New book details Dan Rooney’s huge impact on NFL

When Dan Rooney was the U.S. ambassador to Ireland, he had an interesting way of communicating with President Obama.

He sent him postcards.

Instead of bothering the president with phone calls or emails, he would jot down a few thoughts on the front of a postcard and send them to the White House via the president’s aide, Reggie Love. On the back of the postcards, of cards, were lovely pictures of Ireland.

That vignette was one of many about the life of Dan Rooney chronicled by one of his sons, Jim, in a book entitled, “A Different Way to Win: Dan Rooney’s Story from the Super Bowl to the Rooney Rule.”

Rooney is known to most fans as the oldest son of Art Rooney Sr., the founding father of the Pittsburgh Steelers.

He started running the team in the late 1960s and under his direction, the Steelers became one of the most successful teams in sports. They have won six Super Bowls and have a national and international following.

But it is Rooney’s approach that makes him a unique figure in the history of the NFL, which has become a multi-billion-dollar empire fixated on ways to increase revenue.

Rooney was not driven to accumulate wealth. He was, as Jim Rooney writes, “never comfortable with the amount of wealth that he personally gained. And even more so, he felt the largest impediment to long-term success was in regard to the willingness of those involved to continue to strive for the highest levels of excellence once wealth was achieved.”

He also lectured his children about not putting on airs, although his wife, Patricia, joked that she wasn’t sure they all got the message.

He warned his children, “Don’t make money your god. If you believe money is going to make your life easier and solve your problems, you’re wrong. It’s education. That will determine if you are happy, if you are successful.”

Before the team played in Super Bowl XXX in Phoenix, most of the Steelers contingent attended an NFL party, and he teased them about going to a “rich dudes” party. He and his wife got in their rented Ford and drove to a nearby Denny’s because he said he wanted to do “something normal” the night before the game.

Jim Rooney also writes that his plan was that the Steelers would win championships, but he wanted them “to be great in all things.”

He wanted people who worked for the Steelers to think broadly, to read and learn about things that were uncommon and done well, and then to bring greatness to every effort in their daily lives and work.

He wrote very specifically about what he expected each person within the organization to do. He kept the plans in the credenza behind his desk and would refer to it often.

It included a sense of purpose and he believed that the team should be doing something that was meaningful for football and also for Pittsburgh.

When fans came to the game, he wanted them to feel it was an enriching experience, and when people thought about the Steelers, he wanted them to have a sense that the Steelers were about more than wins and losses.

He also hired the right people. One of them was Joe Gordon, described by Jim Rooney as Dan’s his most important business partner. Most books on the Steelers overlook Gordon’s role in implementing Dan Rooney’s vision and putting his own stamp on the team.

“He became Rooney’s closest collaborator in what we would now call marketing and branding,” Jim Rooney wrote.

Gordon’s role involved much more than just being a PR type. “Gordon was a one-man band, arranging interviews and sponsorship deals, booking player appearances and always keeping an eye on what was being written and said about the team,” Jim Rooney wrote.

He said Gordon and Rooney were a perfect match because they would argue but not compete with each other, and that Dan created an environment where, as with his other executives, he and Gordon could freely share their ideas and hash them out.

But while they saw the value of marketing, they didn’t go overboard.

Dan once sent commissioner Roger Goodell a football jersey resembling a NASCAR driver’s uniform, adorned with sponsorship decals and corporate logos. He was sending a message that they needed to draw a line on marketing.

“Our business is the game, we’re not in this to make all the money in the world,’’ Rooney once told The New York Times. “I think some other teams still do things our way. But on this, we might be the last guy on the mountain.”

As the league tries to find more and more ways to increase revenue, he may well have been the last guy on the mountain.

Rooney even hated to see blue-collar fans who could barely afford it wearing too much Steelers gear because he felt the league was exploiting them.

The league even once had an idea of signs wrapped around the goal posts that read, “Feel the Power.” Rooney ordered them removed. When the league told him they had to stay up, Rooney replied, “We’re not feeling the power.”

He also opposed expanding the season, which will be extended to 17 games in the new CBA and probably eventually to 18 in the next one.

“I would rather not get the money (from expanding the season),” Dan said, “You have a system that works. Why add them?”

He often said when he left a stadium, “Pull down the center pole.”

Jim Rooney writes that Dan always felt the spectacle of NFL games was not better than the circus and that the league should never forget that.

It has already forgotten that.

Although Dan Rooney was noted for having a stable organization – the team has had just three head coaches in a half century – he has made tough decisions like firing his own brother, Art Jr., as head of personnel (a decision I still question) and firing a personnel executive, Tom Donahoe, who was the grandson of the man who presented Art Rooney Sr. at his Hall of Fame induction.

And when he died in 2017, he left the organization in stable hands with his oldest son, Art Rooney II, in charge.

