View Full Version : He Forged Steelers' Dynasty

11-14-2009, 08:53 PM

He Forged Steelers' Dynasty
Investor's Business Daily

Art Rooney learned his lessons well.

Before the 1970s, he won at nearly everything -- except making his Pittsburgh Steelers solid winners.

Founded in 1933, the team enjoyed only a handful of winning seasons its first four decades under Rooney -- and never came close to a National Football League title.

Rooney (1901-88) had excelled as an amateur boxer, minor league baseball player and manager, sports promoter and horse handicapper. And he contributed so much to the NFL, the Pro Football Hall of Fame welcomed him in 1964.

Still, the Steelers' first owner had this problem: losing.

"A lot of people feel that as you grow older you become a center of wisdom. I do not subscribe to such a theory," Rooney wrote in the foreword to "Steelers! Team of the Decade" by Lou Sahadi. "What really happens is that you make your share of mistakes and, I suppose, the more successful people learn by these errors. Perhaps you could sum this idea up in a word: experience."

After a fifth straight losing season in 1968, the Steelers went searching for a new coach -- and Rooney shared the wisdom of his experience with his sons, Dan and Art Jr., who were in charge of the team.

"Put friendship at the bottom of the list," the patriarch said, knowing that too often he'd hired coaches in part for that reason.

Dan Rooney listened. His No. 1 candidate for the job was Chuck Noll, a defensive assistant with the Baltimore Colts. Art Rooney was impressed. He agreed with his son's view that Noll had character and integrity in addition to football brains.

"Art Rooney was by far the most perceptive person I've ever known," said Joe Gordon, ex-communications chief for the Steelers.

Out Of The Rut

Noll got the job and promptly went 1-13 in 1969. Art Rooney kept supporting the new coach. "What impressed me most was that despite the adversity, Noll never lost control of the team," Rooney wrote. "That old friend experience told me the Steelers had a great coach."

Indeed they did. Noll built the Steelers in his hard-nosed image. A series of successful drafts yielded several future Hall of Fame players.

With the Steel Curtain defense, anchored by defensive tackle "Mean" Joe Green, and an explosive offensive, led by quarterback Terry Bradshaw, the team became one of the great football dynasties, winning four NFL titles in the 1970s.

"One thing I learned from experience: You are a genius when you win and plain dumb when you lose. Believe me, a fine line separates the two," Rooney wrote. "In sports, you must have a blend of good coaching, good players and good luck."

"A mantra of Art Rooney was that success is in the details," said Andy Russell, a linebacker on the team in the '60s and '70s.

That focus went back a long way. All the while, he kept faith with a pro game that started out in the shadow of college football -- a faith that "proved to be a guiding light for the NFL during the Depression years," the Hall of Fame cites.

The Hall adds that while the 1970s Steelers had top players, "spiritually and emotionally, what they accomplished was a win for Mr. Rooney, a win for love, warmth and kindness, all rare traits that the Chief (his nickname) continually exhibited."

NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle said at the time of Rooney's death that he was perhaps the most beloved owner in sports history.

The team loved him, as did the people of Pittsburgh. Rooney routinely gave pocket money to kids and down-on-their-luck adults and supported charities.

Rozelle said Rooney's "calm, selfless counsel made him a valuable contributor within the NFL, but he will better be remembered by all he touched for his innate warmth, gentleness, compassion and charity."

Rooney advised his children to "treat people as you would like to be treated, but don't let anyone mistake kindness for weakness," Art Jr. wrote in a foreword to "The Chief" by Rob Zellers and Gene Collier.

The father forged a unique bond with his players through the Steelers' bad and good times. "He was very involved in the team," Russell said. "(For example) he would be at an entire practice, even in the snow. Then after the practice he'd be patting you on the back."

Rooney would then enter the locker room and ask players about their injuries, their loved ones.

"It was a very familylike atmosphere," said Russell, "and you could tell he was a very caring person and I think that meant a lot to the players. Then, of course, we wanted to perform well for him."

That relationship paid huge dividends with Terry Bradshaw. The quarterback rocketed from Louisiana Tech to Pittsburgh in 1970 and had trouble nailing down the starting job his first five seasons.

Rooney stuck by him, forging a father-son link that helped turn Bradshaw into a Hall of Famer and four-time Super Bowl winner.

Then there was Rocky Bleier. After the running back was drafted into the Army in 1969 and suffered grenade wounds to his legs in Vietnam, Rooney sent an encouraging postcard to his Tokyo hospital.

"It read 'Rock, team not doing well. We need you. Art Rooney,'" Bleier told IBD. "Wow. It was like, somebody took an interest, somebody cared. Somebody needed me. Whether they really needed me or not was not the point. I felt needed."

In 1970 the Steelers cut Bleier, but not for good. Dan Rooney told him the next day that the team wanted to put him on injured reserve and have team doctors look at him. This let Bleier keep his regular salary.

After another operation and more rehabilitation, Bleier made the team in 1971 on the way to becoming the starting fullback and a force on Pittsburgh's title teams. "(My father) instilled in me values that have never failed me," wrote Dan Rooney in "My 75 Years With the Pittsburgh Steelers and the NFL."

Art Rooney passed down those values first to Dan Rooney, who became the Steelers' president in 1975 and was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2000, then to current Art Rooney II, Dan's son and the current Steeler president.

The Winning Continues

After Noll retired following the 1991 season, Dan Rooney hired Bill Cowher, another winning choice. Under Cowher, the Steelers won at a .623 pace in the regular season through the 2006 season and won a fifth NFL title.

After Cowher retired, the Steelers brought Mike Tomlin aboard and didn't miss a beat. His winning percentage stands at nearly .700, and last February he took the team to its sixth Super Bowl victory.

A common thread through those personalities is Art Rooney's theme -- "hire high-character good people and let them do their job," said Tunch Ilken, a former Steeler lineman and current team broadcaster.

That the Steelers keep winning comes in part from Rooney's foundation, says Bleier.

"It is how the team is managed and what becomes important and how you deal with players," Bleier said. "The Steelers take care of their players, things that aren't in the press, and that came from Art."

(Tonight I was out grocery shopping and of course I was properly dressed and wearing a Steelers Jersey. The woman next me next to me in line said, "Pardon me, but you have really good taste in football teams." Well of course I knew I was talking to another Steelers fan. We talked for a few minutes and it turned out that she had lived in the same neighborhood as Dan Rooney. She had met many times back in the day when he used to walk to work at Three Rivers Stadium.

Earlier in the evening I was working out and there was a guy in the gym with a Steelers hat on. When I in a different grocery store tonight I got thumbs up from two more Steelers fans.

It never cease to amaze me how many Steelers fans there are. I'm 2000 miles from the burg and I constantly run into Steeler fans here. A Steelers fan is never lonely, we are everywhere. - mesa)

11-14-2009, 09:01 PM
With the Steel Curtain defense, anchored by defensive tackle "Mean" Joe Green, and an explosive offensive, led by quarterback Terry Bradshaw, the team became one of the great football dynasties, winning four NFL titles in the 1970s.

Not to nitpick, but it's GREENE, G-R-E-E-N-E. :doh: