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Family ties: Rooneys, Steelers are united

By Mike Reiss
Globe Staff / January 29, 2009
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TAMPA - The Pittsburgh Steelers owner used to start each day the same way, driving his youngest daughter to high school. Joan Rooney cherished those 30 minutes in the car from Mt. Lebanon, Pa., to Fox Chapel with her father, Dan.

The youngest of nine children, she not only grew closer to her father on those mornings, but also learned the ins and outs of football ownership. Often she'd return home and pepper him with questions.

"That was kind of like our time," recalled Rooney, now 40, married with three children, and living in Westborough, Mass.

"I lived and breathed the Steelers growing up. He would talk to me about the business side of football - that successful teams do not run their operations on Sunday only, that football was a 365-day, 24/7 operation."

The Rooneys were in many ways ahead of their time, and they're now considered a throwback in a league that has exploded in popularity and financial growth. When it comes to football owners, they are often referred to as the NFL's gold standard.

In the days leading up to Super Bowl XLIII, in which the Steelers are vying for a record sixth championship, the Rooney family approach is once again being lauded, even as they have been reluctant to step under the spotlight.

The Steelers were founded in 1933 by Arthur Joseph Rooney, and have been in the family since.

"My grandfather kind of set the tone that it wasn't about the ownership, it was about the players and the coaches, and hiring the right people," explained team president Art Rooney II. "We don't hang out on the field too much, because the game is about the players, and that's the way it should be. We've always believed that."

Instead, Dan Rooney makes it a point to circle the locker room after each game and shake the hand of each player, behind the scenes. Former Steelers players like Sean Morey, now with the Arizona Cardinals, say they lived for that moment. It made him want to play harder.

Asked about the tradition and success of the Steelers this week, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger summed up his thoughts quickly: "I think it starts at the top with the owners, the Rooney family."

The Rooney name is synonymous with stability, which is rare in the era of the quick fix. Since 1969, for example, the Steelers have had just three head coaches - Chuck Noll, Bill Cowher, and now Mike Tomlin. Considering that 10 NFL teams have hired new coaches this year, it further makes the Rooneys stand out.

Yet while the family's approach has been universally commended, it hasn't always been easy.

"My grandfather used to say the hardest part of waking up on Monday is trying to figure out if he could make payroll that week," recalled Art Rooney II. "He did it by hook and by crook, and sometimes he had to rely on some of the other businesses he was in. The football business wasn't much of a business in the early days."

Art Rooney worked as a fight promoter to help pay the football bills. When his oldest son, Dan, was named president in 1975, the challenges continued to grow as the NFL did.

On those meaningful rides to high school, Joan Rooney saw firsthand how the myriad responsibilities that fell on her father's shoulders affected him. Dan Rooney, who has a pilot's license, would often fly as a way to relieve his football-related stress.

"He has had to make some tough decisions and takes them so personal, but never expresses himself," she said. "One of the things I learned from watching him is that what comes first is honesty - whether someone wanted to hear the truth or not, you deal with the consequences. I've followed that throughout my life - honesty and integrity."

Rita Rooney, who lives in Milton, Mass., with her husband and their son, also watched closely the example her father was setting in how the Steelers were run.

"He instilled so many solid values in his family about hard work, perseverance, and faith," she said.

Like the owners, Steelers fans are some of the most loyal in the NFL, following the team across the United States and waving their yellow "Terrible Towels." The bond between the team and the city has been palpable, with the Steelers' rugged style of play often reflecting the toughness of those who worked in the local steel mills.

Dan Rooney noted this week that the city of Pittsburgh, like the NFL, has undergone significant change over the years. Many of the old steel mills have shut down, and the city is now more defined by its seven colleges and medical facilities.

While the Steelers have also evolved over time, they've maintained most of their old-school roots in serving as an important connection to the city's past. Keeping the team in the family created stress for each member over the years.

"Every one of us had different opinions and concerns regarding trying to keep the team vs. protecting ours and our children's future," Joan Rooney said. "I know that my grandparents, Art and Kass, would never have wanted the team to come before family.

"However, I also know that as I cheered, 'Pittsburgh's going to the Super Bowl,' with my family and the 65,000 other Steeler fans after the championship game [this year], it was pretty close to heaven. I realized that there is not much of a difference between the team and family. The Steelers are our family."

Mike Reiss can be reached at mreiss@globe.com.

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