Tracing Steelers’ winning culture


In Steelers country, and around the world, the name “Rooney” stands for something: excellence, integrity, vision, winning.

The family is one of the most respected in all of sports, known for big-picture thinking, strong values and a culture of excellence, all of which have contributed to building of one of the NFL’s most successful franchises.

Jim Rooney is the eighth of nine children of longtime Steelers chairman, Dan Rooney, who passed away earlier this year.

The founder of FirstLink, a company which provides culture consulting for businesses, he has a unique view of the Black and Gold, which operated as a family business for much of his life.

Speaking in Bedford last month, Rooney shared his insight with a gathering of local professionals about three aspects of their corporate culture that make the Pittsburgh Steelers special.

“The balance of task and relationship, clarity and what I see as the ‘it’ factor: that special quality that the Apples, and Googles have,” said Rooney.

“Fundamentally I think that means that there’s an alignment between individuals and the purpose of the company.”

Rooney told the story of the Steelers, beginning with his grandfather’s gift of building relationships.

“He would meet people and within a few minutes, he’d go beyond business relationships and get to know them in a way that was very sincere and very genuine,” Jim said. “And he also had toughness. I never saw him be mean to anyone…he treated everyone with dignity, but you always knew where you stood in your relationship with him … he was authentic.”

Art Rooney founded the Steelers, among many business ventures, including horse tracks, a boxing promoting company and a semi-pro baseball team.

While he had a great knack for launching businesses, his grandson says he was not a detail-kind-of-guy.

And that’s where Dan Rooney came in. The task-oriented son looked at the future of the NFL in terms of television; he saw the value of revenue-sharing.

He was analytical, organized and prepared. Jim recounted that in 1969, Dan Rooney stood up to his father, convincing him to hire Chuck Noll; and the rest is kind of history.

“Chuck Noll came in and gave the Steelers clarity,” Jim said. “He decided that the Steelers’ only goal was to win the Super Bowl championship; anything that wasn’t aligned with that goal he considered a distraction.”

Jim also credited Noll with bringing in good people who understood that goal and were united in dedication, sacrifice and teamwork, but it was the players in the locker room who created the “it” factor for the Pittsburgh Steelers.

For Rooney, Joe Greene personified the special leadership quality that sets elite teams, as well as companies apart from others.

“That quality is brotherly love,” Jim said. “If Joe believed in you, and showed you this love and passion, it changed the atmosphere from this normal workplace to something extraordinary.”

Rooney said that when the Steelers are special, there is someone like that in the locker room.

“Joe Greene was first, but Franco (Harris) was like that, Tunch (Ilkin) and (Craig) Wolfley had it and Jerome Bettis,” he added. “They created this environment where it’s not just a bunch of guys looking at X’s and O’s … .there was love in those leaders, and that special quality made us successful.”

Not interested in name-dropping, and uncomfortable being in the position of bragging about his family, Jim Rooney graciously shared keys to success that extend beyond football, to benefit any industry.

But his humble countenance only reinforced the qualities that are so admired in the Steelers and the Rooney family: Excellence and authenticity.

Kellie Goodman Shaffer can be reached at Her column appears on Tuesdays.