Weber / USA TODAY Sports Images

Steelers Chairman Dan Rooney Dies At 84

Dan Rooney will be remembered as one of the greatest men to come out of Pittsburgh.

He was the son of the first football family of Pittsburgh. And he was its father.

Dan Rooney, Chairman of the Pittsburgh Steelers and guiding hand through its greatest era, died Thursday at the age of 84.

Rooney, through his leadership, decision-making, paternal spirit, fellowship, love of the game and people in general, was every man to every Steelers football fan. 

* He was the son of the team's founder, Art "Chief" Rooney.

Born on July 20, 1932, a year before his father purchased an NFL franchise, Rooney was the oldest of five boys -- Art Jr., Tom, Patrick and John -- to Art and Kathleen. Dan was born on the North Side, in Mercy Hospital, "the first Rooney born in a hospital," he wrote in his autobiography.

In his second summer, his father purchased the rights to the Pittsburgh Pirates for $2500. 

Young Dan recalled attending training camp at St. Francis College as a small boy. He broke his nose "loafing with the players" and was forbade by his mother from attending any more camp practices. But he was back a few weeks later and never really left.

Rooney's first bit of fame occurred during the 1939 preseason when his father, as a joke, sent him into the locker room of the Chicago Bears to interrupt a pep talk by George Halas. The Steelers won the game 10-9 and Halas credited "young Rooney" to reporters.

The Rooneys moved away from their small apartment on Western Avenue to a mansion a block away on North Lincoln Avenue in 1939 and the Rooney boys grew up in "the hub of activity for all the neighborhood kids."

In 1940, Dan's father renamed the team the Steelers and the next year was involved in a complicated franchise swap with the Philadelphia Eagles. Dan listened intently at home as his mother took the call from his father. Mom eventually had to put Dan on the phone to assure him that his dad wasn't selling the team.

"Then and there, I realized just how much football meant to me," Rooney wrote.

* He was a working man.

Rooney, of course, began his odyssey to the top as the team's water boy, and recalled his first important job occurred during the 1946 training camp in Hershey. 

New coach Jock Sutherland had everyone in the organization hopping to, but the equipment man had left Sutherland's critical piece, his blackboard, back in Pittsburgh. The equipment man anxiously turned to the 14-year-old Dan Rooney and asked him if he could drive. Dan said no, but hopped in a truck with $20 and drove into town to purchase the board anyway. He saved the day, and also bought a tool used by the team for the next 15 years.

* He was a quarterback.

Blanda, Unitas, Namath, Montana, Marino, Kelly ... Dan Rooney.

The young North Catholic student worked all summer -- much like Mike Tomlin's and Joey Porter's boys do these days -- on the Steelers' practice field to get into shape. He became the starting halfback on his freshman team, and after a couple of weeks Rooney was grilled on X's and O's by the head coach of the JV team. Rooney passed the questions so well he was promoted to starting JV halfback. The coach, Joe Thomas, developed Rooney's work ethic, made him responsible for team equipment and schedules, and "showed me how to lead without being overbearing." That character trait served Rooney well throughout the rest of his life.

Thomas molded the 5-10, 147-pound Rooney into a Wing-T quarterback by his sophomore year and he led North Catholic to a 7-1 record. But Rooney fell ill the next summer with rheumatic fever and had to miss his junior season. He returned as a senior and added defensive back to his quarterback duties. He weighed 163 but never grew taller. He directed North Catholic to a win over Central Catholic for the City Catholic championship in 1949, but North Catholic never played tiny St. Justin's that season. St. Justin's had defeated North Catholic the previous year -- with Rooney out -- behind a sophomore quarterback named John Unitas.  Unitas became the Pittsburgh All-Catholic first-team QB in 1949 while Rooney was second team.

* He was a student ... and a husband ... and a father.

Rooney turned down Holy Cross, St. Bonaventure and St. Vincent to stay home and attend Duquesne. He wanted to remain close to his girlfriend, Patricia Regan, whom he had met at a North Side corner drugstore, where she worked scooping ice cream. 

Even when Duquesne announced it was dropping its football program, and Villanova came calling with a scholarship, Dan stayed home. And he proposed to Patricia at Christmastime in 1950. They were married two months later at St. Peter's Church.

Dan continued working for his father and the team throughout college by handling payroll, arranging schedules, directing water boys and he even negotiated contracts of some of the draft choices. He also moved into an apartment with his bride, who helped him study his way onto the dean's list. 

