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Steelers' founder had his own ownership struggles

PITTSBURGH (AP) -The Pittsburgh Steelers' ownership is in turmoil, a dispute pitting brother against brother that may wind up with a billionaire investor gaining control of one of the NFL's signature teams.

Many Steelers fans never thought they would see the day when the team was not owned by the Rooneys, one of the first families of American pro sports and NFL pioneers for three-quarters of a century.

Steelers chairman Dan Rooney and his son, team president Art Rooney II, are trying to work out a deal to buy out the shares of all or some of Dan Rooney's four brothers and keep the team in the family. The brothers haven't liked the offers to date, and they hired an investment firm to explore other options - possibly a sale to Stanley Druckenmiller, a wealthy Steelers fan who has been known to paint his face black and gold for games.

Sometimes, history repeats itself.

While many fans assume the Steelers have been controlled by founder Art Rooney Sr.'s family since the day he bought them for $2,500 in 1933, the Rooneys actually sold the team once before, in 1940.

Rooney couldn't stay away for long - he was back as owner within a year - but during the offseason between the 1940 and 1941 seasons, the Steelers were owned by Boston's Alexis Thompson, a millionaire investor.

Sound familiar?

The Steelers never had a winning season and lost money every year Rooney owned them from 1933-40, during an era when the NFL wasn't as remotely popular as college football. The Steelers, then known as the Pirates, sometimes didn't even draw as well as some of Pittsburgh's high school teams.

"Winning on Sunday," Art Rooney Sr., often said, "wasn't as important as meeting the payroll on Monday."

The Pirates operated on a shoestring, with Rooney keeping all gate proceeds - and, sometimes, they weren't much - in a cigar box in his office. The team was ragtag, often changing players from week to week. To make money, they routinely played midweek exhibition games.

The nonscheduled games generated enough money to keep the club in the NFL, but wearied the players for the games that counted. And Rooney could never seem to hire a successful coach, regularly switching coaches at midseason.

One of Rooney's worst coaching choices was John McNally. A brilliantly smart and skilled halfback better known as Johnny Blood, he was an excellent pass receiver who lacked self discipline. One week, assuming incorrectly the Steelers had a bye and weren't scheduled, he didn't show up for practice.

Instead, McNally went to Chicago for a round of partying and to attend his former Green Bay Packers' teammates game. He was stunned when the public address announcer, reciting the out-of-town results, read off the Steelers' score.

Such shenanigans grew tiresome and led Rooney to sell to Thompson, who didn't bother to set up a team office or sell tickets in Pittsburgh. Instead, he planned to relocate the team to Boston, closer to his New York offices. The NFL - which, at the time, hadn't been successful in Boston - blocked the move.

By then, Rooney had bought a partial share of the Philadelphia Eagles from close friend Bert Bell, with the idea of playing games in both Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. But with Thompson's move to Boston blocked, the two sides decided to switch teams, with Thompson acquiring the Eagles and Rooney/Bell getting the Steelers.

Trying to establish a new identity for his club, Rooney held a contest and Steelers was chosen as the team's name.

Rooney's friend Barney McGinley, whose son married Rooney's sister, later bought out Bell's share when Bell became the NFL commissioner. The McGinley family has held its stake in the Steelers ever since; currently, it's 20 percent, and it could prove pivotal in deciding who eventually controls the Steelers.

Art Rooney Sr., who always was a more successful gambler, promoter and businessman than he was a football team operator, foresaw this day coming when he drew up a will leaving shares of the Steelers to his five sons and their families shortly before his death in 1988.

In a letter to those sons, he urged them to remain united and work out a buyout plan so the Steelers didn't leave the family's control. The letter is reprinted in the new book "Ruanaidh" (the Gaelic spelling of Rooney) by former Steelers player personnel director Art Rooney Jr., who is Art Sr.'s second-eldest son.

"I believe you should make every effort to buy the football stock that is in their names," Rooney wrote, referring to the Steelers stock scattered among the family. "I want them all to be treated fairly. I believe that if this does not happen, down the road, there's going to be nothing but lawsuits. It does not have to happen."

Just as he did when he bought the Steelers and envisioned a day when pro football was much more than a sandlot sport, Art Rooney Sr. had uncommon vision.

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