The Rooneys: A fight for future generations

The expanding clan is locked in a now public battle over owning the Steelers

When a tight-knit Catholic clan like the Rooneys generates headlines related to the family business, which happens to be the highest profile venture in town and one of the most storied franchises in sports, an Irish sense of humor helps to keep things in perspective.

"My brother ordered me not to say anything," said Art Rooney Jr. as news cycles churned out story after story last week about internal issues and brother Dan's role in restructuring the Steelers' ownership. "So what do you want to know?"

It was his way of saying that none of the five strong-willed sons of a street-savvy NFL pioneer had to be reminded of the line in "The Godfather" about never going against the family in public, but that anything less than a fair resolution would be unacceptable, for the sake of their children and their children's children.

Any family would be tested when the status quo is changing and money is at stake. The Rooneys -- a microcosm of Steeler Nation in sheer numbers and diversity -- are no different.

"Dan has been an excellent steward," said Art Jr, three years younger than his oldest brother. "Like any family, we have problems. We have arguments. I mean, 21 years ago, Dan fired me. We got over it. Through some very trying times, all of the brothers have kept the ability to communicate with one another."

The Rooneys are the First Family of Pittsburgh. They're what the Kennedys are to Boston, but without the tabloid scrutiny. But something leaked to the media last week put a public face on a private matter that has been talked about within the family over the past two years. And this story wasn't expected as part of Pittsburgh's 250th birthday celebration.

The families of the four brothers who have been discussing the sale of their share of the franchise -- Art Jr., Timothy, Patrick and John -- have an understandably different point of view from that of Dan and his son, Arthur II, the chairman and president of the Steelers. All of the brothers, who collectively own 80 percent of the team, are on the board of directors.

But, yoi, the tabloids would have a field day with the insider version. Nobody's keen about airing family laundry in public, but there are two sides to the story.

"The statement Dan issued wasn't the statement prepared by the board of directors. When the board met in the spring, the statement was simply that the league is looking into the ownership structure for future generations, in case anything leaked out," said one family member.

"The brothers never wanted to sell. Now they feel like they're being forced out by the league. Dan's always wanted control, but the word is that when he presented a proposal for a buyout, Tim tore it in half right then and there. He wanted to buy them out with their own money," another family member said.

"It's a life-changing situation for us. Dan wanted complete control, and he's using the NFL to get it. It's a shame. He's turned our family upside down. We weren't born yesterday. You have to make it fair," added still another.

"The NFL wants one person to own at least 30 percent of the team, which is fine, but the same family owns 80 percent of it. The gambling issue was dropped at one time and then it came back up. Some in the third generation believe they could fight the NFL in court and win. We were a founding franchise and should be grandfathered in," said another voice.

From a background of coal miners, steel workers and saloon keepers, the extended family has a quite a mix of professions. To cite a few, there's a dentist, a nurse, corporate leaders, lawyers, a TV and film producer, an actress whose filmography includes "Brokeback Mountain," authors, college professors, school teachers, housewives, a Marine Corps officer who fought in the second battle of Fallujah, an Army captain who taught at West Point, a member of the Mt. Lebanon Fire Department, and the owner of three Irish-themed Rooney's Public Houses, taprooms purchased in Ireland and reassembled in Palm Beach County, Fla. Daily Mass is still on the agenda for more than one.

The sheer size of the family is a factor in divvying up shares of a franchise that officially became part of the NFL 75 years ago last week, when the founder ran the original operation with cash kept in a cigar box.

Beginning with the humble beginnings on Pittsburgh's North Side, Rooney DNA can be found from Hollywood to the hills of Vermont, from the leafy neighborhoods of Greenwich, Conn., and the New York City megalopolis to the Philadelphia area and both coasts of Florida.

The family tree of the late Arthur J. and Kathleen McNulty Rooney -- who spent their honeymoon at a race track -- includes their five sons who share in the ownership of the Steelers, their spouses, 32 grandchildren, a brood of great grandchildren who approach in number the 75 years of the franchise's existence, and the blossoming of a fifth generation.

