Stability key to Steelers' success

The Rooney family is known for its loyalty and Steelers players hope to be able to repay them with a Super Bowl win.

Updated: February 4, 2006, 7:44 PM ET
By Len Pasquarelli | ESPN.com

DETROIT -- Given his status as the seventh-wealthiest man in the world, with a personal net fortune exceeding $21 billion and, according to Seattle center Robbie Tobeck, "richer than some countries," Seahawks owner Paul Allen could literally buy up almost the entire NFL, based on the current valuations of the other 31 franchises.

Apprised of that fact, and asked how it compared to his view of Pittsburgh owner Dan Rooney, Steelers wide receiver Hines Ward didn't blink.

"Oh, I doubt that matters to Mr. Rooney," said Ward, a Steelers employee for the past eight seasons. "This team is more than enough for him. Heck, he basically owns the city of Pittsburgh, people love him so much. I'm sure that if you asked him how he feels this week, he'll tell you he feels like the richest man in the world. People talk about how we want to win this game for [Jerome] Bettis. But, hey, the feeling we all have for this team and this franchise starts at the top. Wanting to play hard for (the Rooney) family comes easy, because they're just such fundamentally good people. They treat us like family."

Rooney and Cowher
Doug Benc/Getty ImagesDan Rooney was enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2000.
There is a certain stability that has contributed to bringing both these franchises here for Super Bowl XL on Sunday evening. Allen, after all, spent a lot of money (albeit not by his business standards) to lure coach Mike Holmgren to Seattle, and then retained him during some tough times when the return on his investment was dubious at best. But nothing compares to the continuity the Rooney family has forged in Pittsburgh, where the clan has been anointed with a level of beatification usually associated with sainthood.

And why not?

After all, the Rooney family has never threatened to relocate the team, and probably couldn't anyway, their Pittsburgh roots are sunk so deep. A lot of fans love their teams. Pittsburgh fans live and die with the Steelers, a team whose fortunes didn't turn until the 1970s, but whose rough-and-tumble history made them beloved. And that feeling, which transcends mere passion, certainly extends to Steelers ownership.

No league official will discuss it, few league owners will acknowledge it, but Super Bowl XL represents teams whose proprietors are at opposite ends of the spectrum. The Steelers are decidedly "old guard," a franchise not only trying to make history, but also trying to add to a tapestry that dates back to the first day of NFL history. Seattle, on the other hand, is clearly new-age.

The parable which suggests Steelers founder Art Rooney, a notorious railbird in his youth, purchased the franchise with the proceeds from a big day at Saratoga (N.Y.) Racetrack, probably is more apocryphal than accurate. But he plunked down his $2,500 franchise fee along with guys named Halas and Mara to get the league started. When he bought the Seahawks in 1997, Allen probably just cashed in some Microsoft stock.

Reporters here for the run-up to the Super Bowl have waited breathlessly all week for the much-anticipated arrival of Allen, who made his fortune as co-founder of Microsoft, and who seems to exist in some mystical cocoon. Allen was scheduled to arrive, according to the latest rumors, on Saturday, maybe on one of the huge jets he owns. Dan Rooney, who pilots his own single-engine Bonanza A36 (and was forced to crash land it a couple years ago when he couldn't get the landing gear to deploy), has been here all week.

He has moved unobtrusively through the media hordes, never quite comfortable with the attention granted him, but always accommodating to those seeking a few minutes of his very valuable time. He is, after all, a man of the people. In keeping with a tradition that his father began, there is no biography of Dan Rooney in the Pittsburgh media guide None, either of his son, Art II, the club president, who now runs most of the team's day-to-day affairs.

The Rooney family doesn't like calling attention to itself -- Dan Rooney sat at the back of the room during commissioner Paul Tagliabue's "state of the league" address on Friday and slipped quietly out, after visiting with some media well-wishers -- but, given its many and varied accomplishments, doesn't necessarily have to.

"One of the absolute rocks of this league," allowed New England Patriots owner Bob Kraft. "How could anyone not be thrilled for Dan and his family to be here this week? What he means to the league, the contributions he's made, you can't put into words. A great family and a great legacy, certainly."

