Looking Back: Dan Rooney, Remembered

The builder of two stadiums, a billion-dollar football business, NFL labor harmony and racial sensitivity, and bridges between constituencies –– he was an everywhere man whose soft, steady hand was felt everywhere.




photo by john altdorfer

 

He belonged to Pittsburgh in general and the North Side in particular. He belonged to Irish America and Ireland. He belonged to the NFL and to the Steelers Nation. Dan Rooney — builder of two stadiums, a billion-dollar football business, NFL labor harmony and racial sensitivity, and bridges between constituencies — was an everywhere man whose soft, steady hand indeed was felt everywhere. Whereas his gregarious, cigar-chomping founding father’s passing shook Pittsburgh, the death of business-minded Dan on April 13, at age 84, left a rift across a far-broader landscape.

First came the Chief, then he gave way to Dan, as both were known to princes and paupers alike, even though they ambled down divergent paths. Art Rooney Sr. gave Pittsburgh the Pirates-come-Steelers, but Dan imbued the team with greatness. The father placed his firstborn in control of the business, the decision-making, the first new stadium by the time the football club embarked on its record six Lombardis. Dan personally brought in three leaders through nearly four decades, each of whom achieved their industry’s ultimate by winning the Super Bowl: Chuck Noll, Bill Cowher and Mike Tomlin. Does anyone else on Earth possess such a hiring record? There were horse-racing tracks, casinos and other Rooney holdings over which Dan held final purview, so when the brothers Rooney and their McGinley cousins gathered for board meetings it essentially involved Dan telling everybody else what was what. Except for the time he excused himself to oversee the installation of a goalpost.

“Like they weren’t going to put it up straight or put it in the right spot,” brother Tim Rooney Sr. would confide in an interview for “The Steelers Encyclopedia.”

Dan ruled with such precision and dispassion at times that he fired brother Art Rooney Jr. and established a mandatory retirement that forced out some of his closest friends and family. Yet he was affable and accessible at the same time. Dan came to the office every day, drove his Buick, shuffled around the hallways and greeted all — no matter the pain from back surgery, a kidney-stone procedure (without anesthetic) or other afflictions in advanced age. “No one is as tough as Dan Rooney,” brother Pat once offered. Tough, but fair and giving.

You could call him on a Sunday, the holy day, and he’d oblige. His counsel was sought by many. “A very honest and straightforward man,” says Roy McHugh, 101 and longtime sports editor and writer extraordinaire at The Pittsburgh Press. Chuckling, McHugh adds: “I don’t think he was geared to tell a falsehood.”

Personal memories? At a book fair a couple of years ago, the former Ambassador signed his book, “Allegheny City: A History of the North Side,” for a sprawling line of fans, then surprised his fellow authors by walking across the aisle to shake their hands and congratulate them — never mind that he was, by far, the best-known guy in the room.

Further back, there was a visit to the cozy, shuttered sitting room packed with photos in the Rooney family homestead on North Lincoln Avenue, where Dan and his wife, Patricia, took turns reading aloud to each other in the evenings. For years, he’d dreamed and pondered in that room about a replacement for Three Rivers Stadium; then came Feb. 3, 1999, when the state legislature approved funding to keep the Steelers and Pirates in Pittsburgh and build Heinz Field and PNC Park. No champagne celebration for Dan Rooney, though. He went home to the dinner he’d requested: pork chops, mashed potatoes and wieners and ’kraut, cooked the way he liked them by Patricia.

Professional accomplishments? The Rooney Rule. The Rooney Prize for Irish Literature. The Ambassadorship to Ireland, which he took seriously despite often flying across the pond with his surgically repaired back for Steelers games. The mediator over NFL labor disputes. The co-organizer of the salary-cap era. The confidante of committees, commissioners, prime ministers and an American president. The historian and preservationist who retraced the footsteps of Lewis and Clark and Civil War generals, and in 2016 worked with his family and the Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation to create a new plaza for displaying historic sculptures saved from the former Manchester bridge. The co-founder of The Ireland Funds, which in 40 years raised more than $500 million for causes of peace, culture, education and community development.

Yet this also was the man who finished second to Johnny Unitas as all-Catholic League high school quarterback, who coached future general and CIA chief Michael Hayden in grade-school football, who was such a front-office troubleshooter that he drove the team’s battered station wagon backward up hills because reverse was its strongest gear.

An everyman whose absence will resonate everywhere. A statue alongside his father’s would be warranted. Something with him standing simply, hands in pockets, gazing over his North Side, his Pittsburgh, his everywhere. Chuid eile i síocháin.  



 


photo courtesy pittsburgh steelers


“Dan Rooney was a great friend of mine, but more importantly, he was a great friend to the people of Pittsburgh, a model citizen, and someone who represented the United States with dignity and grace on the world stage.”

Former U.S. President Barack Obama, who appointed Rooney as ambassador to Ireland in 2009 


“The impact is enormous, and I think that for a person who has had such success for his family, for the team and for the city, the loss is significant for us, but I think we should recognize his endless modesty and generosity.”

