Long time Steelers Chairman Dan Rooney passed away in April 2017, leaving a unprecedented legacy of matching excellence with humility.
As part of our on-going tribute to the man who transformed the Steelers into champions, Steel Curtain Rising reviews the 10 critical Dan Rooney decisions that shaped the modern Pittsburgh Steelers and continue to impact the franchise to this day.
Dan Rooney sitting in front of the Steelers 5 Lombardi Trophies. Photo Credit: Steelers.com
1965: Accepting Buddy Parker’s Resignation
Art Rooney Sr. was a noble human being, a terrific odds-maker of horses, and a terrible Pro Football owner. But The Chief’s hire of Buddy Parker was one of his better moves. Parker arrived in Pittsburgh with a 47-23 record with the Detroit Lions which included two NFL Championships.
Buddy Parker as head coach of the Pittsburgh Steelers. Photo Credit: Behind the Steel Curtain
- Once in Pittsburgh, Parker led the Steelers to 5 non-losing seasons in 8 tries, and finished with a .520 record.
At that point in the Steelers dismal history, such a record should have earned Parker a bust on the franchise’s Rushmore wall. But as Dan Rooney observed in his self-titled autobiography, “Parker could be unpredictable on and off the field.” He had no use for rookies and consequently traded away draft picks in favor of veteran players.
By 1964, Art Rooney Sr. had ceded much of the day-to-day control of the Steelers over to Dan, and Dan warned Buddy Parker not to make cuts or trades without his approval. Parker balked at the order, and often went to The Chief to get what he wanted.
Finally, during the 1965 preseason, Parker wanted to trade Ben McGee (who later went to two Pro Bowls) and Dan refused. Parker offered his resignation, Dan accepted, but asked him to reconsider and discuss the matter in the morning. Dan discussed it with The Chief, and convinced his father this was the way to go. The next morning when Parker threatened to resign, Dan gladly accepted.
- The Steelers would go 2-12 during the 1965 season with Mike Nixon as their head coach.
But Dan Rooney had put his foot down and made the franchise’s first significant shift away from Art Rooney Sr.’s arbitrary decision making and towards Dan’s methodical mindset.
1966: Luring Bill Nunn Jr. away from the Pittsburgh Courier
Bill Nunn Jr. covered football extensively as a columnist for the Pittsburgh Courier, then one of the most influential black newspapers in the country. But he didn’t devote much coverage to the Steelers, in part because he didn’t like the way the Steelers did business.
Art Rooney Sr. was certainly no racist – Ray Kemp was an original Steeler and the NFL’s first African American player in 1933. But the same cannot be said for some of the other people in his employ (think Bill Austin).
Bill Nunn inside the Steelers draft war room. Photo Credit: SteelersGab.com
When Dan Rooney learned of Nunn’s attitude, he asked for a one-on-one meeting, and convinced Nunn to begin working as a scout for the Steelers on a part-time basis beginning in 1966.
By 1969, Bill Nunn was working as a full time scout for the Steelers. While Paul Brown had been one of the few NFL coaches to actively scout African American players prior to the civil rights era, Bill Nunn had an extensive network of connections to the Historically Black Colleges. Those connections paid off in the form of Ernie Holmes, Joe Gilliam, Glen Edwards, Frank Lewis, Donnie Shell, L.C. Greenwood, Mel Blount, and John Stallworth.
- Note, you have two Hall of Famers and at least one (L.C. Greenwood) should be Hall of Famers and perhaps a fourth (Donnie Shell.)
Dan Rooney’s views on racial equality were founded in his deeply rooted sense of justice and his decision to hire Bill Nunn at a time when there were few, if any African American scouts, coaches or front office personnel in the game, symbolized the Steelers commitment to treating everyone fairly and judging them on their contribution to the team, regardless of where they came from, what their last name was or what they looked like.
The Six Lombardi Trophies in the lobby at the South Side demonstrate the practical impact of what many would still write off as wistful “idealism.”
1969: Hiring Chuck Noll
This decision speaks for itself. Prior to 1969 the Pittsburgh Steelers set records for professional football futility. Today the Pittsburgh Steelers have more championships than any other franchise.
- You can trace that shift to the moment Dan Rooney introduced Chuck Noll as head coach in 1969.
On the day he took the job in January 1969, Chuck Noll proclaimed that “Losing has nothing to do with geography.” Ten years later, rival Houston Oiler’s coach Bum Philip lamented that “The road to the Super Bowl runs through Pittsburgh.”
Ironically, both men and both statements were absolutely right.
1986: Firing Art Rooney Jr. as Head of the Scouting Department
Dan Rooney stuck with Chuck Noll through a very mediocre stretch in the 1980’s, just as he stood behind Bill Cowher despite The Chin’s chronic stumbles in AFC Championship games. More than a few talking heads took that as a sign that Dan Rooney was “soft.”
