View Full Version : A tale of three families

01-25-2009, 09:23 PM
A tale of three families
Pittsburgh Steelers Art Rooney right and his father Dan Rooney talk with reporters after the NFL owners meeting in Irving, Texas on Dec. 17, 2008.
Published: Sunday, January 25, 2009 at 5:51 p.m.

This is a tale of two families, two old National Football League families, the Rooneys and the Bidwills.

The Rooneys have owned the Steelers since 1933 and the Bidwills have owned the Cardinals since 1932, and the Steelers have won the most games in the last 40 years and the Cardinals have won the fewest and both teams are in the Super Bowl, a strange and unexpected shared destiny.

This is a tale of two families.

Art Rooney, Sr. was the progenitor of the Steelers, the forefather, the creator. In Pittsburgh they still refer to him as the Chief even though he died in 1988. The most frequent adjective associated with him is “beloved.” Read any history of the Pittsburgh Steelers and on Page One the writer will call Art Rooney beloved.

The story of how he got the Steelers is a pure American folktale, the kind of story we love. In fact, a one-man play called “The Chief” runs in Pittsburgh every few years. That’s how good Rooney’s story is — and that’s how he’s, well, beloved. According to Art Rooney lore, he grew up over his dad’s saloon and that gave him the common touch he never lost. One day he went to Saratoga Race Track and made a pile on a parlay of longshot winners and used the dough to pay the entrance fee to the NFL for a Pittsburgh team. He named it the Pirates — bad idea — and later changed it to Steelers.

Famed football writer Ira Miller covered the Steelers for UPI and knew Rooney. “I used to sit with the Chief at his desk while he smoked cigars,” Miller recalled. “He loved to talk to people. He was a nice generous old Irish Catholic from Pittsburgh’s North Side and he loved horses and he loved cigars, big smelly cigars. He was probably too nice.”

The Pittsburgh Post Gazette tells a story about Rooney’s common touch and belovedness. Ralph Giampaolo, a groundskeeper at Three Rivers stadium, got a kidney transplant and spent three months in the hospital. Naturally, Rooney helped with the hospital bills and visited once a week. One day Giampaolo was visiting Rooney’s dog track in West Palm Beach. Rooney found out he was there and invited Giampaolo to his box where he and his wife were eating dinner with Curt Gowdy and his wife. “This is Ralph Giampaolo, a member of our organization,” Rooney said by way of introduction.

“Not a member of our ground crew,” Giampaolo said later. “Not some rinky-dink bum. But a member of our organization. As far as Gowdy knew I was vice president of the team.”

Fact is the Steelers were good but not great until Art ceded leadership to his son Dan, still chairman of the franchise. Before Dan Rooney took over, the Steelers had been called “lovable losers” and one time they cut a quarterback named Johnny Unitas in training camp. Dan changed all that. He hired coach Chuck Noll, ushered in the era of five Super Bowl victories, tying the Steelers with the 49ers and Cowboys for most Super Bowl wins, which means if the Steelers win on Sunday they stand alone.

The Steelers are the gold standard of NFL ownership. In the Steelers media guide the bio on Dan Rooney is 1¼ inches long and it’s in small type. He tries to be invisible. He defers to his coaches and players, and in the last 40 years the Steelers have had the fewest coaches in the league - three. The whole operation is understated.

After the Steelers won their first Super Bowl, Art Rooney heard a receptionist answer the phone, “World Champion Pittsburgh Steelers.” When she was done he told her that wasn’t necessary. “They know.”

Every year at the league meetings, the Rooneys host a dinner for Steeler people and any reporter, past or present, who worked in Pittsburgh.

“I’m in a Pittsburgh restaurant one year covering a 49er game,” Miller said. “Dan and his wife Pat are sitting at the next table and dishes start arriving at our table. He’s sending stuff over. He’s ordering for us. It was the kind of thing Eddie (DeBartolo) used to do. Eddie would do it with a lot more fanfare.”

Before we move over to the Bidwills, be clear about the storyline we’re working with – owner hands over the team to his son and team improves. Got that?

The current Arizona Cardinals owner, Bill Bidwill (born 1931) got the team from his father Charles and mother Violet. Although the Cardinals are the oldest U.S. professional football franchise still in existence, they never have played in a Super Bowl, but they definitely have been a contender when people debate the worst franchise in pro sports.

You never find the word beloved as a modifier for Bill Bidwill, although you see cheapskate and sometimes, cruelly, dimwitted. For years the Cardinals were the model of how not to run a franchise, although things obviously have changed.

Bidwill is awkward and uncomfortable around people and has been unpopular.

Like Art Rooney he installed his pals in his front office and some were not good. And like Art Rooney he gradually gave authority for the team to his son.

Bidwill’s son is Michael, a former federal prosecutor, the man who hired first-rate general manager Rod Graves, the man who finally got a new stadium in Arizona. Bill Bidwill’s smartest act as owner was to recognize his son’s talent and the same can be said for Art Rooney. And this shrewdness by Bill Bidwill, finally, led the Cardinals to the Super Bowl.

I know this is a tale of two families. Bear with me while I add a third - the Yorks, the 49ers’ Yorks, our Yorks. Now make the comparison to the current Super Bowl teams.

Eddie DeBartolo got the 49ers from his old man. This we know. Eddie was a terrific owner and, like Art Rooney, generous and open-hearted, although unlike Art, Eddie had dark sides. This we also know. Eddie was more successful than Art and here’s where the comparison ends. Eddie lost control of the team and it went to another faction of the family. The Yorks.

So far the Yorks have not been the Rooneys. They have been the Bidwills.

It’s worse than that. Niner fans always could console themselves: “We’re going through a bad period but at least we’re not as crummy as the Cardinals.”

That consolation no longer exists. Every NFC West team got to the Super Bowl in this decade except the 49ers. So, the 49ers have slipped below the Bill Bidwill level.

The blame goes to John York who, like Bill Bidwill is not comfortable in the public eye, and like Bill Bidwill has been accused of being cheap, and like Bill Bidwell has trouble getting respect. Like Bill Bidwill (and Art Rooney) he finally passed day-to-day control of the team to his son.

Jed York, 27, is in charge of a formerly-great franchise. We don’t ask if he’s comparable to Dan Rooney. No contest. But is he comparable to Michael Bidwill? Michael has been out in the real world. Michael got a stadium.

Michael put a team in the Super Bowl. We are not saying Jed can’t do any of this. We’re saying he hasn’t and we’re saying we just don’t know. We’re also saying something else.

Bring yourselves back to Pittsburgh for a moment. In front of the Steelers’ new stadium, Heinz Field, they’ve put up a statue of old Art Rooney. The Niners? They have no new stadium. No statue.

You can reach Staff Columnist Lowell Cohn at 521-5486 or lowell.cohn@pressdemocrat.com.