Dan Rooney dedicated his life to philanthropy, football, and the city he grew up in. He left a legacy that will not be soon forgotten.
Born just a year before his father Art Rooney founded the Pittsburgh Steelers, Dan Rooney truly was a Steeler for life. But the legacy that Dan created stretches much farther than the three rivers of Pittsburgh, influencing the game of football and the world around him perhaps more than any owner in the history of the NFL.
On Thursday, the team announced that the beloved Steelers chairman had passed away at the age of 84. With his passing, an unfillable void looms over the city, but while his tangible self might be absent, his impact will be felt and his legacy will not be forgotten.
Immediately after graduating from Duquesne University in 1955, Rooney began investing himself in the Steelers organization owned by his father. By 1969, Dan was placed in command of the day-to-day operations and was put in charge of selecting a new head coach for the struggling team. In that same year, Rooney hired Chuck Noll for the position, and thus began the turnaround of the franchise. In the next decade, the team would win its first four Super Bowls, and Rooney’s swift impact could be felt like tremors across the league.
The age of Dan Rooney didn’t end in the 70s, though. He took over all Steelers football operations in 1975 and from then, until his death, the Steelers won 18 division titles, eight AFC Championship games, and a league-record six Super Bowls. Rooney undoubtedly left a mark on the Steelers, but he was also a leading voice in the league community and helped shape the world of football into what it is today.
Following the retirement of former commissioner Pete Rozelle in 1989, Rooney responded to rumors that he may take over with, “Slim and none. No, make that none.” Dan was not a fan of the spotlight, but still consistently made his impact behind the scenes. He didn’t ask for credit or praise but did what he did for the love of the game, and the people involved with it.
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In 1973, Rooney was named the chairman of the league’s expansion committee that added the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the Seattle Seahawks to the league. Three years later, Rooney became the chairman of the NFL negotiating committee and led the charge in the collective bargaining agreement that ended a massive strike that almost put that season at risk. In 1993, he helped implement the salary cap to end yet another contract dispute between owners and players.
Rooney was also a major voice for diversity throughout his tenure in the league. In 2003, the Rooney Rule was established after the controversial firings of Head Coaches Tony Dungy and Dennis Green making it so that teams are required to interview minority candidates for head coaching positions and all senior operations jobs. The rule was named after Dan, who also was the chairman of the diversity committee.
Since the rule’s establishment, a number of minority coaches have been hired, including Mike Tomlin, who was hired by the Steelers in 2007. In 2016, he was awarded the Jackie Robinson Lifetime Achievement Award for his work throughout his life toward diversity and equal opportunity. The Rooney Rule has not only been effective in the NFL, but has also set a precedent for other sports, and even reached beyond the realm of sports.
Among his many football achievements, Rooney was a confidant to multiple commissioners and was held in extremely high regard among the owners, especially at the annual meetings. Current Commissioner Roger Goodell said, “I don’t think there are any figures more important than Dan Rooney over the years.” Goodell was one of three commissioners including Pete Rozelle and Paul Tagliabue whom Rooney advised and aided throughout their careers.
In 2000, Rooney was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame for his accomplishments in the league. In addition to being one of the most influential people in the history of the NFL, he was also influential outside of football. He donated a lot of money throughout the years to the city of Pittsburgh, especially the north side where he grew up. Living luxuriously wasn’t a desire of his, and so he lived in a modest home in the heart of the city.
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Rooney’s Irish background was also a key part of who he was, and he continuously supported and helped the Irish community at home and abroad. In 2009, Rooney was named the official U.S. Ambassador to Ireland and helped start up the American Ireland Fund which is an organization dedicated to helping build communities, bring peace, and create an open environment to share culture. He also funded the Rooney Prize, which was an award generated to recognize young Irish writers.
Rooney gave a new light to the city of Pittsburgh. He united the city under a single steel banner and gave new meaning to the sport of football. As Mike Tomlin stated, “After every game, win or lose, Mr. Rooney would enter our locker room, look me in my eye and shake my hand along with every player who stepped foot on the field. He embodied professionalism and was a man who created a family-like atmosphere that will continue on.” To Rooney, football was more than just a game. Every member of Steeler Nation, whether it be the staff, the players, or the fans, were a part of the Rooney family.
Art Rooney may have founded the Pittsburgh Steelers and created a foundation for the team, but Dan Rooney built one of the most successful dynasties of the Super Bowl era. For his wisdom and philanthropy on and off the field, he will not be forgotten within the Steelers organization, the city of Pittsburgh, and the world around him that he cared so much about.
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