|Al Bello / Getty Images|
|Steelers owner Dan Rooney, 76, preaches continuity and practices it in how he runs the team.|
Dan Rooney carries himself in such an inconspicuous manner that, because of who he is and what he does, it's actually conspicuous. Most owners of NFL franchises don't just wander through the media lounge of the press box an hour or so before kickoff, hands in their pockets, with no specific purpose other than to say a few hellos and make some small talk.
Where's the brisk pace, the cell phone pressed to the ear, the "I have no time to stop and chat with anyone" look? Where are the security guards whispering into wrist-mounted microphones? Where's the entourage?
Sure, Rooney rubs elbows with the President of the United States. Rooney even personally delivered the game ball from the Pittsburgh Steelers' AFC Championship Game victory over the Baltimore Ravens to Barack Obama -- with whom he became friends while campaigning on his behalf -- during a black-tie dinner in Washington, D.C., on the eve of the inauguration.
But Rooney, 76, makes time to mingle with reporters, too -- a routine he follows whether it's the middle of the regular season or right before the conference championship game. If no one approaches him first with an offer of a handshake, which is rare, Rooney doesn't go around looking to do the same on the assumption that everyone there should feel privileged he's gracing them with his presence -- even if there is a bronze bust bearing his likeness at the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
It's not about him. It has never been.
It's only about his team, the Steelers, and Rooney isn't even entirely comfortable with calling them his team. Rooney always has viewed the Steelers as Pittsburgh's team. He always has considered himself a Pittsburgh guy, sharing the same passion as any other black-and-gold loyalist.
You won't find Rooney's photograph or biography prominently featured in the Steelers media guide. It's not often you'll see him stand in front of cameras and microphones. With Rooney, what you see is what you get: unassuming, unpretentious and uncomplicated.
The Steelers are preparing to play in their seventh Super Bowl, with a chance to become the only team to win a sixth Vince Lombardi Trophy, largely because of the Rooney approach. In a nutshell, it's a belief system that favors being sound over flashy, building through the draft over spending wildly on free agents and continuity over perpetual coaching changes.
When pondering the many impressive statistics that tell the story of the Steelers' long history of success (four Super Bowl victories from 1974-79, 12 members of the Pro Football Hall of Fame affiliated with those teams and an NFL-best 14 conference championship game appearances since 1972), the first number to consider is three. That's how many coaches Pittsburgh has had since 1969: Chuck Noll, Bill Cowher and Mike Tomlin.
Noll, a Hall of Famer, led the Steelers to the four Super Bowl championships that made them a dynasty in the 1970s. Cowher won a Super Bowl title in the 2005 season after losing one 10 years earlier. Tomlin is in the playoffs for the second time in his two seasons at the helm and, at 36, is the youngest coach to guide a team to the Super Bowl.
It's one thing to have a knack for finding talented players, which the Steelers have demonstrated time and again throughout their history. It's another to not only pick the right coaches, but also to have the patience and courage of conviction to stick with them over a prolonged period -- in stark contrast to the revolving-door approach that many teams have taken in recent years.
Going back to Rooney's father, fellow Hall of Famer Art Rooney Sr., who according to legend purchased the Steelers in 1933 for $2,500 after a big day of betting on horse races, the franchise has placed a high premium on coaching stability.
"Continuity is a big thing," Rooney said. "You have to have a standard, but this is the way we have been doing things."
Oh, there were some lean times and infamous blunders, such as when the Steelers allowed quarterbacks Sid Luckman, Johnny Unitas, Len Dawson and Jack Kemp to slip through their fingers in the 1950s. Then, in 1964, they made a horrendous trade with the Chicago Bears. The Steelers gave up their 1965 first-round draft pick for the Bears' 1964 second- and fourth-round choices, which were used on a couple of forgettable players, wide receiver Jim Kelly and tackle Ben McGee. The Bears used that first-round choice on future Hall of Fame linebacker Dick Butkus.
However, the Steelers started to get good in 1969, when "Mean" Joe Greene began his Hall of Fame career. One year later, Rooney represented his cigar-chomping father at a coin flip held in the ballroom of a New Orleans hotel to decide if the Steelers or the Bears would receive the No. 1 overall draft pick and the right to select yet another future Hall of Famer, quarterback Terry Bradshaw. Rooney deferred to the Bears to call the flip. They said heads, it was tails and Bradshaw became a Steeler. Then-NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle gave the coin, a 1921 silver dollar, to Rooney as a memento. At dinner that night, Rooney handed it to Noll, telling him it was a "sign of good things to come."
Sure enough, the construction of Pittsburgh's 1970s dynasty continued with the additions of more players destined for enshrinement in Canton -- Mel Blount, Jack Ham, Franco Harris, Lynn Swann, Jack Lambert, John Stallworth and Mike Webster. Between those teams and the current squad, the Steelers have experienced the occasional dips, such as in the 1980s, when their dominance came to an end, and from 1998 to 2003, when they experienced three losing seasons in those six years under Cowher. But Rooney typically stayed the course, and Cowher delivered a 15-1 regular-season finish in 2004 and the Steelers' fifth Super Bowl triumph the following season.