Despite his impact on making the Steelers the team they are today, it could be argued that he had even more important accomplishments in being a close confidant of three commissioners, devising “The Rooney Rule” to improve minority hiring in the NFL and as ambassador to Ireland.

Long before he became ambassador, he worked behind the scenes to bring peace to Ireland in the era known as The Troubles.

President Clinton acknowledged the role he played in building bridges in the decades before the peace process.

Clinton said so much of what took place in the 1990s “would not have been possible without what (Rooney) did for 15 or 20 years before the so-called process started.”

And The Rooney Rule changed not only the NFL but corporations around the world, and a version was adopted in both houses of the U.S. Congress.

Unfortunately, the NFL has not been making as much progress in minority hiring as it did with Rooney being on the scene to prod his fellow owners.

As Patricia Rooney said, “Maybe they thought when he left, the rule left.”

It is another example of how much Rooney’s vision is missed in today’s NFL.

The likes of his leadership may never be seen again in the NFL. 

Belichick’s trust in Stidham an intriguing head-scratcher

Jarrett Stidham as good as Bill Belichick apparently thinks he is?

The answer to that question will determine how the rest of Belichick’s career turns out with the New England Patriots.

Stidham had some red flags when he was drafted out of Auburn a year ago. He didn’t play as well in 2018 as he did in 2017.

Once touted as a first-round pick, he slid to the second round in most draft projections a year ago. He was often compared to Derek Car.

But then he fell to the fourth round when Belichick grabbed him. He only threw four passes in his rookie season, completing two for 14 yards with no touchdowns and one pick.

Belichick, though, seems ready to hand him the starting job now that Tom Brady has moved on. He must have liked how Stidham looked in practice last year and in the preseason.

His only real competition is Brian Hoyer, who knows the Patriots system from his previous stints with the team but is the definition of a journeyman. Still, Belichick didn’t sign a veteran free  agent quarterback or draft a quarterback or even a wide receiver.

It could be noted that Belichick gave Brady the job when Drew Bledsoe got hurt even thouogh he went only 1 for 3 for six yards and no touchdowns or picks in his rookie season.

Belichick obviously thinks he can plug Stidham into Josh McDaniels’ system and keep the Patriots winning.

If Stidham can do that, it will add to Belichick’s legacy. If he flops, it will be noted that Belichick has coached seven years in the league – five with Cleveland two with the Patriots— and In those seven years, he made the playoffs only once with Cleveland.

He did go 11-5 with Matt Cassel in 2008 when Brady was hurt but it wasn’t good enough to make the playoffs.

Of course, the Patriots will still be favored to win the AFC East and go to the playoffs, but the real test will be once they get there. Last year, with Brady, they lost at home to Tennessee, their first home playoff game since 2012.

Can they do better without Brady? We’ll see. At least we will if there is a season.   

Interesting new book examines roots of great coaching

Are great coaches born or made?

That is a topic that is a focus of the new book by veteran coach Martin Rooney entitled, “Coach to Coach: An Empowering Story on How to be a Great Leader,” from John Wylie & Sons.

Rooney comes down on the side that great coaches are made and presents a lot of interesting advice for coaches and fans interested in what makes a good coach. And on how to be a better human being.

Not too many books on coaching mention that the best thing you can do for your kids is love your wife.

Instead of simply presenting his advice, he does it as a fable with an old coach instructing a young coach, who is having problems on the job and at home on how to become a better coach and person.

The old coach says the Golden Rule in coaching that that a coach has to be more enthusiastic about someone else than himself. And he says they need empathy. And that the best way to become stronger is to lift someone else up.

His Holy Grail of coaching is: Do and say the right thing, in the right way, at the right time, to the right person to get the best results.”

In his first sessions with the young coach, he writes the word enthusiasm with the IASM in capital letters on a blank piece of paper. The IASM is an acronym to stand for I AM SOLD ON MYSELF.

The old coach says he wants the young coach to really soul search about what it is you love to do and why you love to do it.

His second assignment is for the coach to apologize to a player he got into tiff with at practice after a loss.

Another piece of advice to say to players and people. “I’m proud of you.”He also says, “A coach also can’t get too caught up in wins and losses. If victories on the field create defeats for the coach at home, that will be the biggest and most costly loss.”

It is interesting advice, but I don’t know how realistic it is. If coaches don’t win, they don’t have a future. And many successful coaches have not exactly had an Ozzie and Harriett home life. Vince Lombardi is one example.

Rooney certainly has experience as an athlete and a coach. He is a former US bobsledder, Division I track athlete, judo black belt, record-setting powerlifter and two-time Guinness World Record holder, coach and motivational speaker.

His mission is to improve coaching, and it is a worthy one. As he says in the first paragraph of the book, “The world needs better coaches.”

The book provides a lot of good advice. But the question is whether it will make a better coach if the coach doesn’t have a natural aptitude for coaching remains one that is difficult to answer.