There are few individuals who had a greater impact on the development of the business of football over the past half-century than Dan Rooney, the former Pittsburgh Steelers Chairman and owner, who passed away last year at the age of 84.
In influence on the trajectory of the Steelers organization itself, of course, was immense. As he began dabbling into the business side of the team in the 1960s, the fortunes of the franchise turned, and they have since been the model of consistency, becoming the winningest franchise since the NFL merger, with the most championships, though the latter record could be matched tonight.
His legacy on the game spanned far beyond his own team, however, and he was known to be in the ear of every league commissioner who served while he was the team’s president, and later chairman, the latter transition coming after he returned from serving as an ambassador for the United States government.
Arguably his most lasting legacy outside of his guidance of the Steelers would be the formation of the rule that bears his name, the Rooney Rule, which has been in place for 15 years now, initially established in 2002.
The Rooney Rule was formed in the wake of the publication of a study regarding the practice hiring and firing of minority head coaches, and the Fritz Pollard Alliance was created to ensure that teams adhere to the rule, which requires that a minority candidate be interviewed for head coaching and front office positions. The latter also requires that women be interviewed now in an expansion of the initial rule.
The Alliance held its annual Salute to Excellence Awards dinner recently, where John Wooten, a former player and the Chairman, honored Rooney’s legacy.
His son, team President Art Rooney II, also spoke on the importance of the Rooney Rule and the Alliance to his father. “It’s important to continue the process and make sure people are getting the opportunity to advance, whether my father was involved or not”, he said. “It was important to my father to see it continue. It’s so great to see him be recognized at this dinner and have the work continue that the organization is doing”.
Prior to its formation, Rooney was appointed by Commissioner Paul Tagliabue was appointed to head a diversity panel among owners that was the beginning stages for the formation of the rule. When Wooten learned of this, Cyrus Mehri recalled, he said, “we have just won”, because he knew of Rooney’s history and treatment of others.
Mehri said that Rooney “was invaluable” in getting everything to happen as it did, which was why they chose to dub it the Rooney Rule, “because we had an internal champion fighting for this and showing leadership”.
Recently, however, there have been questions over how well teams have adhered to the rule, specifically in the recent hirings of John Dorsey as general manager in Cleveland and Jon Gruden as head coach in Oakland, though both were ultimately deemed permissible, the latter of which prompted calls for strengthening (thought not changing) of the rule.
Even among Steelers fans, the Rooney Rule has become quite polarizing, and seemingly increasingly so in recent years. Regardless of that, it remains a key element in Dan Rooney’s legacy, and one that he was quite proud of.