Dan Rooney, the chairman and patriarch of the Pittsburgh Steelers and a giant in NFL decision-making circles for decades, died on Thursday, the team announced. He was 84.
Rooney took over the Steelers from his father, Art Rooney Sr., who founded the team the year after Dan was born. The franchise was a laughingstock for the first 40 years of its existence, but under Dan Rooney’s stewardship beginning in the late 1960s the Steelers grew to become a model of success and stability that continues to this day. The Steelers’ identity is in many ways intertwined with Pittsburgh’s. Many Yinzers, even those like me who have become hardened by NFL ownership’s ability to run roughshod over everything in its path, no doubt felt a pang upon hearing the news of Rooney’s death.
Rooney had turned over the day-to-day operations of the Steelers to his son, Art Rooney II, some time ago. But Dan Rooney has long been among the league’s power brokers, and his most lasting contribution has been the rule that requires NFL teams to interview minority candidates for vacant head coaching positions. This was no idle gesture: In the late 1960s, Rooney had hired Bill Nunn Jr., a sportswriter for a local black newspaper, as a scout. It was a progressive move, but also a shrewd one: Nunn’s knowledge and connections at historically black colleges proved vital to the Steelers’ great turnaround in the 1970s. And in 2007, Rooney hired Mike Tomlin to replace Bill Cowher as the Steelers’ head coach.
However, Rooney’s legacy is far from perfect. He was, after all, still a wealthy businessman in America with a powerful organization to maintain. In 2008, after the Steelers released a bum of a wideout named Cedrick Wilson following Wilson’s arrest for punching his girlfriend, Rooney said, “The Steelers do not condone violence of any kind, especially against women.” When subsequently asked why the Steelers did not do the same to star linebacker James Harrison, Rooney stepped in it by saying Harrison “was trying to do something good” because he wanted to take his son to get baptized against the wishes of his girlfriend.
For all the goodwill Rooney engendered in Pittsburgh—even among his players—he also frequently sought and received public funds to build and maintain Heinz Field, while also building a practice facility on a tax-exempt property owned by a local non-profit health care consortium. When the Steelers sought to add seats to Heinz Field a few years back, they sued the city to avoid paying for it.
Current and former Steelers players and coaches have often gushed about Rooney’s kindness, generosity, and humility—and with good reason. But it’s also hard not to notice that Hall of Fame center Mike Webster, a cornerstone of the team’s 1970s dynasty that Dan Rooney built, spent the last years of his life homeless and destitute before dying of a heart attack in 2002 at age 50, though Rooney did eventually fight to get disability benefits on Webster’s behalf in addition to paying most of his funeral expenses.* In death, Webster was the first former NFL player to be diagnosed with CTE.