Over the course of the past few days, we have talked about Pittsburgh Steelers Chairman and owner Dan Rooney in light of his impact on the franchise, but the reality is that his reach extended far beyond Pittsburgh, and in fact was one of the most important figures in the game over the past half-century.
Rooney was a confidant for Commissioners Pete Rozelle, Paul Tagliabue, and most recently Roger Goodell, all of whom sought his guidance and leaned upon him during times of strife, often formally placing him in leadership positions when a matter of diplomacy arose.
Rooney was named Chairman of the league’s Negotiating Committee in 1976, just a year after he officially was bestowed the title of President of the Steelers. In that capacity, he played an integral role in eventually resolving the players’ strike of 1982, the most significant labor dispute in league history.
During negotiations, Ed Garvey, the executive director of the NFLPA at the time, drew scorn for stating that the players were the game. He was maligned by the owners and subsequently demonized in the media, but Rooney sympathized with the sentiment, and that was a key in bridging the gulf between the two sides.
Prior to that, Rooney also chaired the Expansion Committee that saw the introduction of the Seahawks and Buccaneers franchises into the league. He was decades later largely responsible for organizing the league’s realignment in 2002 to a 32-team, two-conference, eight-division structure.
Beyond that, he played a role in formalizing the process that we now see in assembling the league’s schedules each year. Rooney in the dog days prior to the technology that we have now often was tasked with assembling the schedules by hand while figuring out all of the logistics using dominoes laid out over a large sheet of paper.
Goodell said in a statement that Rooney was “someone who taught me a great deal about the history of the game, and saw it through very difficult periods of time”. He also had a hand in choosing each of the past three commissioners.
“He’s one of the people that I think all three of us relied on so much thinking through difficult issues”, Goodell said of his role working with himself, Rozelle, and Tagliabue. “He was a voice of reason, a confidence that helped us all through a difficult period of time”.
“You couldn’t ask for a better mentor than Dan Rooney on a professional level”, Goodell continued. “He had the insight, had the knowledge and he was willing to share it with you. That was an extraordinary experience for me and I am so grateful for that opportunity”.
Tagliabue also spoke of Rooney’s influence through the rule that bears his name. “But in the labor relations, he was enormous for us 30 years in making the system better, ultimately bringing in free agency and the salary cap, he was critical to that process”.
As you can see, Daniel Milton Rooney was the guiding light for the Pittsburgh Steelers organization for many decades, driven by his passion and love for the team, but he was also a critical player in the shaping of the league as a whole, driven by that same love and passion. The game and the league that we know today is largely a result of his influence.