Rooney also has steadfastly stuck to the philosophy that the best path to success is to use the draft to the fullest. Besides the historic drafts of the '70s, the approach has produced an ever-growing list of stars that includes Rod Woodson and Dermontti Dawson, both of whom are finalists for the Hall of Fame's Class of 2009, as well as Greg Lloyd and Joey Porter. It also brought current mainstays Ben Roethlisberger, Hines Ward, Troy Polamalu, LaMarr Woodley, Casey Hampton, Aaron Smith, Larry Foote, Deshea Townsend, Ike Taylor, Santonio Holmes and Lawrence Timmons. In addition, there have been a couple of remarkable success stories from the ranks of the undrafted: James Harrison, the NFL's 2008 Defensive Player of the Year, and Willie Parker.
The Steelers haven't made many trades, but one that went a long way toward allowing them to win their fifth Super Bowl title was the acquisition of power running back Jerome Bettis. They haven't done a lot of free-agent shopping, either, but a few notable pickups from the open market were Kevin Greene and, for the current squad, James Farrior and Ryan Clark.
"We believe that by bringing young players in, mainly through the draft, we get them under our system, our coaching and philosophy, and they understand what we are trying to do, the reasons for things and get with (the program)," Rooney said. "We are willing to make a trade, we are willing to pick up a free agent, we are willing to do (those things), but not wholesale. We would rather do that just to replace a player. But, basically, we do believe in the draft and getting young people -- college free agents, too, who are just like draft choices."
Rooney represents a steadily diminishing old-school faction of NFL ownership. His family essentially has taken the same approach to the football business for the past 75 years. And football is, for the most part, all the Rooneys have known during that time. Unlike so many other NFL franchises, the Steelers aren't a corporate subsidiary or run by a billionaire who more recently came into wealth from something other than football or sports.
John Mara, president and chief executive officer of the New York Giants, can relate. The Giants have been in his family for the past 83 years. They were founded by his grandfather, Tim Mara, and run by his father, Wellington, for four decades after Tim's death. It's no coincidence that the owners of the Giants and Steelers have sat next to each other at league meetings for more than 50 years.
"Dan Rooney is very much like my father in that they grew up in the football business, and that was really the only business that they knew," John Mara said. "A lot of the new owners that come in today have been successful in other businesses, and they have certain views on how they should run a football team, and it takes them awhile before they understand that this business is unlike any others. Dan Rooney, having grown up in it, understands this business better than anybody and believes in having stability and certain core values that his football team should have.
"He's the epitome of the term 'football executive,' because it's been his life. And I think it's fair to say, without insulting anyone else, he's the most respected owner that we have in this league right now. When Dan gets up to speak at a league meeting, you can just see people look up from their tables, and you can just see all the chairs turn because people want to hear what he has to say."
When it came to instituting a policy requiring teams to interview minority candidates for head-coaching openings, the other owners listened, and in 2003, the "Rooney Rule" was born. When it came to endorsing a replacement for retiring NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue, the other owners again listened, and in 2006, they selected Roger Goodell.
In his own quiet way, Rooney has provided the vision and perspective that have helped the league reach the height of prosperity. His wisdom also will play a vital role in upcoming negotiations for a new collective-bargaining agreement with the players and in the face of ever-growing challenges presented by a struggling economy.
"We need somebody that commands that kind of respect and has those types of values," Mara said.
It seemed unthinkable, but before the 2008 season, questions arose about the Steelers remaining under Rooney's control. His four brothers -- who, like Dan, received a 16 percent share of the team after their father's passing in 1988 -- were looking to sell what would have been a majority stake in the team to Stanley Druckenmiller, chairman of a Pittsburgh investment firm. The brothers were motivated by the desire to avoid future inheritance taxes and the need to comply with NFL rules that prohibit team owners from involvement in gambling businesses (two of the brothers operate race tracks that include slot-machine and casino gambling).
But in December, the Rooneys agreed on a restructured ownership plan -- approved by the NFL's 31 other owners -- that called for Dan and his son, team president Art II, to own 30 percent of the team, which satisfied a league requirement on the equity on controlling ownership. The brothers with gambling interests also agreed to sell their 16 percent shares of the Steelers.
In classic Dan Rooney style, the matter never became a distraction for the Steelers or the NFL. That was because he and the rest of the family made a concerted effort to keep the matter out of the media and not make it a part of daily discussion at the team's practice facility.
"We did one talk to the players," Rooney said. "We said, 'This is what's up, this is what we are trying to do. Our object is to win, and that is what we want you to keep in your mind. Forget all of this other stuff. Your job is to play football and win, and we are with you 100 percent that way.' We didn't talk to (Tomlin) about it very often, but once in a while, we would just tell him a little bit about what was going on. Basically, we tried to keep it as low key as possible."
For Rooney, that's just being himself.
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