If the city fathers in Pittsburgh ever wanted to carve out their own version of Mount Rushmore on Mount Washington, the craggy South Side cliff that overlooks the town, some legendary silhouettes would be included. Candidates for such an honor might be some of the city's early business leaders with very familiar names: Mellon, Heinz, Carnegie, Westinghouse and Scaife.

One of the absolute rocks of this league. How could anyone not be thrilled for Dan and his family to be here this week? What he means to the league, the contributions he's made, you can't put into words. A great family and a great legacy, certainly.
Bob Kraft, Patriots owner

But died-in-the-wool 'burgers who bleed black and gold, would probably petition, too, for Steelers founder Art Rooney, so beloved is he even 17 years after his death. And his family, led by Dan Rooney, is regarded with that same level of affection. Why so? Part of the reason is that they define unpretentiousness. Mostly, however, it's because of their loyalty, a commodity that in a blue-collar town is seen as gold, that they exude.

"There's just sort of a commonness about them that draws you in," center Jeff Hartings said. "I mean, I played in Detroit, for the Ford family, and they were good people, don't get me wrong. But I don't know that, when I was in the company of Mr. [William] Ford, I ever got completely comfortable. Mr. [Dan] Rooney walks in and the last thing he wants is for people to treat him like he's a big shot, you know?"

Think about this: Since 1969, the Steelers have employed just two head coaches, Pro Football Hall of Fame member Chuck Noll, who led the franchise to four Super Bowl victories in a six-season span of the '70s, and Bill Cowher. Over the same period, the 31 other teams in the NFL have averaged 9.2 head coaches, and that's counting even the expansion franchises that joined the league over the last three dozen seasons. Nine franchises have had 12 or more head coaches in that stretch.

Ward will almost certainly finish his career having played in one uniform and for just one coach, a rarity in the age of free agency and the salary cap. And he'll have played it, he acknowledged, having worked for an owner and a family without whose surname the history of the NFL could not be written.

Not even the Rooney family can operate their team with the mom-and-pop philosophy that the late franchise patriarch Art Rooney practiced. A man who loved walking through the locker room on a daily basis, and who savored his conversations with players nearly as much as he did the fat stogies he chain-smoked, Art Rooney would probably blanch at the game's current intricacies.

But the Steelers' founder, who died in 1988, left his heirs a simple, three-word credo that has grown into a mantra for eldest son Dan Rooney and his own children.

"Treat people right," said Dan Rooney this week, when asked about the success of the Steelers, a franchise seemingly embraced this week by most football fans outside of the Pacific Northwest. "That's probably the biggest lesson my dad [imparted]. And I think we do a good job of practicing it. We don't see our employees as employees. They're part of what we do and who we are. We try to hire good people, get out of their way, and let them do their jobs. I don't think [the formula] is all that complicated."

That formula, and his own modesty aside, Dan Rooney during his tenure as owner, and actually even before the death of his father, has been universally regarded as among the most powerful and influential men in the league. A centrist thinker, who has never lost sight of the fact that football is his family's primary undertaking even as the Rooney clan has expanded its horizons, he played a key role in ending two work stoppages. Rooney has a knack for typically placing the good of the league ahead of all else. At a time when some of his peers are more concerned with individual revenues, Rooney clings to the all-for-one-and-one-for-all concept that became the underpinnings of the league's success.

"How can I not be proud of what my grandfather and father have meant to the league?" said Art Rooney II. "It's been very gratifying to see the way my father has been received here this week. It means a lot to us."

It will mean a lot, as well, if Dan Rooney exits Ford Field on Sunday evening with a fifth Vince Lombardi Trophy to adorn the lobby of the team's offices.

Cowher has reiterated several times this week, and often eloquently, what it would mean for him to secure a Super Bowl title for his boss. And as much as the Bettis story seems to supersede everything else this week, it's actually the strong feelings that the Steelers have for Dan Rooney and his family that has provided at least equal impetus.

"To see Mr. Rooney with that trophy, it would be great, really," said defensive end Kimo von Oelhoffen. "I mean, it would be just like one of us standing there holding it, because he really is just one of us. He's family, and we're like family to him, and that's a pretty rare thing anymore in any business relationship. But, then again, he's a rare man."

Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. To check out Len's chat archive, click here Insider.

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