Longtime Pittsburgh Steelers owner Dan Rooney, whose steadfast leadership and insistence on doing things “the right way” cemented the franchise as a powerhouse and made him one of the league’s most respected figures, died on Thursday, the team announced. He was 84.
Rooney’s three decades as Steelers president yielded six Super Bowls and eight AFC titles. He also made his mark across the league, championing for minority head coaching candidates as head of its diversity committee, and helping end the 1982 players’ strike.
We do things the way we do them,” Rooney said in a 2009 interview. “We do what we think is right. Certainly, we do what we think is fair. Even if it is harder, we do it, whether it’s more difficult or not.”
Rooney’s involvement with the franchise began shortly after he was born on July 20, 1932. As the oldest of Steelers founder Art “The Chief” Rooney’s five sons, Rooney immersed himself in every aspect of the organization. His devotion to the game intensified while quarterbacking Pittsburgh’s North Catholic High School football team.
Even as a college student at Duquesne University, Rooney aided players in contract negotiations and provided draft advice. Shortly following his graduation from Duquesne in 1955, Rooney accepted a job in player personnel. His role within the franchise increased in prominence. The younger Rooney convinced his father in 1969 to hire future Hall of Famer Chuck Noll, who led the team to four Super Bowl titles.
In 1975, Rooney officially took over team president duties from his father, carrying on his father’s no-nonsense, efficient leadership style. Only three coaches roamed the Pittsburgh sideline in Rooney’s 30 years at the helm, and he believed in paying his players a fair price.
“Few men have contributed as much to the National Football League as Dan Rooney,” commissioner Roger Goodell said in a statement. “A member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, he was one of the finest men in the history of our game and it was a privilege to work alongside him for so many years.”
Upon presenting Rooney into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2000, Joe Greene recalled their first meeting in 1969, when he told his boss he wanted to be the highest-paid defensive lineman in the NFL.
“When I told him how much I wanted to be paid, Dan replied in a loud voice, ‘What! We can’t pay you that. That’s more than Merlin Olsen, Bob Lilly and Alan Page are being paid. They’re All Pro, and you haven’t even played a down,'” Greene said.
But Rooney’s reach extended beyond Pittsburgh as he established himself as one of the league’s most influential figures.
He brought NFL teams to Seattle and Tampa Bay in 1976 as chair of the league’s expansion committee. When players orchestrated a 57-day long strike that cut the 1982 season in half, Rooney, serving as chair of the league’s negotiating committee, saw the two sides come to an agreement. He also ended a referee strike in 1987 and was the driving force in creating a new collective-bargaining agreement in 1993.
His most notable achievement came in 2002, when he became frustrated with the firings of Tony Dungy and Herman Edwards. As chair of the NFL’s diversity committee, Rooney implemented a rule stating that teams must interview at least one minority candidate for a head coaching position. Before the “Rooney Rule,” just six minority coaches had ever held top NFL positions. Since then, 17 men have been hired as a head coach, with eight still active in their roles.
Rooney received a lifetime achievement award from the Jackie Robinson Foundation in 2016 for his efforts.
Rooney forayed into politics, serving as the U.S. ambassador to Ireland from 2009-12. The lifelong Republican earned the title after working to get Barack Obama into the Oval Office.
“Dan Rooney is the heart and soul of the NFL,” current NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said in 2007. “His achievements on behalf of Pittsburgh and the NFL are legendary, from building a world-class franchise in Pittsburgh to helping shape league policies and decisions across a wide range of issues.”
After the turn of the century, Rooney began slowly shifting ownership responsibilities to his son, Art Rooney II. Rooney officially passed on the position in 2003, but stayed on as chairman and remained the public face of the franchise.
“Dan is a best friend,” Greene said as he presented Rooney into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. “Here’s a man of great character and integrity. He loves and confesses God. He loves and cherishes his family. He loves the Steeler organization. He loves the fans in the City of Pittsburgh.”
Tributes to Rooney and his no-nonsense approach quickly poured in as news of his death spread.
RIP Dan. My Mentor & friend. Thank you for your Guidance & Wisdom. I came a Young Coach & left a Better Man. Your spirit will live forever.— Bill Cowher (@CowherCBS) April 13, 2017
Prayers to the Rooney family. Mr. Rooney always took time to welcome our crew and visit whenever in Pittsburgh for Steelers game. #gentleman— Troy Aikman (@TroyAikman) April 13, 2017
There will only be one Mr. Rooney. The human. The benefactor. The football man. The Pittsburgher. The embodiment of the Pittsburgh Steelers. pic.twitter.com/Mvtp7ahgty— Dejan Kovacevic (@Dejan_Kovacevic) April 13, 2017
Years ago, @CharlieBatch16 asked Dan Rooney why he sat in last row of team charter. DR said: "I don't have to play a game tomorrow. You do."— Aditi Kinkhabwala (@AKinkhabwala) April 13, 2017
Dan Rooney was so kind. And so not the normal owner. Lined up to eat press box food with the press on game days— Pete Prisco (@PriscoCBS) April 13, 2017