Rooney also took the time to coach his younger brothers' elementary school football team.

During his junior year in 1952, Dan and Patricia had the first of their nine children, Art II, who's currently the team's president. 

Dan graduated from Duquesne with a degree in accounting.

* He was a personnel man.

By 1955, Rooney and Ray Byrne, a part-time undertaker, were managing the Steelers' draft. Byrne corresponded with college coaches and Rooney talked to the players. They formulated their strategies and ran them past Rooney's father and the coach at the time, Walt Kiesling. 

In the ninth round that year, Rooney made the move on the guy he'd been watching all draft: Unitas. "We don't want him playing against us," Rooney told Byrne. So the pick was made. And Kiesling cut the future Hall of Famer in training camp.

Later, after watching Unitas lead the Baltimore Colts to the 1958 championship on TV, Rooney wondered "How did we ever let Johnny Unitas get away?" And he wrote, "Sometimes you have to trust your instincts, even if those around you, people you know and trust, don't agree." That thought served him well some 46 years later when he convinced Bill Cowher to re-think his draft position on Ben Roethlisberger.

* He was a mover and a shaker.

In his early twenties, Rooney attended league meetings with his father. He was there when the league owners fought against, but then voted for, the first players union, and Dan was sent to represent the Steelers at the first union meeting in 1956. The players' first demands of a second pair of shoes and to be paid for preseason games were met.

Of course, Rooney still had his regular duties with the team, like picking up new players at the airport. That's how he met Bobby Layne in 1958. "He questioned me the whole way," Rooney wrote. "He was that kind of guy, always in command."

Four years later, Rooney was presented with artwork developed by US Steel that involved "hypocycloids." Rooney liked the design but was unsure how it would look on their gold helmets, so he instructed the equipment manager to put it on one side only until they could make a firm decision. The Steelers had their best record in team history that year and so the decision was made -- it would stay on one side only. And before the Playoff Bowl in that 1962 season, Rooney wanted to do something special for the game so he had Jack Hart change the color of the helmets to black. That also remained.

On the league front, Rooney became his father's right-hand man when it came to important items such as voting Pete Rozelle in as commissioner, negotiating a fair television contract and taking a strong stance against gambling.

* He was a boss.

Rooney's power within the organization began to emerge in 1965. During the preseason, with young QB Bill Nelson injured and the Steelers left with only broken-down Ed Brown at the position, the Steelers fell to 0-4 and then-coach Buddy Parker asked Rooney to approve a trade that would send one of the Steelers' young defensive linemen -- Ben McGee or Chuck Hinton -- to the Philadelphia Eagles for quarterback King Hill. Rooney rejected the deal and Parker turned in his resignation. This time, as opposed to many previous times, Rooney accepted it and promoted assistant Mike Nixon. 

It may not have signaled an end of the losing, but it did signal a change in that the Steelers would stop dealing draft picks and young talent for journeymen. 

Rooney finally got his coach four years later in Chuck Noll, the first of only three coaches the team has had in the past 48 years.

* And he became a legend.

The modern era of the Steelers was built by Dan Rooney, and some of it through mere delegation. He's well known for letting the head coach have his run of the football operation, and that is what's made his hiring of these last three men so important.

Just a sampling of Rooney's influence since he took charge of the organization in the 1960s include: playing a key role in the NFL-AFL merger, the building of two stadiums in Pittsburgh, a continuing role in keeping peace in labor negotiations, helping the league expand, and fighting for minority coaches. In fact, the league established the "Rooney Rule" to aid in the hiring of minorities.

Rooney was the architect of six Super Bowl championships, the most by any NFL team, and was elected to the NFL Hall of Fame in 2000. He was appointed American ambassador to Ireland in 2010 and served for three years before returning as chairman of the Steelers the past five years.

Daniel Milton Rooney is survived by his wife of 65 years, Patricia, and seven of their nine children: Arthur II (Greta); Patricia Gerrero (Robert); the late Kathleen Miller (Thomas); the late Rita; Daniel Jr. (Allison); Mary Duffy; John (Emma); James (Stephanie); and Joan Clancy (Christopher); 20 grandchildren and five great-grandchildren. He also is survived by brothers Arthur Jr. (Kathleen), Timothy (June), Patrick (Sandy), and John (JoAnn), plus numerous nieces and nephews.

Steel City Insider Top Stories