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|01-25-2009, 12:33 PM||#1|
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Rooneys endure roller-coaster year
Rooneys endure roller-coaster year
Buzz up!By Scott Brown, TRIBUNE-REVIEW
Sunday, January 25, 2009
He sat outside the office of Kevin Colbert in early September, hoping that a meeting with the Steelers' director of football operations would result in gainful employment.
A man approached and introduced himself. After the two shook hands, the older man smiled and said, "good Irish name" welcomed him again and wished him luck.
That is how Sean McHugh met Dan Rooney, a Pro Football Hall of Famer and one of the most powerful owners in the NFL.
"You see him, and you're not in awe or scared to talk to him," said McHugh, who signed with the Steelers and has played fullback and tight end for them this season. "He treats you like a person and cares about you and your family. I think that's what makes him and the organization so special."
The man who carries himself as a commoner — Rooney waits in line like everybody at the team cafeteria and doesn't even have his own biography page in the Steelers' media guide — and the no-frills organization are on the brink of something special.
If the Steelers beat the Arizona Cardinals next Sunday in Tampa, Fla., they will win an unprecedented sixth Super Bowl title. A victory also would cap what has been a surreal season for Rooney.
He's seen plenty of highs and lows having grown up alongside the Steelers, who didn't win their first playoff game until 1972, and having worked in the organization for more than 50 years.
But the extremes probably have never been quite like they were this season.
As successfully as the Steelers navigated the toughest schedule in the league, Rooney had to confront the possibility of losing control of the team that his father founded in 1933.
The NFL had mandated that the Steelers restructure their ownership, and efforts to do so almost resulted in the sale of the team to an outside buyer.
"There were times when you figured, 'Hey, is this going to be insurmountable?' " Dan Rooney said. "We didn't deviate, so it worked out."
Like Dan Rooney, each of his younger brothers owns a 16 percent cut of the franchise, and the related McGinley clan has the remaining 20 percent. The four Rooney brothers nearly sold their stake in the team to Manhattan hedge-fund billionaire Stanley Druckenmiller in July, but the deal collapsed.
The brothers told the Trib that they never would have sold the team, but the NFL was prodding them to divest from lucrative casino operations at family-owned racetracks in Florida and New York.
"Nobody," said Patrick Rooney, "was interested in selling the football team."
With no other viable buyer, the five brothers reached an agreement that would keep the Steelers in the Rooney family and come into compliance with NFL policies regarding gambling and ownership equity.
Dan and his son, Art II, still are trying to line up more investors in advance of the March 31 deadline they have to consolidate their control of the Steelers and satisfy the league's requirement that a principal owner has at least a 30 percent stake in the team. A 20/10 split is allowed if the owners are immediate family members.
But when the NFL approved the buyout plan last month, it ended some of the uncertainty that had loomed over a franchise that has been a model of stability.
Rooneys connected by Steelers
The situation put a strain on the brothers, and there will be mixed feelings when a deal is finalized.
"The organization was so connected with the Rooney family that it was almost like ... I've never been divorced or anything, but it was not a happy time," said Art Rooney Jr., who helped build the 1970s Steelers teams as the organization's scouting director. "Not happy at all."
Art Rooney Jr. said the outside perception that he and his brothers were making a money grab cast them as the bad guys in a drama that didn't totally play out behind the scenes. But their emotional attachment to the Steelers, he said, runs deep, even if some brothers haven't been involved in the team's day-to-day operations for years.
Dan Rooney said the most ardent Steelers fan in his immediate family may have been his youngest daughter, Joan. She used to pepper him with her player evaluations when he would drive her to school in the morning, and she didn't stop offering her opinions later at home.
Finally, in a mixture of amusement and exasperation, Dan Rooney would tell her, "Hey, I go through this all day."
The Steelers have long been a thread that has held the Rooneys together. But what may have weighed most heavily on the four brothers as they pondered selling to Druckenmiller is how synonymous the Rooneys have become with the Steelers and vice versa.
Plus, they had lived through the losing seasons and financial hardship that preceded the Steelers' astonishing success in the 1970s, when they won four Super Bowls.
Patrick Rooney recalls going to steel mills as a teenager and passing out information on tickets during shift changes in an attempt to stir interest in the Steelers.
The Steelers were a distant second to the Pirates in Pittsburgh, he said, and Pitt football arguably enjoyed a bigger fan base as well in the 1950s and '60s.
The Steelers since have become bigger than Pittsburgh — yet they have never outgrown it. They are a reflection of a city that wears its blue-collar label with pride, and they offer a window to the soul of the city.
The Rooneys have a reputation for running the Steelers with the cold efficiency of businessmen, but owning the team always has been about something deeper, something more personal for them. And possibly no other professional sports name is as associated with a surname as are the Steelers.
Patrick Rooney said the NFL started pushing the family to separate the Steelers from the gaming interests three years ago. That, he said, led to the inevitable restructuring — Art Jr. and John will only sell some of their shares since they aren't involved with the racetracks — which could make Super Bowl XLIII the place where the five brothers gather to say goodbye to an era.
The five sons of legendary founder Art Rooney, all of whom are in their 70s, likely will be at their last Super Bowl together as owners of the Steelers. And, as Art Jr. said with an air of resignation, "This is the end."
"This is something that has to happen," Patrick Rooney said of the sale. "Hopefully, it will."
Benefits of Steelers' win
A Steelers victory over the Cardinals actually could hasten the process that will significantly alter the ownership structure of the franchise.
Dan Rooney is working to add more investors to the three he announced had joined him last month. And the profile and appeal of the Steelers would never be higher if they become the first NFL team to win six Super Bowls.
"It wouldn't hurt," Dan Rooney said when asked if a world championship might attract additional investors.
As is his style, Dan Rooney likely will stay as behind the scenes as possible in Tampa.
The players, however, want nothing more than for him to be center stage when the Lombardi Trophy is handed out at Raymond James Stadium. Part of the reason he has so endeared himself to them is what makes Aaron Smith laugh now.
The veteran defensive end said he couldn't look Rooney in the eyes when they first met. That's how intimidated he was by the Steelers' chairman.
Perception, in this case, turned out to be as far from reality as Pittsburgh is from Phoenix.
"He comes down and talks to you, eats lunch with you in the cafeteria," said Smith, who's been with the Steelers since 1999. "You see him around here, and that means a lot to the players when you have an owner that's hands-on and into it with the players. That makes you want to go out and perform more.
"He just wants to go about his business and do his job and run the team."
That is what the last six months have been about for Rooney, as trying as they may have been — for him and his four brothers.
"Busy year but a good year," Dan Rooney said, "and it's not over yet."
The Steelers can become the first team to win six Super Bowls next Sunday in Tampa, Fla. Here's a look at the teams that have won multiple Super Bowls since the game's inception in 1967:
Dallas Cowboys: 5
San Francisco 49ers: 5
Green Bay Packers: 3
New England Patriots: 3
New York Giants: 3
Oakland/L.A. Raiders: 3
Washington Redskins: 3
Baltimore/Indianapolis Colts: 2
Denver Broncos: 2
Miami Dolphins: 2
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