Steelers' Rooney basking in super year

TAMPA, Fla. -- At 76 years old, Dan Rooney certainly has seen a lot, done plenty during his days that began in the Great Depression.

His father, Art, founded a team in the National Football League and saw it become one of pro sports' dynasties in the 1970s. He and his father were inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, and his team won five Super Bowls.

Nothing over the past three quarters of a century, though, can top the professional year Dan Rooney has been having right now.

Against long odds, he and his son Art II cobbled together new investors and financing during a terrible economy to keep in his family the Steelers, the franchise that ESPN The Magazine last week suggested is the best in pro sports. He became friendly with President Barack Obama, publicly endorsed him and stumped for him heavily in the presidential campaign. And his team is headed to its seventh Super Bowl.

Not a bad year, eh?

"It's been tremendous," said Dan Rooney, declaring it his best professional year, not counting all the family moments a father of nine and husband to Patricia for 58 years can have. "There's been no year as eventful."

The Steelers on Sunday can win their sixth Lombardi Trophy, which would be the most by any team, and do it against the Arizona Cardinals, a franchise that once played with them under the same banner -- the combined Card-Pitt team of 1944. That concession to the football manpower shortage during World War II came one season after a similar combination with the Philadelphia Eagles, known as the Steagles. And those efforts followed Art Rooney Sr.'s selling his team briefly after the 1940 season.

Art Rooney Sr. later resisted many efforts to either move his team or sell it in the two subsequent decades. His son Dan did the same thing the past year. He helped persuade his four brothers not to take a more lucrative offer from billionaire Stanley Druckenmiller and to sell their shares to him, his son and team president Art Rooney II, and to new minority owners. Brothers Pat and Tim agreed to sell their ownership and brothers Art Jr. and John sold about half of their stake. Each had owned 16 percent of the team.

NFL owners approved the sale without a negative vote cast, and the closing is scheduled for late February.

Had it gone another way, Dan Rooney would not have been able to celebrate his team's return to the Super Bowl with such satisfaction.

"It meant a lot to me," he said with typical understatement.

He spoke the past week about the early days of the franchise, how he remembered hanging around the team and attending games as early as age 5, when his father permitted it.

"It's easy to say I grew up with it," Mr. Rooney said. "What I am saying to you is, I was able to see as I did grow up and built on it, I was able to see what we do mean here. In tough times. This city has had tough times as we all know. And the team has been a real plus, something people had a real regard for.

"I looked at the situation, how our father started this team in 1933; it's not something we should just give up on. That was a real plus to be able to do that."

David Fleming, in his ESPN The Magazine piece the past week, told of how he encountered Mr. Rooney on an elevator at Heinz Field after the AFC championship game. As fans crowded on as well, Mr. Rooney chatted with them. Many other team owners will not permit another soul -- other than the kind of bodyguards Mr. Rooney never has -- to step on the same elevator with them.

In the Steelers' cafeteria, which is also open to the UPMC health care professionals on the South Side campus, Mr. Rooney often stands in line behind office workers, trainers and even some in the media to order his food.

So, yes, keeping the Steelers in the family "meant a lot" to him. The election of Mr. Obama did, too. The author of the NFL's Rooney Rule that mandates each team interview at least one minority coach when it has an opening for a head coach, Mr. Rooney relishes his relationship with the country's new president. Mr. Rooney, like his father before him, is a lifelong registered Republican, but both leaned more toward a liberal political philosophy.

Dan Rooney went against the unwritten rule that sports owners remain politically neutral -- Art Sr. often reminded employees that Steelers fans were both Democrats and Republicans -- and endorsed Mr. Obama publicly in April. In his formal letter of endorsement, Mr. Rooney said that Mr. Obama "has inspired me and so many other people around our country with new ideas and fresh perspectives" and said one reason for his support was how so many young people around the country were excited about his campaign.

"True sports fans know that you support your team even when they are underdogs," Mr. Rooney wrote. "Barack Obama is the underdog here but it is with great pride that I join his team."

He did not just endorse Mr. Obama, he worked for him. Mr. Rooney traveled in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Maryland and West Virginia on the stump, riding on campaign buses on most Saturdays with his son Jim. The two also made trips to surrounding counties during the week.

His football team was a bit of an underdog this season, as well. It had the NFL's toughest schedule and injuries hit the Steelers early.

"We had a great season, a tremendous season," Mr. Rooney said. "Everybody, including the NFL I might add, said we had the toughest schedule in football and it sure looked that way. Then we had a 12-4 season, which is a real tribute to [head coach] Mike Tomlin. Then we got into the playoffs and we're going to the Super Bowl."

It may be routine for the Steelers, who have been to six others and won five of them, but it's not old hat to the owner.

"Noooo," Mr. Rooney said. "I remember looking at this in 2005. You look at the situation where you have young people, new players coming along and getting better and more confidence and you can see them playing together and it develops. I think that's the big thing. It never does get old. You always have a new situation.

"These are new players when you consider there's less than half of the players who were with us in 2005. And we have a new coach."

Mr. Tomlin, in his second season, is only the third Steelers head coach in the past 40 years, and their first African-American head coach. Chuck Noll won four Super Bowls in 23 seasons, Bill Cowher one in 15 seasons.

Mr. Rooney called all three "great coaches," but surely they also had the good fortune to join the organization with him running the show.

"I will say that we have a certain standard," Mr. Rooney said. "Guys come in and they get into the program and they see; it's basically how we operate. We believe in operating the right way, we believe in trying to do things the way they should be. We try to take players, draft players, sign players in a professional, fair way. And so I think the coach, the last three particularly, fits into that mold."

It's been some kind of year for Dan Rooney. Sunday, it could become even better.

Ed Bouchette can be reached at . First Published January 26, 2009 5:00 AM


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