Dan Rooney was a humble, genuine football man


PITTSBURGH — Of all the things to remember about Dan Rooney, the one that comes to mind immediately is the hot dog line.

The Steelers put out a couple of pans of hot dogs in the press room at halftime of games at Heinz Field. Because the hot dogs are free, the line is long, and Dan Rooney would be in the middle of it, waiting his turn.

Like everyone else, he’d grab a bun, use the tongs to fish a hot dog out of the pan, move to the condiment station and enjoy his snack.

This was a guy who could have cut to the front of the line. He could have told the people in charge to bring him a hot dog. Forget all that, he could have had lobster and filet mignon delivered to his seat.

But even though he was the person paying for the hot dogs, he waited his turn, often behind the kid from W-Nowhere radio and the guy from an obscure weekly who scammed a press pass.

Little things can mean a lot, and Rooney’s presence in the hot dog line spoke volumes about him.

Art Rooney Sr. raised his boys in the rough-and-tumble North Side with a couple of non-negotiable rules: Never let anyone mistake kindness for weakness. And — most important of all — don’t ever act like a big shot.

A big shot would have cut the line. Dan Rooney waited his turn.

In that way, he was his father’s son. In later years, he also had his dad’s unruly white hair and perpetually rumpled appearance, no matter what he wore.

But Art Rooney was the beloved Chief, a naturally gregarious person who considered everyone his friend. Dan Rooney was more quiet and reserved. When Bill Cowher tried to clamp a man hug on him, Dan Rooney awkwardly stiffened.

Father and son were different in another way, too. Art Rooney didn’t do a very good job of running the Steelers. His eldest son turned the team into one of the NFL’s premier franchises.

Dan’s influence started to be felt in the mid-1960s, when he won a power battle against impulsive coach Buddy Parker. Dan Rooney nixed a typical Parker trade which would have sent two of the Steelers’ better young players to Philadelphia for a quarterback who was average on his best day.

Dan Rooney said no. His father backed him, and Parker quit in a huff. The Chief hired one more wrong coach (Bill Austin) before he turned the search over to Dan. After a rebuff from Joe Paterno, which could have rewritten Steelers and Penn State history, Dan Rooney hired Chuck Noll. That was the day the Steelers became a real team.

Rooney was hands on yet rarely meddled. He’d come to the office every day after attending morning Mass. He liked to watch practice. He was a football guy, a former North Catholic quarterback who had grown up in the family business. He sat in the coach’s booth at Heinz Field on game days.

Like his father, he enjoyed personal relationships with the players. He knew their families. When Mike Webster’s life went off the rails, Dan Rooney quietly picked up the bills to help him as much as possible.

Rooney could be tough. He fired his brother from the scouting department because he believed it was the right thing for the business. He ordered his friend Noll to make changes in his staff when the Steelers had sunk into mediocrity. He played hardball when the gravy train for new sports venues was rolling. When a TV interviewer asked him why taxpayers should help prop up a highly successful private business he snapped, “Because that’s the way it works.”

Dan Rooney could have lived behind gates in Fox Chapel, where the joke is garbage cans have to be gold plated. He lived in a big house on the North Side, the neighborhood where he grew up. Police sirens are part of the soundtrack there.

Art Rooney curiously envisioned blue collar career paths for his sons, none of which they followed. He had Dan pegged as an electrician for some reason.

Instead, Dan was the one who embraced the Steelers and made the team his life’s work. The success speaks for itself.

Dan Rooney was a genuine and humble man who happened to be a multi-millionaire.

With his passing, the NFL has lost a moderate voice who helped broker labor deals when the hard-liners failed. We’ve lost a repository of Steelers and NFL history, and a unique multi-generational perspective. We’ve lost someone who contributed to the community in many ways.

And we’ve also lost a guy who never thought he was too good to stand in line and wait his turn for a halftime hot dog.

Mehno can be reached at johnmehnocolumn@gmail.com.