Dan Rooney died Thursday. The Pittsburgh Steelers chairman helped make that franchise a six-time Super Bowl winner and a model of consistency. He helped grow the NFL, too. He was a voice of reason among NFL owners on a number of issues, including minority hiring. Football had a friend in Dan Rooney.
"Pittsburgh certainly did," said Pro Football Hall of Famer and former Bucs coach Tony Dungy said of the 84-year-old Rooney. "And just people in general. Dan was so much about doing the right thing and listening to people and making good decisions."
Dungy worked for Rooney — and head coach Chuck Noll — as a Steelers defensive back, part of a Super Bowl winner. He worked for Rooney as a defensive assistant when he was 25. He worked for Rooney as the youngest defensive coordinator in the NFL at the time. Dungy has never forgotten Rooney's kind, respectful touch.
"And I remember when I was coaching in Indianapolis and Jeff Saturday was our player rep," Dungy said. "Jeff would come back from contentious union-management meetings and he'd tell me, 'Man, I'm glad Dan Rooney is there. I don't know if we'd get this done if it wasn't for him.' "
In the 1970s, Rooney helped direct the Steelers to four Super Bowl wins in six years and, with Noll, put together a historic 1974 draft class that produced Hall of Famers Jack Lambert, John Stallworth, Lynn Swann and Mike Webster. Rooney was a Hall of Famer himself, enshrined in 2000.
And Rooney was important to Tampa Bay football. He headed the NFL expansion committee that approved Tampa Bay's application for a team that would become the Buccaneers in 1976. When Tampa Bay began bidding for Super Bowls, Rooney was often in its corner.
"I just had nothing but the highest admiration for the man," said Tampa businessman Leonard Levy, a longtime civic leader. "He had such integrity. Tampa had a friend in Dan Rooney. He embraced us. Any time Dan Rooney supported you, you had a chance."
In 2016, the Jackie Robinson Foundation honored Rooney with its Lifetime Achievement Award. He had earned it.
Dungy told a story that spoke to Rooney's open mind. It's from the late 1960s and begins with Bill Nunn, a highly respected sports writer for the Pittsburgh Courier, one of the nation's most influential African-American newspapers. Nunn had extensive knowledge of players at historically black colleges and universities.
"They hired Chuck (Noll), then Bill wrote an article that said we've got a new coach but it won't matter because we're so backwards getting players," Dungy said. "He wrote several articles slamming the team. 'They don't have any black players. They don't have any interest in black players.'
"Dan asked Bill would he mind coming to lunch. Bill had a hundred suggestions. So, Dan says, 'Well, it sounds like you might be the answer. Why don't you come work for us?' He talked Bill into leaving his job and coming to work for the Steelers as a scout. That's how it started: Mel Blount, Ernie Holmes, Glen Edwards (from St. Petersburg out of Florida A&M), Donnie Shell, John Stallworth, Frank Lewis, all those guys."
And there is the "Rooney Rule," created in 2003 and named for Rooney, then-chairman of the league's diversity committee. The rule requires teams to interview minority candidates for head coaching and senior management jobs. The spirit of the rule isn't always followed, but Dungy said that doesn't diminish Rooney's vision: "What he doesn't get enough credit for, to me, is Dan standing up in the meeting and saying, 'C'mon, what are we doing? We need to do the right thing. Look at these (hiring) numbers. This isn't right.' "
Dungy said Rooney's humility never left him.
"I was there when (Pittsburgh) won Super Bowl XIII," Dungy said. "We had a new receptionist, and she started answering the phone, 'World champion Pittsburgh Steelers.' Someone had told her that might be a good thing to do. Dan was just like, 'No, we don't do that here. Just Pittsburgh Steelers. That'll be enough.' That's just the way Dan was."