- What they failed realize is that the so-called softie Dan Rooney made a tough as nails decision in 1986 to fire his brother Art Rooney Jr. as head of scouting.
Dan Rooney and his brother Art Rooney Jr. at St. Vincents in Latrobe. Photo Credit: Steelers.com
The quality of the Steelers drafting took a nose dive in the latter half of the 1970’s and Pittsburgh’s drafting didn’t get any better as the Steelers drafting position dropped as trips to the playoffs became rare in the 80s. There are a lot of reasons for this, and it would be horrendously unfair to scapegoat Art Rooney Jr. for the decline.
- But it is also clear that by the mid-1980’s Chuck Noll and Art Rooney Jr. could no longer effectively function as a team.
That forced Dan Rooney into a terrible decision – do you fire your brother or do you fire the man that you and your wife respect so much you’d trust him to raise your kids? Dan opted to fire his brother, dropping the hammer in January 1986. In his 1993 must read book Dawn of a New Steel Age, Ed Bouchette concluded that firing Art Rooney Jr. didn’t improve communication between Chuck Noll and the scouting department.
Perhaps the move wasn’t a panacea, but Chuck Noll did pick future Hall of Famers Rod Woodson and Dermontti Dawson in his next two drafts. And his next three drafts brought Hardy Nickerson, Greg Lloyd, Thomas Everett, Merril Hoge, John Jackson, Carnell Lake and Jerry Olsavsky to the Steelers.
- Anyone of those players represents an improvement over any player not named Louis Lipps that the Steelers drafted between 1984 and 1986.
Art Rooney Sr. was a man of integrity whose ability to treat everyone he met with dignity, kindness and respect was legendary. He passed those qualities on to his kids, but he did so with the admonition to “…never let them mistake your kindness for weakness.”
Dan Rooney was a kind man but a tough man, tough enough to fire his own brother.
1988: Managing the Christmas Coaching Crisis with Chuck Noll
In 1988 Steelers finished at 5-11, giving them their worst season since 1970. Chuck Noll himself quipped that his team would struggle to beat a grade school team. After one particularly egregious loss, Dan Rooney decried the “Stupid play calling.”
That 1988 Steelers squad set several new standards for franchise ineptitude, but Dan Rooney had enough wisdom to see he needed a surgeon’s scalpel and not a sledgehammer to set things right. The ’88 Steelers had, after all, finished 3-1 after Thanksgiving and prior to that tested several playoff teams to the wire.
- Rooney determined that several assistant coaches, including Chuck Noll’s favorite Jed Hughes, had to go.
This was the first time Dan Rooney had never questioned one of Noll’s staffing decisions. Noll resisted Rooney when they discussed the subject before the season, and after Christmas The Emperor went as far as to inform his assistants he that was intent on resigning. Joe Greene alerted Rooney to Noll’s intentions, and Rooney and Noll agreed to continue discussions.
Dan Rooney and Chuck Noll at Noll’s Hall of Fame induction in 1993. Photo Credit: Steelers.com
Noll ultimately agreed to fire several assistants, although he saved a job or two in the process per Ed Bouchette’s reporting, and Dan Rooney in turn offered to make him a lifetime employee of the team.
- Dan Rooney’s deft handling of a delicate situation remains important for several reasons.
First, he proved that “The Steelers Way” – a middle path between the extremes that normally govern most franchise operations – worked. Second, he also showed that it was possible to honor loyalty and tradition while forcing difficult changes. Third, move also saw the elevation of Tom Donahoe’s profile in the organization, which would be critical to the Steelers success in the 1990’s.
1992: Hiring Bill Cowher
NFL owners face a daunting task when forced to replace a legendary NFL coach. There are a lot more Richie Petitbons and Ray Handleys than there are Jimmy Johnsons. But replacing a legend was just what Dan Rooney needed to do after Chuck Noll stepped down on December 26th 1991.
Rooney left the day-to-day mechanics of the search to Tom Donahoe, but the Steelers employed a methodical approach that saw the Steelers interview well over a dozen candidates. Rooney wanted, although he didn’t insist on, a candidate who had a link to the city. He also made it clear he didn’t want to consider re-tread coaches.
- The process of course ended with Dan Rooney selecting Crafton native Bill Cowher.
The move proved, once again, that Dan Rooney was an owner who was capable of moving outside of his comfort zone. Chuck Noll was about as stoic as an NFL head coach can be, while Bill Cowher was an extrovert’s extrovert.
Bill Cowher and Dan Rooney after Cowher’s signing as Steelers head coach in 1992. Photo Credit: Steelers.com
Likewise, Rooney’s decision dispensed with any illusion that sentimentality guided his decision making. Joe Greene had entered the process as a favorite, but Rooney set aside the tremendous affection and respect he holds for Joe Greene, and determined that Mean Joe wasn’t ready to be a head coach.
While some fans might still insist that Dan Rooney was too patient with Bill Cowher’s repeated AFC Championship losses, a little 20/20 hindsight shows that Bill Cowher’s ability to make it that far with a rookie quarterback once and Kordell Stewart twice is a testament to Cowher’s coaching acumen.
The Steelers won more games during Bill Cowher’s tenure than any other NFL team and of course brought the Lombardi Trophy back to Pittsburgh in Super Bowl XL.
2000: Replacing Tom Donahoe with Kevin Colbert
As hinted above, Tom Donahoe certainly deserves more credit than he gets for the Steelers reclaiming the mantel of contender in the 1990’s. In the days before Heinz Field was built, the Steelers struggled to compete in free agency. Tom Donahoe helped map out the Steelers strategy of resigning key free agents before their contracts expired, and he uncovered under the radar free agency signings such as Kevin Greene, John Williams and Ray Seals.
Tom Donahoe, Tom Modark, Dan Rooney and Bill Cowher in the Steelers 1992 draft room. Photo Credit: Steelers.com
Likewise, Donahoe’s ability to find mid and late round draft gems allowed the Steelers to continually reload in the face of annual free agent exoduses of the mid-90’s.
- But, as the breakdown between Noll and Art Rooney Jr. illustrated, having a great coach and a great front office matters not if the two men don’t get along.
Bill Cowher and Tom Donahoe worked well together at the beginning, but their relationship quickly deteriorated. The rift became public after Fog Bowl II and, by 1999, they were barely speaking to each other. Dan Rooney had to make a choice, and he chose Cowher over Donahoe, a move that was extremely unpopular both inside and outside the South Side.
- For the record, my own first reaction was that Rooney had chosen the wrong man.
But Tom Donahoe floundered as president of the Buffalo Bills, while Kevin Colbert gave Cowher his second wind.
Want to know why the Steelers were champions in the 00’s but only contenders in the ‘90’s? Look no further than Kevin Colbert’s 15-1-1 record with first round draft picks and his uncanny ability to uncover undrafted rookie free agents such as Willie Parker and James Harrison. Clearly, Dan Rooney knew more than his critics.
2004: Drafting Ben Roethlisberger
After the 2002 season, the Steelers thought they had a Super Bowl quarterback in Tommy Maddox. While Maddox struggled in 2003, quarterback wasn’t perceived as a major area of need heading into the 2004 NFL Draft.
And, when the Steelers turn came to draft, the focus was on picking Arkansas tackle Shawn Andrews. But Rooney, haunted by the ghosts of the 1983 draft and the team’s two decade struggle to replace Terry Bradshaw, steered the conversation toward Ben Roethlisberger.
Like his choice of Chuck Noll, this decision speaks for itself. There are 3 quarterbacks in this era who wear multiple Super Bowl rings. Roethlisberger is one of them for a reason.
2007: Signing Off on Mike Tomlin’s Hire
You’ll find no shortage of fans in Steelers Nation who’ll disagree with this one. They’re entitled to their opinions of course. The facts however speak for themselves.
- Taking over a Super Bowl contender is no sure bet to success (just ask Ray Handley or Mike Martz for that matter.)
But Mike Tomlin took an 8-8 2006 Steelers squad and brought home an AFC North Division title in his first season, and bagged Lombardi Number Six in his second in Super Bowl XLIII.
Ben Roethlisberger, Mike Tomlin and Dan Rooney celebrate the Steelers victory in Super Bowl XLIII. Photo Credit: Steelers.com
Two years later he got the team back to the Super Bowl but fell short. Since then has overseen a rebuilding effort without going under .500, and included and an almost heroic turnaround from a disastrous 2-6 start in 2013.
By all accounts, it was Art Rooney II who made the decision to hire Mike Tomlin in 2008, but Dan Rooney signed off on the choice.
2009: Accepting the Ambassadorship to Ireland
Dan Rooney’s decision to accept his country’s call to service at age 77 to work as the United States ambassador to Ireland speaks volumes about his character and his commitment to serving the greater good.
- But it also had an important impact on the Steelers.
Accepting the ambassadorship meant that Dan Rooney had to relinquish any formal role with the Steelers and the NFL. While Art Rooney II had been given the role of “President” of the Steelers in 2004 and had been groomed to take control of the team in since the early 1990’s, he would now need to go it alone.
- Art Rooney, in effect, had a chance to do what few in his position would ever get a chance to do: He got to test drive running the Steelers on his own.
When asked about Steelers issues while he was ambassador to Ireland, Dan Rooney routinely rebuffed and redirected questions to his son. While that was to be expected, if press accounts are accurate, Rooney really did remove himself from decision making.
He did, however, resume his role as Chairman in 2012, and you can imagine that he and Art II had plenty of discussions over what went right and what went wrong during his absence and this can only help Art Rooney II make better decisions moving forward.