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."
That record includes deciding to keep Hines Ward and letting Plaxico Burress go when Rooney couldn't pay both. It includes having scouts and coaches who could patch together a good-enough offensive line after Faneca took a big offer from the Jets over the summer.
The record includes sticking with a coach, which is why the Steelers have had only Noll, Cowher and Tomlin in the last 40 years. More than a few fans wanted either Russ Grimm or Ken Whisenhunt to replace Cowher. Rooney met with Tomlin, and a series of discussions convinced the owner Tomlin was the next man to be entrusted with the job.
Talking to reporters here this week about Tomlin, Rooney said: "He was very impressive. We got him back and talked to him on the phone often, and he just showed that he was going to be a terrific coach, which I think is coming to bear, but he was not part of the Rooney Rule."
As much as any franchise in sports, the Steelers are characterized by stability. The Chiefs' owner, Clark Hunt, was even quoted recently as saying he wanted to find a way to develop the kind of stability Rooney has in Pittsburgh. When I asked Rooney about that this week he said, typically: "We do things the way we do them. We do what we think is right. Certainly, we do what we think is fair."
When asked if it's more difficult to win that way, sometimes having to make tougher choices based on tighter budgets, Rooney said, "Even if it is harder, we do it, whether it's more difficult or not."
Cowher leaves? So what, the next coach is going to the Super Bowl, too. "You go back through the names," Batch said. "Before I got here there were guys, Carnell Lake, Levon Kirkland, people would think, maybe even say, 'How can they let them go?' But Mr. Rooney's philosophy is, 'We will stick with our beliefs, we're not going to overpay, but we'll find good players.' "
Farrior said the ability to make the right decision year after year while confronting so many difficult choices leads people in the organization to believe Rooney absolutely. "I remember seeing him on television campaigning with Barack Obama," the linebacker said. "And he told everybody in the building, 'Go and vote for him. He's the right guy for our country.' "
Rooney, who previous preached political neutrality, wrote in a formal letter of endorsement that Obama "has inspired me and so many people around our country with new ideas and fresh perspectives, it is with great pride that I join his team." By that time, Rooney had persuaded his four brothers to turn down a more lucrative offer from billionaire Stanley Druckenmiller and sell their shares to him and new minority owners.
The Steelers Way, actually Dan Rooney's Way, looks as if it will continue indefinitely. "I will say that we have a certain standard," he told the Post-Gazette. "Guys come in, and they get into the program, and they see. We believe in trying to do things the way they should be."