Born one year before his father started the Pirates pro football franchise in Pittsburgh, Dan Rooney had been part of the organisation since his memory would allow.
A childhood immersed in football would shape the character of a gentleman who would eventually take over the running of a franchise which would bring sporting riches to Pittsburgh that most teams can only dream about.
In establishing a football dynasty, Mr. Rooney and the Steelers created an international fan base of extensive proportion.
Mr. Rooney began his Steelers “career” when he left college. Working full time for the club, he sold programme ads, put the programme together, and worked in the ticket office before finally moving into the front office.
At the age of 23, he was instrumental in the Steelers taking Johnny Unitas in the 1955 NFL draft. When the Steelers used their number one pick on Ted Marchibroda, the Steelers found themselves overflowing with quarterbacks. Even so, Dan Rooney used his influence to ensure the team selected Unitas in the ninth round.
Rooney recognised the talent in Unitas, but unfortunately the Steelers coach at the time, Walt Kiesling, didn’t. Unitas was let go to have an outstanding Hall of Fame career with the Colts.
That was Dan Rooney’s first attempt to change the perpetual perception held by football fans of the “Same Old Steelers”, one of losers.
As he took a larger role in the running of the team, Mr Rooney eliminated the dead wood in the organisation and, with his brother Art, set up a scouting structure other teams envied before following.
In 1969, Dan Rooney was active in choosing Chuck Noll as the team’s new head coach. They were born in the same year and held similar visions as to how to build a championship team.
When he eventually took over the reins from his father it wasn’t easy. “I believe in being business-like,” he told reporters in 1975. “I think a person has to do a job, hold up his own end. My father always worried about everyone’s feelings – constantly. Sometimes it infuriated me. But that’s just the type of person he is. He worries about people.”
Noll wanted to build his team through the draft and the Rooneys had put in place the system to do that. Four Super Bowls in six years were the fruits of their labour created by the synergy produced by Noll and Rooney.
Mr. Rooney played a pivotal part in the difficult negotiations that brought together the separate football leagues of the NFL and AFL. They were challenging times with both leagues fighting for domination, chasing the football fans who were finding more money in their pockets for leisure activities.
His leadership continued into the seventies with his involvement in resolving disputes and reaching agreement with the NFL Players Association as players demanded a bigger share of the revenue the league was generating.
Mr Rooney was elected into the Hall of Fame in 2000 to rightly take his place alongside the team of the seventies.
Following his election, President Obama nominated Mr Rooney as his United States Ambassador to Ireland, a position he held from July 2009 to December 2012. Mr. Rooney had always promoted the interests of Ireland, including taking the American Bowl with the Steelers and the Bears to Dublin in 1997.
His legacy extends further than building the Steelers into the commanding franchise it is. Under his leadership, the NFL became the dominant sports institution that it is now. Over the years, his football vision enabled him to adapt to the changing times.
No one will be capable of stepping into Dan Rooney’s shoes, but he’s left an organisation to be proud of and I am sure the team is in a strong position to carry the dynasty forward.
“My 75 Years with the Pittsburgh Steelers and the NFL,” is the title of Dan Rooney’s book released in 2007 and well worth reading, not only as a Steeler fan, but also for the evolution of the NFL into the colossal conglomerate it has become.
His foreword in the book is short, but significant:
“To the Steelers who played or coached, the support staff, and those who managed the team – for 75 years.
And to our fans – the Steelers Nation – the best in the National Football League.”
He made reference to Steeler Nation and it is that family approach that has endeared fans over many years. When I first visited Pittsburgh and the team were at Three Rivers Stadium, you could walk in off the street and view the four Super Bowl trophies from the seventies on display in the lobby.
I took some photos at his book launch in 2007 and created an image that I had printed onto canvas and the following year, I was lucky enough to present it to him on behalf of Steeler Nation UK.