I don’t think I’m up to the task of eulogizing the life of Dan Rooney. I’d implore you to check out this article by Ed Bouchette, who did a better job than I could ever try, interviewing Joe Greene. Or this feature piece by Judy Battista in 2011.
I’d rather focus on his life than his death, like so many others are doing, which just truly shows how amazing of a guy Mr. Rooney was. His autobiography, My 75 Years with the Pittsburgh Steelers, is one of my favorite books and riddled with amazing stories. I want to share some of those from his book and other anecdotes/interviews from over the years.
He was arguably the most influential man in Steelers’ history because he’s the one who brought in Chuck Noll and, along with The Chief, made the decision to hire him and change the franchise’s history forever. Here are some of my favorite stories.
You might have seen a couple of these I posted to Twitter from his book.
This first one from when he was 14 years old, assisting the Steelers whenever he could and on that day, saving equipment manager Frank Scott’s butt by buying a blackboard for head coach Jock Sutherland.
“’I can’t find Dr. Sutherland’s blackboard!’ Everybody knew that the blackboard was an extension of Jock’s being, the very symbol of the man. He used it on the field to diagram every play, offense or defense. ‘What do you mean you can’t find the blackboard?’ I asked. ‘I’ve lost it! It must be back in Pittsburgh!’ he moaned. ‘You gotta help me – can you drive?’
Now, I’m only fourteen at the time, but I tell him. ‘Sure I can drive, but I don’t have a license.’ Without hesitating, Frank pulled out a twenty-dollar bill and pressed it into my hand. ‘That doesn’t matter. Get to the department store as fast as you can and buy a board. There’s no time to lose!’
I took off in Frank’s old Ford and drove for town. I was a little nervous driving downtown through the heavy traffic – I’d only driven a car for short stretches in the country on family trips to Ligonier – but I found the department store okay, illegally left the car in a loading zone out front, dashed through the glass doors like a madman, and asked the first person who looked like a clerk where the blackboards were. I was directed to the basement, where I found just what I was looking for: a wood-framed blackboard about two feet by three feet, and a big box of chalk.
I paid the seven bucks, threw the board in the backseat, and drove through the traffic back to camp just as Dr. Sutherland and the players jogged onto the field. Frank Scott was the happiest man I’ve ever seen. He hugged me and told me to keep the change, then nonchalantly propped the blackboard up as if it had been there the whole time. I’d saved the day and made thirteen dollars to boot. The Steelers used that same blackboard for the next fifteen years.”
Here, he recounts meeting and deciding to hire Chuck Noll.
“The second time I met with Chuck, the Chief sat in. He saw right away Chuck was a good man. He had character and integrity. Though he wasn’t from Pittsburgh, he appreciated the city and understood the people. My father and I picked up on his intensity and his passion for winning. He was our kind of guy. Though we didn’t agree on every issue, I admired his honest and willingness to stand up for what he believed. We wanted someone who shared our philosophy, but not a yes-man. We needed a coach who could take the team, mold it, and make it his own. By the third meeting, we were convinced Noll was our man.”
The conversation between he and Art Sr. of naming Dan the President of the the team. A brief conversation, the most subtle of announcement, summing up the Rooney’s philosophy.
“’When we got back to the States, my father came into my office and said, ‘Dan, I think it’s time we call you president – you’ve been doing the job for years.’
“Do you think we need to make an announcement?” I asked.
“No, just put it in the Media Guide and let them read it at the beginning of the season.”
Though I’ve been running the team for some time, we never worried about titles. Dad never liked to take credit for things. He tried to push me forward into the limelight. But he deserved to shine. He was quite a guy.”
Friend of Depot Ron Lippock interviewed former guard Brian Blankenship, who suffered a career-ending neck injury right as he was signing a new contract. Rooney told him not to worry about it.
— PittsburghSports (@PittsburghSport) April 13, 2017
Rooney’s thoughts on the Immaculate Reception.
“What I do know is that fans, sportswriters, scientists, conspiracy theorists, and even psychics have studied and dissected and diagrammed this one play to death. I believe the ball bounced off Tatum, and Franco made a great catch. But the greatest play in NFL history will forever remain a mystery.”
Rooney on Ike Taylor from an interview posted to Steelers.com. The two, as I’m sure you know, had a close relationship.
“This relationship goes back to when Ike first came here. I saw him, talked to him a couple times, and I found him to be a good person. I thought, he’s a Steeler. He’s the kind of people we want here. People who have character, people who have integrity, and that was Ike.”
James Harrison responding to Rooney’s comments about turning down money and refusing to push for an 18 game schedule, something most owners wanted but most players were against. Via Battista’s article linked at the top.
“’He’s talking about he’d rather not have the money,’ Steelers linebacker James Harrison said. ‘He’s truly concerned about the players. Other owners that are willing to go ahead and say give us 18 games don’t really care about the safety of players. They care about making money.'”
Mr. Rooney writes in his book about a KKK rally in Pittsburgh and Franco Harris’ protest against it.
“The mayor believed Franco might be in danger and his presence might incite the Klansman to riot. I told them, ‘I can’t tell Franco what to do. He’s got to do what he thinks is right.’ But I agreed to go downtown to talk to him…I went up the steps to where Franco was sitting, leaning against one of the granite columns. He had food and water and intended to sit there all night until the Klan arrived the next day. I sat down next to him, and we talked. I told him he was doing a brave thing by being there.
I asked him if he would consider joining [a counter-demonstration] instead of confronting the Klan here on the steps. I told him I would go with him. Franco said he’d think about it, and soon after I left he packed up his belongings and quietly departed. I can’t tell you how much respect I have for Franco. He is a deeply principled man, and I admired him for his stand against the Klan.
Only thirty-nine Klansman dressed in robs or storm trooper uniforms showed, and very few spectators appeared…Peaceful counter-demonstrations were held around the city. I did go to the religious rally and spoke against injustice. The largest rally at Market Square, five blocks from the Klan demonstration, drew more than three thousand people. Pittsburgh’s not perfect, and we still have our share of racial intolerance, but I was proud of our city that day.”
And his words at the end of his book, summing up his life in football.
“During my seventy-five years with the Steelers and the NFL, I’ve seen a lot of change. Every year brought new challenges and opportunities. Throughout it all, I’ve had fun and made so many good and lasting friends. My life has been focused on family, faith, and football. I tried to do the best job I could and I try to make a difference….football is in my blood. In some ways I feel I’m the last man standing, the last of the first generation who knew the founders of the league and who set it on its course to become America’s game.”
Here are a couple other articles you should check out.
Dan Rooney’s Hall of Fame speech with Greene’s introduction.
Dallas writer and longtime friend of Rooney Rick Gosselin pens a good bye.
Bob Labriola’s brilliant feature piece of Rooney via the team’s site.
And I encourage you to buy his book. Here’s a link to order it off Amazon.