Dan Rooney had a good sense about everyone because he looked past no one.
The longtime Pittsburgh Steelers owner, who died today at age 84, was a Hall of Famer as a football contributor, a six-time Super Bowl winner and an even better champion of the NFL’s successful diversity rule, appropriately named the “Rooney Rule.”
Adopted in 2003, it required teams to interview minorities for head coaching and top executive openings. Last year, the rule for top executives was expanded to include women.
Growing up a Browns fan in Cleveland in the ‘70s, it was only natural to hate the Steelers. But it was impossible to hate the Rooneys because of how they carried themselves. They were class, integrity and humility personified.
Like the Mara family in New York, the Rooneys lifted the NFL to incredible heights, but remained unselfish and never looked down on anyone. That’s not common.
Dan’s Hall of Fame father, Art Sr., “The Chief,” famously bought the team in 1933 with $2,500 he won at the race track. He lived in downtown Pittsburgh and walked to games even as the Steelers went from longtime losers to the NFL’s Team of the Decade in the 1970s.
Dan was 1 when his dad bought the team. He worked as a ballboy at age 12 and joined the front office after graduating from Duquesne University in 1955. The incredible 62-year run ended today, but will never be forgotten.
I talked to Dan a couple of times over the years. In 1995, when all heck was breaking loose in Cleveland as then-owner Art Modell announced he was moving the team to Baltimore, it was Dan and the rival Steelers who stepped up to support the people of Cleveland.
Dan Rooney and then-Bills owner Ralph Wilson were the only owners to vote against allowing Modell to move the Browns from Cleveland. Browns fans still lost their original Browns team, but they never forgot and have always had a soft spot for Rooney. And that’s saying something when you consider the envy factor in the Rooneys building a model of stability and success 134 miles from a similar Rust Belt city that sports the league’s laughingstock, not to mention an 0-for-51 slump in Super Bowl appearances.
In 2015, I was getting ready to leave for the Super Bowl. I had a long to-do list when my cell phone rang with a Pittsburgh area code on the caller ID.
It was Dan Rooney. He was making calls to Hall of Fame selectors on behalf of Jerome Bettis, who was a finalist that year. That’s not uncommon, but what was unusual about Dan was how he talked to people.
He was an NFL giant but he never talked at you. He talked to you.
In 2006, the Vikings hired Mike Tomlin as defensive coordinator. He was 33 years old, but everything about him screamed, “Head coach.”
None of us thought it would come as early as 2007. Except Dan Rooney. He interviewed Tomlin, who is black. But he didn’t do it to satisfy the “Rooney Rule.” He did it because he knew Tomlin had what Chuck Noll and Bill Cowher had at similar ages in 1969 and 1992, respectively.
Tomlin is one of 17 minority head coaches to be hired by NFL teams since 2017. That’s more than twice as many from the league’s founding in 1920 to 2002.
The Rooney Rule couldn’t have a better name.