. Rooney was, 'He must not know he's rich.' "

It's not just the unassuming ways that strike people, it's also the way he runs the Steelers.

Rooney -- and all the players know this -- will let you go. He'll wave goodbye to great players quicker than almost anybody in the NFL and keep the Steelers championship-competitive anyway.

For starters, the Rooneys don't have the personal wealth of, say, Snyder or Robert Kraft. And second, even if they did, Dan Rooney believes in paying a fair price and no more. Porter and guard Alan Faneca are probably the most recent great players the Steelers have let go in their prime, but there have been others, most notably the great Rod Woodson, and Hall of Famers Franco Harris and Mike Webster before that.

"We knew James Harrison was great," Farrior said, "but we thought, 'He can't replace Joey. Joey's one of the best players in the league.' Yeah, we have doubts when it first happens, when the decision is made to let a great player go, but then you look at his track record."

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2009 The Washington Post Company