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.