Pittsburgh History & Landmarks President and Co-founder Arthur P. Ziegler Jr. • 


“A very honest and straightforward man. I don’t think he was geared to tell a falsehood.”

Roy McHugh, author and longtime sports editor at The Pittsburgh Press


“His contributions to Pittsburgh and western Pennsylvania were extremely significant, especially in the years when we were losing the steel industry and its related manufacturing jobs. He was particularly influential in supporting the United Way in the various educational institutes in the area.”

Former Pittsburgh Steelers Director of Communications Joe Gordon


“On Friday evening, my family and I were on North Shore Drive at one of the restaurants. The street was vibrant, crowded with people enjoying themselves. I looked up to the sky and said, ‘It’s working, Dan.’ When we were developing the North Shore, Heinz Field and PNC Park, we had hoped that the North Shore would become a vibrant, lively place instead of the 30 acres of parking lots that were there for the prior 30 years. Dan and Art, his son, made it happen. Also, on a visit to Ireland, I saw the impact that The Ireland Funds, started by Dan and [former H.J. Heinz Co. CEO] Tony O’Reilly, had on thousands of citizens of Ireland. He was such a humble man but touched people all over the world.”

Former Pittsburgh Mayor Tom Murphy, who during his tenure from 1994 to 2006 pushed for North Shore development that included construction of the two sports stadiums. 


“Pittsburgh, and our nation, owe immeasurable gratitude to Ambassador Rooney. Thank you for your service to our country. Thank you for your devotion to your family and the Steeler Nation. Thank you for all you have done for Pittsburgh.”

Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto
 

Edit ModuleShow Tags
Edit Module

Edit ModuleShow Tags

Hot Reads

2017 Pittsburgher of the Year: Kelly Frey

2017 Pittsburgher of the Year: Kelly Frey

No one would blame the veteran WTAE anchor if she took time off while undergoing intensive breast cancer treatment. Instead, she chose to use humor and grace to educate and inspire others, all while in the public eye.
Green Medicine: The Business of Medical Marijuana

Green Medicine: The Business of Medical Marijuana

For many, medical marijuana is a panacea capable of alleviating a wide range of symptoms. As Pennsylvania begins allowing the drug’s medical use, patients are relieved — and business is booming.
Restaurant Review: Casbah Still is Rocking

Restaurant Review: Casbah Still is Rocking

More than 20 years into its run, Casbah remains one of Pittsburgh’s most relevant restaurants.
First There Was Hot Yoga. Then There Was Goat Yoga

First There Was Hot Yoga. Then There Was Goat Yoga

Believe it or not, yogis have been practicing with goats in the Unites States for more than a year.
Edit ModuleShow Tags
Edit Module Edit ModuleShow Tags

On the Blogs


Yinzers Eating Chicken Wings Are Going to Be on TV

Yinzers Eating Chicken Wings Are Going to Be on TV

Mt. Washington’s Bigham Tavern is the latest ‘Burgh eatery to host a film crew.

Comments


All the foodie news that's fit to blog
Madeline Bakery and Bistro to Open in Wilkinsburg

Madeline Bakery and Bistro to Open in Wilkinsburg

The French-inspired bakery will feature croissants, cookies, bread and more.

Comments


Not just good stuff. Great stuff.
Best of the ‘Burgh Gift Guide for 2017

Best of the ‘Burgh Gift Guide for 2017

Here are some of our favorite ‘Burgh-inspired gifts for him, her, kids, foodies and more.

Comments


Enjoy a Relaxing Evening of Wanton Destruction at Break Room

Enjoy a Relaxing Evening of Wanton Destruction at Break Room

The Irwin business offers the chance to smash inanimate objections for a little "therapeutic demolition."

Comments


Mike Prisuta's Sports Section

A weekly look at the games people are playing and the people who are playing them.
Steelers Can't Ease Their Patriots Pain Until January

Steelers Can't Ease Their Patriots Pain Until January

Much as they’d like to, the Steelers won’t be able to exorcise the ghosts of AFC Championship Games Past, even with a win on Sunday.

Comments


The movies that are playing in Pittsburgh –– and, more importantly, whether or not they're worth your time.
Movie Review — Star Wars: The Last Jedi

Movie Review — Star Wars: The Last Jedi

A review of "Star Wars: The Last Jedi," the latest entry in the massive franchise.

Comments


Everything you need to know about getting married in Pittsburgh today.
New Weddings Website Aims for Equality

New Weddings Website Aims for Equality

A local wedding photographer has created a business to connect same-sex couples with LGBTQ-friendly vendors.

Comments


Weekly inspiration for your home from the editors of Pittsburgh Magazine
It’s Back! ‘Restored by the Fords’ Gets Premiere Date

It’s Back! ‘Restored by the Fords’ Gets Premiere Date

The new season of the home improvement show featuring Pittsburgh siblings Leanne and Steve Ford debuts on HGTV in January.

Comments

Edit Module

Edit Module