We all called him Mr. Rooney.
NFL commissioners, owners, coaches, scouts, players and media alike – we all showed Dan Rooney the respect he deserved as the elder statesman of the league.
“Call me Dan,” he’d tell us.
That’s because Dan Rooney was the NFL’s resident blue-collar owner. There wasn’t a condescending bone in his body. He treated everyone as his equal.
But none of us were. Not only was he one of the NFL’s 32 team owners; he was the only one of the 32 with a bust in Canton. And he achieved his Hall-of-Fame status the blue-collar way – working his way up from the bottom rung.
Rooney started his NFL career as a ball boy for his Dad’s team, the Pittsburgh Steelers, in the 1930s. After graduating from Duquesne, he went to work in the team’s front office handling all aspects of the football operation. He was involved with contracts, scouting and the budget. He was named team president in 1975 and became the controlling owner upon the death of his Hall-of-Fame father, Art, in 1988.
Rooney evolved into a confidante to NFL commissioners – from Pete Rozelle to Paul Tagliabue and, finally, Roger Goodell – and a voice of reason when issues threatened to tear the league asunder. There was no better ambassador – or peacemaker -- for his sport. The NFL media voted Rooney the Horrigan Award in 2009 for his “professionalism in helping football writers do their job.”
But “ambassador” was just an honorary NFL title. It became his official title in 2009 when President Barack Obama named Rooney as the ambassador to his beloved Ireland. Rooney may have moved across the ocean in that political capacity, but his heart was never far from Pittsburgh – or his Steelers.
Rooney was a football man through and through. In high school, he was a second-team all-city quarterback in Pittsburgh. The first-team quarterback that year was Johnny Unitas. Then as an aspiring executive with the club in the 1950s, he encouraged Pittsburgh to draft Unitas – then famously told his father the Steelers made a mistake in cutting him.
It was Rooney who selected Chuck Noll as head coach of the floundering Steelers in 1969, then watched Noll transform the franchise into a four-time Super Bowl champion in the 1970s. Pittsburgh would win two more Super Bowls under Rooney’s watch, one with Bill Cowher as coach in 2006 and the other with Mike Tomlin in 2009. No franchise has won more Lombardi Trophies.
Rooney also was the driving force of a rule that opened the NFL door for minorities to be hired as head coaches and general managers. Fittingly, it was dubbed, “The Rooney Rule.” He practiced what he was preaching, hiring Tomlin in 2007.
Back when I was a regular covering the league on at-large basis in the 1990s and 2000s for the Dallas Morning News, Rooney would host an annual team dinner at the NFL's spring meetings. He’d gather the entire Steeler family – the head coach, general manager and executives – along with the men and women of the Pittsburgh media who covered the Steelers on a daily basis for an evening of smiles, laughter and story-telling. He always made sure there was a chair at the table for this NFL writer from Dallas.
Rooney was passionate about the Pro Football Hall of Fame, and so was I. He often called over the years to discuss some of the candidates, some of the slights and the selection process in general. We discussed the need for a contributor committee, and Rooney was instrumental in its eventual creation. We also discussed the importance of the senior committee.
Super Bowl week last February was my last official week with the Dallas Morning News, ending a 27-year run in Dallas and a 44-year career in newspapers. Rooney called that week to check on me, see how I was holding up and ask me if he could do anything for me. I thanked him for being a friend, and we signed off.
I called him a final time, “Mr. Rooney.”
Dan Rooney passed away Thursday at the age of 84. I will miss his NFL presence. I will miss his friendship even more.