Updated: Sep 25
By: Tarrian Rodgers
Western Pennsylvania has long had the reputation of one of the hardest working blue collar towns in America. It’s often rare for a sporting team’s name to fit its town’s reputation. However in Pittsburg the "Steelers" just have a certain ring too it. It’s a name suggested to honor the city's rich steel mill heritage. Like his town’s reputation Steelers original owner Arthur J. Rooney Sr. aka The Chief built his empire on three basic principles family, hard work and loyalty.
The story of the Rooney’s isn’t a simple one. When we often think about living the American Dream the Rooney family can say they did that and then some. Art Rooney Sr. great-grandparents emigrated from County Down, Ireland, to Canada during the Irish potato famine in the 1840s. By the 1880s, they had established American roots in Pittsburgh.
Born in 1901, Art Rooney grew up above a saloon his father owned and operated on Pittsburgh’s North Side. An AAU boxing champ who tried out for the 1920 Olympic team, Rooney played minor league baseball and semi-pro football before purchasing an NFL franchise for $ 2,500 in 1933.
In Art Rooney’s first eight years as owner, the Steelers managed only 24 victories and lost money every year. In their first 39 seasons, they posted a winning record only eight times and never sniffed a championship, losing the only playoff game in franchise history in 1947.
Steelers’ misfortunes included cutting Johnny Unitas, a ninth-round draft pick the club that was labeled not smart enough to quarterback an NFL team, and trading the third pick of the 1965 NFL Draft to the Chicago Bears, who promptly selected Dick Butkus.
It was then that Rooney developed the first structure that helped his team be such a success and that was make the business about family. In 1969 Art hired his son Dan Rooney to run the team. Trusting that his son had a plan to turn his father’s investments into a goldmine. Rooney personally hired Chuck Noll, the most successful coach in team history, and by the early 1970s Steelers began to take shape as a pro football dynasty.
The black and yellow won their first playoff game in 1972. Two years later, led by the “Steel Curtain” defense, Pittsburgh won the Super Bowl – and repeated as world champions in three of the next five seasons. The Steelers structure has been family ever since.
The fundamental approach of the Rooney’s managing style became simple for them have patience and consistency, both of which the ownership is continuously given credit for. As proof of the team's stability, there have been only three head coaches employed since 1969, by far the fewest number of any team in that time frame.
In the Rooney’s mind the players and coaches always came first, and Rooney would happily remain in the background, giving credit to those around him. Art Rooney Jr was one of the first owners that had one of his players “Mean” Joe Greene induct him into the hall of fame. Rooney has always looked at Greene as another son to him so he called the choice a “no brainer.”
Amongst all the winning the Rooney clan has chalked up over the years it is their belief in equality for all that has helped the league transition into a better place. The Rooney Family greatest legacy is spearheading the “Rooney Rule.” Established in 2003 Dan Rooney was the driving force who fought for diversity and equality in the NFL.
When the poor record of hiring of minority head coaches was brought to the NFL's attention by Cyrus Mehri and the late Johnnie Cochran, both U.S. civil rights attorneys who were unhappy that 2002 saw both Tony Dungy and Dennis Green fired, despite them having a winning track record.
Rooney wrote a letter to then NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue, who created a group of owners that Rooney would manage. Rooney worked with the committee, until the rule passed in 2002. The rule requires teams to interview at least one minority candidate for openings in coaching and senior football operations positions. It was recently expanded to require teams to interview women for executive positions as well.
In 2018, Dan Rooney and his family was given the highest award for the NAACP for his efforts in trying to help minorities get better jobs. The rule has been adopted by other corporations, spreading across America and beyond, a true legacy left by Rooney. That trailblazing family oriented mindset is a unanimous reason why I believe “The Rooney Family” deserves to be nominated as the best owners in sports.