I said it in April when the wounds from an out-of-control night in Milledgeville, Ga., still were fresh and oozing. I'll say it again now that the Steelers are headed to Super Bowl XLV to play the Green Bay Packers Feb. 6. The Rooneys made the right call by standing behind Ben Roethlisberger after he was accused of sexual assault in March by a 20-year-old college student. It was right because Roethlisberger is a franchise quarterback, sure. You might have heard one is hard to replace. But it also was right because Roethlisberger looked the Rooneys in the eyes and promised to be a changed, better person. From what I can tell, he has kept his word. He has lived up to their trust. Good for him. Good for them. Good for the team.
"I'm proud of the way he picked himself up and acted like the man he really is," team president Art Rooney II said Sunday night after the Steelers hung on to beat the New York Jets in the AFC championship game.
That doesn't mean it was easy to stand with Roethlisberger in those troubling days after the allegations from an incident in a college bar bathroom. Rooney acknowledged the "hits" the organization had to take as a result even though Roethlisberger wasn't charged with any crime. Rooney was not a happy man when he met with the media for the first time in April. "I have made it clear to Ben that his conduct in this incident did not live up to our standard. ... We intend to allow Ben the opportunity to prove to us he is the teammate and citizen we all believe he is capable of being. ... We've told him it's going to be a long journey back and he's going to have to be up to meeting the challenge."
Asked Sunday night if the franchise considered trading Roethlisberger, as many speculated, Rooney shook his head. "You go through a lot of different thoughts at times like that. But, at the end of the day, I knew Ben and I knew his parents. I just believed that if he got back to being the type of person he really is deep down inside, he is still the type of person we want to be around. He hasn't disappointed us."
Roethlisberger was suspended by the NFL for the first four games for conduct detrimental to the league, but he returned to lead the Steelers to their third Super Bowl in six years, their eighth overall. Rooney won't rank them -- "Every one of them is special; this never gets old" -- but the adversity this team overcame along the way to Dallas has to put it high on the list.
"It's been a very difficult year in a lot of ways," Rooney said. "The thing with Ben. The stuff with the crazy fines we had. The injuries ... I don't know of too many teams that can lose its top two offensive tackles and still be in this position."
Another wise decision Rooney made in the offseason was to give a rich contract extension to coach Mike Tomlin. I'm thinking Tomlin is earning every penny. I remember writing before training camp that he was the right man to clean up the mess created not just by Roethlisberger, but by Super Bowl XLIII MVP Santonio Holmes, who was traded to the Jets in April after a number off-the-field incidents, and by starting offensive tackle Willie Colon's Achilles injury. That's one time I had it right. Tomlin has been terrific.
"It seemed like he had a different challenge every week to overcome," Rooney said. "He's just a special person. He should be coach of the year, in my opinion. I just hope he gets it from somebody."
The Steelers have had strong coaching -- not to mention strong ownership -- for decades. But that only takes a team so far. The players have to win the games. "We've got a great core group of guys who believe in each other and play for each other," Rooney said. "We had that in the '70s, as well. You need that."
Rooney mentioned linebacker James Farrior and wide receiver Hines Ward, two of the team's captains and most decorated veterans. "We're very fortunate to have that kind of people on our team. They're amazing guys. There are times you wonder how much they have left and how they're still doing it, but they just keep going. Their dedication to the team and their teammates is unbelievable. We [as owners] really are very lucky."
Sure they are.
But they're also pretty good.
Pretty smart, too.
Ron Cook: firstname.lastname@example.org . Ron Cook can be heard on the "Vinnie and Cook" show weekdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on 93.7 The Fan.