Dan Rooney signs on to become ambassador to Ireland
… Loss of character and integrity started in 2007, an inexorable decline
To understand what a great year 2008 was for the Pittsburgh Steelers and owner Dan Rooney, read this introduction to the announcement that he had been given the ultimate lifetime award for dedication to his family’s homeland,
It will be difficult for any N.F.L. owner to top the year Rooney of the Pittsburgh Steelers is having. He helped elect Barack Obama. Rooney and his son Art II engineered the purchase of team shares owned by Rooney’s brothers, ensuring the team will remain in family hands for the foreseeable future. The Steelers won their sixth Super Bowl in February.
And on Tuesday St. Patrick’s Day Rooney was nominated as the next ambassador to Ireland.
The job has great personal meaning for Rooney, a longtime advocate for the Irish peace movement and a benefactor of the arts in Ireland.
Judy Battista, “Obama names Steelers’ owner ambassador to Ireland.” New York Times, March 17, 2009
At the age of 76, this was the pinnacle of a lifetime of success for Dan Rooney. Granted, his job as CEO of the Steelers was originally an act of nepotism by Steelers’ owner Art Rooney, Sr., but what a drama he created in his own right. However, while “The Chief” was beloved as founder of the Steelers, his major concern for his family was not the success of the football team.
After the nomination
Instead, he knew that he was making money from his horse-racing investments, which were paying dividends. At that stage in 1967, the Steelers had been losers for more than three decades. Dan was determined to change that trajectory.
His first decision was to remedy a woeful one that his father had made. Art Sr. had gradually turned over operations of the team to Dan in the 60s, and when he was given the power to hire and fire coaches he remedied this.
The Chief had hired Bill Austin as head coach, but after three years, Dan fired him and hired Chuck Doll. The rest, as they said, is history: 15 division championships, eight AFC championships, and a record six Super Bowls.
The Chief, Chuck, and Dan
However, was his selection and his move to Dublin after winning Super Bowl number six the start of a terrible decline for his football team on so many levels?
From excellence to mediocrity — or worse
I made this argument about six years ago when I wrote this on another blog,
To say that 2008 was a great year to the late Dan Rooney, owner of the Pittsburgh Steelers and chairman of the board, would be an understatement. In February, his team won its sixth — and last — Super Bowl, and the future certainly looked rosy for second-year Coach Mike Tomlin.
Rooney was able to fulfill an NFL directive to buy up all of his brothers’ shares of the team because they were involved in gambling, racetracks. He also helped orchestrate Barack Obama’s election as president of the United States even though he was a Republican.
Then, in March of 2009, President Obama appointed him as ambassador to Ireland, and tremendous honor and great responsibility.
However, in retrospect, it actually saw the start of the decline of the Steelers as a Super Bowl contender.
Here is the history of the Steelers in short. After hiring Chuck Noel in 1969, Rooney watched as his personnel department headed by Art Rooney, Jr. managed some tremendous drafts. Joe Greene, Terry Bradshaw, Franco Harris — three hall of famers in the first round in three of the first four years, and add in a second round hall of fame, Jack Ham, in the year in which the first rounder did not make that list.
Then in 1974, the Steelers put together the greatest draft in NFL history, on that included four hall of famers: Lynn Swann, Jack Lambert, John Stallworth, and Mike Webster.
That was the foundation that Chuck built into what is now “Steeler Nation,” with wins in 1974, 1975, 1978, 1979.
However, then reality set in, and the Steelers went through a bad spell. From the 1979 season until 2005, the team struggled. In fact, the successor to Chuck Noll, Bill Cowher lost four of six AFC championships games — all at home. So, for 26 years, the team failed to win a Super Bowl, losing its first in the 1995 season under Cowher.
Now, they are mired in another such losing skein, having lost 15 consecutive seasons with another potential decade on the horizon.
Was Tomlin Dan’s worst pick?
Chuck Noll suffered through some bad drafts in the 1980s, and one mistake can be traced directly to him. Some of those horrible picks included Greg Hawthorne, Mark Malone, Keith Gary, Walter Abercrombie, Darryl Sims, John Rienstra, Aaron Jones, Tim Worley, and Tom Ricketts — not exactly household names.
However, they also passed over Dan Marino, which was Chuck’s choice. He wanted another Joe Greene, but never found one.
Nevertheless, some may point to the 2008 victory as the start of the demise of the Steelers. Actually, it came a year earlier when Mike Tomlin was hired — and no doubt, he was hired by Dan, not his son, Art Rooney, II. He was enthralled by the way the young coach talked his way into a job.
Tomlin inherited a fabulous roster. On defense, it included Hall of Famer Troy Polamalu and perhaps a future HOF, James Harrison, who both became NFL defensive players of the year, along with Aaron Smith, Brett Kaiser, James Farrior, and LaMarr Woodley. That led to the first title and the one that got away against Green Bay a few years later.
However, Tomlin made some changes that have led to the team becoming a symbol of mediocrity instead of excellence. He wanted to become a “player’s coach” instead of the disciplinarian that he was when he started.
Some have charged that the lack of discipline has resulted in a “thug mentality,” but I blame more than Tomlin.
AR II and Roethlisberger
While The Chief did not win any championships, he always wanted his players to be ones of character. When Art Sr. turned the reins over to Dan, he knew that the character part would continue. When Dan turned the title of CEO over to his son, he expected to have a similar successful rein.
That has not happened. No one can say that the Steelers are an elite franchise as they were when Tomlin took over 17 years.
And on the issue of character -- that is where they have fallen to the wayside.
The case of the charges of rape against Ben Roethlisberger in 2010 is an example of that. He was charged with raping a young co-ed in Georgia while two bodyguards kept people away from the bathroom.
In the police report, the woman said,
“I told him it wasn’t ok, no, we don’t need to do this and I proceeded to get up and try to leave,” she said. “I went to the first door I saw, which happened to be a bathroom.”
According to her statement, Roethlisberger then followed her into the bathroom and shut the door.
“I still said no, this is not OK, and he then had sex with me,” she wrote. “He said it was OK. He then left without saying anything.”
That is terrible, and if you read the entire story, you will realize that two bodyguards, one a state trooper, held the door shut while the crime occurred.
The charges were dropped at the request of the young woman’s family who did not want to have her go through the trauma of a trial. They immediately had to send her to therapy as a result of the action.
That was the second rape charge against him in two years. The other was a civil case that was settled out of court.
Rooney said that Roethlisberger would be punished by the team — but nothing happened. The league suspended him for four games, but the team did nothing. They could have sentenced him to work in a women’s help shelter. That is what the young Dan Rooney would have done.
That whole situation started a reputational decline of the team. The Steelers over the 20-teens had some great talent, but have won three playoff games in 12 years.
If Dan were a young man today, he would likely have confronted Tomlin with the character issues that his team had demonstrated with people like Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell, who was allowed to play in a preseason game after being arrested for marijuana possession by Pittsburgh police a few hours earlier.
The Steelers had tremendous talent, but have lacked leadership on the field and in the front office.
I laugh when Roethlisberger talks now about the younger players not understanding the Steelers’ legacy.
So, the decline of the Steelers into mediocrity started before the last Super Bowl. It will continue until there is change in the front office and on the field. That may necessitate the end of the reign of the Rooneys unless the team changes -- quickly.