With the passing of Dan Rooney, a Pro Football Hall of Famer who helped his father make the Steelers into a perennial contender and then carried the tradition forward for nearly three decades after the team founder’s passing, the NFL has lost one of its most important figures of the past half-century.
Dan Rooney first became officially involved with the Steelers in 1955, after graduating from Duquesne University. By 1960, he was involved in management of the team. By 1969, he assumed leadership of the organization. Not coincidentally, in that same year the Steelers hired coach Chuck Noll, one of only three head coaches the franchise has employed since then. It would prove to be one of the best hires made in any American sport.
The team that had perennially struggled quickly reversed its fortunes, with the 1972 Immaculate Reception sparking an unprecedented run of excellence, with four Super Bowl wins in six years and a slew of Hall of Fame players who helped Pittsburgh stay true to its blue-collar persona even as the steel mills that provided so many of their jobs shut down.
Rooney was firmly a member of the old guard, which gradually has seen its influence yield to a generation of owners who made millions (or billions) in other lines of work before buying NFL franchises. The Steelers have endured as a thriving, relevant franchise without pricing their most loyal fans out of Heinz Field, a dynamic that often frustrated owners who believe that every team should charge every last dollar that the market will bear.
Still, Rooney remained influential and vital to the league, championing the promotion of Roger Goodell to Commissioner in 2006 before stepping away from the team to become the U.S. ambassador to Ireland. Even after Dan Rooney accepted the assignment from President Barack Obama, Dan Rooney remained synonymous with the Steelers, and the Steelers remain synonymous with Pittsburgh.
But for his efforts during one of the best decades any sports franchise ever has had, that may not be the case.