Warning from The Chief

The Chief, as the founder is known, touched all the bases in a colorful life of street politics, horse-playing and sports-pioneering. He stressed the importance of education to his kids and their kids with this philosophy: "They can take everything away from you except your religion and your education." And he lived by the credo of Family, Faith and Football.

"The Chief would be very understanding of everyone's point of view in this. But he would also be very sad," a family member said.

In a sense, he saw this coming. Before he died in 1988, he dictated a letter to his five boys. It is reprinted on the final page of Art Jr.'s book "Ruanaidh," which is the Gaelic spelling of the family name and is the story of Art Rooney and his clan.

"Time is starting to run out on me. I am concerned, just as you are, about my will, particularly my stock in the football club. I would like to reach some kind of understanding so that there will be no questions or complications regarding my estate," he wrote.

"You are all fine men. I love all of you and I am proud of you just as your Mother was. I love and respect your wives and children. I believe that you should make every effort to buy the football stock that is in their names. I want them all to be treated fairly. I believe if this does not happen, down the road, there's going to be nothing but lawsuits. I do not want this to happen. I want you to start working on this immediately and try and come to a fair conclusion."

He signed it: "With all my love, Dad."

The Chief was also very clear that he wanted Dan to run the team while the younger sons tended to other parts of the family business and everyone shared the rewards.

It was once a rite of passage in the Rooney family to work at Steelers training camp, the 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. work regimen providing the template of hard work as the path to success. But with so many generations strung out across the land, not everyone in the family can still participate.

It has also been pointed out by family members that when some of the brothers return to Pittsburgh to see a game, they've been told that there's no room in the owners' box. "Like they're not real Rooneys," is the way one family member put it.

And there's no shortage of family discussion about the political diversity in which Tom Rooney is running as a Republican congressional candidate in Florida and his uncle Dan Rooney, also a Republican, openly supports Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama.

Doing what's best

Whatever their differences, the Rooneys would rather be talking about football and training than outside investors, hedge fund managers and estate counseling.

"We all bleed black and gold," Art Jr. said with a chuckle. "They're Steeler nuts. Just like every other guy in Pittsburgh, they think they can run the Steelers, too. They're scattered all over, but if you talk to them for 10 minutes, you hear the same dialect that you find on the corner of Federal and Ohio Streets. They're Pittsburghers at heart. But they know the facts of life, too."

But he and three brothers just recently hired the Wall Street investment bank Goldman, Sachs & Co. to evaluate offers for their shares. According to one insider, it was the brothers who began preliminary discussion with billionaire hedge fund manager Stanley Druckenmiller, who has also had discussions with Dan.

"I'm looking to do the best thing for my family," Art. Jr. said. "We all are."

The Rooneys began a tradition of a family reunion in 1991 at Idlewild Park in Ligonier, near the site of training camp at St. Vincent College. The turnout grew exponentially by the time of the second one in 2001, and organizer Sandy Rooney -- wife of Patrick -- expects the next one three years from now to grow even more.

In her view, as disruptive as change can be, it's also inevitable because of estate planning, inheritance taxes and the realities of passing the torch to a new generation.

"Dan and his brothers are either in or near their 70s," she said. "You have to start thinking about the families. It's a personal situation, but it's also a business decision. We're a family business, but everything now [in the NFL] is a conglomerate. It's no longer a one-horse show. It's such an unbelievably big business, you have to start thinking in different terms."

A native of Hazelwood, she has eight children and 22 grandchildren and shares time between a home in Eastern Pennsylvania and an estate in the Palm Beach area of Florida.

"All we want is a peaceful family, and a solution everyone can live with," Mrs. Rooney said.

"The brothers all care about each other. They all care about family. Their father was a good leader. The grandchildren are all close, but the great grandchildren can be a little amazed at how many there are. I have no reason to believe it won't all work out. We'll see what happens."

Robert Dvorchak can be reached at First Published July 13, 2008 4:00 AM


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