The oldest of Art Rooney Sr.’s five sons, Dan was born in Pittsburgh on July 20, 1932, in Mercy Hospital, which always was a point of pride for him for three reasons: because that made him “the first Rooney to be born in a hospital,” because the Sisters of Mercy came from Ireland during the Great Potato Famine of the 1840s to care for the people of Pittsburgh, and because Mercy Hospital was the first hospital built west of the Allegheny Mountains. He would go on to graduate from North Catholic High School in 1950 and then from Duquesne University in 1955, both of which were located within the City of Pittsburgh limits.
Before Dan was of legal age in Pennsylvania, he had thrown himself into the business of professional football. He negotiated contracts while still a student at Duquesne, and when he graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree in accounting, he began his official duties with the team.
For much of the ensuing decade, Dan served the Steelers in a variety of roles, from designing game program covers to scheduling the halftime entertainment, but it wasn’t until the mid-to-late-1960s that his influence extended into what now would be known as football operations. Starting in 1957, the Steelers were coached by Buddy Parker, who had won a couple of championships with the Detroit Lions and was known to overreact to losses by haphazardly trading or cutting players.
After a 1964 season in which the Steelers finished 5-9, Dan informed Buddy Parker he was forbidden to cut or trade any more players without approval. During the 1965 preseason, Parker tested the young executive and delivered an ultimatum – that either he as the coach had final say on all football matters or he would resign. Dan ultimately accepted Parker’s resignation, and a new era had dawned for the Pittsburgh Steelers.
After standing up to Parker, Dan would be involved in the hiring of three Steelers coaches – Noll, Bill Cowher, and Mike Tomlin – and all of those men have taken the Steelers to a Super Bowl championship during a combined tenure that currently spans 49 years, and counting.
In addition to guiding the Steelers from the dark ages into a renaissance on the field, Dan also was very instrumental in doing similar things for the NFL. In 1973 he was named Chairman of the League’s Expansion Committee that added Seattle and Tampa Bay to the NFL, in 1976 he was named Chairman of the Negotiating Committee, and he also served on the eight-person Management Council Executive Committee, the Hall of Fame Committee, the NFL Properties Executive Committee, and the Player/Club Operations Committee.
Dan was instrumental in the formation of the system of free agency tied to a salary cap that was instituted by the NFL in 1993 and has become a model for professional sports leagues around the globe.
He was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame as part of the Class of 2000, and at that time he and his father, Art Rooney Sr., joined Tim Mara and Wellington Mara as the only two father-son combinations in Canton.
The family patriarch, Art Rooney Sr., long was an advocate of the players forming a union to secure a pension for their life after football. This respect for the players and the interest in their well-being was passed from father to son, and it came to pass that whenever there was a work stoppage or any other type of labor issue that arose in the NFL, Dan Rooney always was one of the consensus-builders in the room.
Dan worked tirelessly through many such negotiations with the NFLPA over different versions of the Collective Bargaining Agreement, and his deft touch in otherwise touchy matters became valuable during the time that he co-founded The American Ireland Fund to help bring peace and charity to Ireland. The Fund raised well over $300 million for peace and educational programs, according to Raymond H. Frye, who was the president of the selection committee that presented Dan Rooney with the John F. Kennedy Award in 2010.
Along with his love and dedication to the Pittsburgh Steelers and the NFL, Dan also dedicated himself to his community. He was a board member for The United Way of America, The American Ireland Fund, The American Diabetes Association, The Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation, the Extra Mile Foundation, and the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. In February 2000, Dan Rooney was recognized by the prestigious Maxwell Football Club in Philadelphia with the Francis “Reds” Bagnell Award for “contributions to the game of football.”
Then after his Steelers won a sixth Super Bowl championship, Dan Rooney answered a call to serve his president. On March 17, 2009 – St. Patrick’s Day, no less – President Barack Obama announced his intent to nominate Dan Rooney as the U. S. Ambassador to Ireland.
And with that, Dan left his beloved Steelers and the National Football League for a career in foreign service and another love of his life – Ireland.
Once his posting in Ireland had concluded, Dan returned to America, to Pittsburgh, to his home on the city’s North Side, and to his office at the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex, which always was right next to the office occupied by his son, Art II. But as he was preparing for Ireland and the Ambassadorship, Dan was asked if he had any advice for the NFL he was leaving, if only temporarily, and his words then still apply today.
“I could say the same thing about the league as I could say for society, and that is: don’t let money and individual fame get in the way. The thing the NFL has, the thing that makes us good – and this is what motivated me – is the game. I realized the game is it. I think it’s the best game in the world.
“I would just like to be thought of as someone who gave his time to the game, who was willing to spend the extra hour when it came time to doing the job. But it’s the people – which I did get from my father – the people are what counts. And they are people, they’re individuals and not just left tackles or linebackers – even the quarterbacks.”
Even though Dan Rooney was born with the Pittsburgh Steelers and the NFL in his blood, he often cited 1955 as the official start of his involvement in the family business. There can be no argument that 62 years later, he left everything he touched in better shape than he found it.
“The thing I’ve done is to just help everybody here do their job,” he said., “and to be sure that they know that our integrity is always first and foremost. That if we say something, it better be right. We’re not here to cheat anybody, the players or anyone else. You don’t need to be out there trying to take advantage of people in order to succeed. And (that approach) hasn’t hurt us.”
Sadly, Daniel Rooney passed away in April of 2017 at the age of 84. His legacy will live on through the Pittsburgh Steelers’ organization as well as his many impactful contributions to the great game of football.
Excerpts taken from “Walking with Kings” by Bob Labriola, Editor, Steelers Digest and Contributor, Steelers.com
Excerpt from Steelers.com, posted April 13, 2017