I didn’t know Dan Rooney, but like many Pittsburghers, I felt like I did.
Rooney died April 13 at the age of 84, and this city is mourning his loss. The Steelers owner spent his life in this town. His family and the Steelers are such an important part of this city’s identity and heritage; I think a lot of us felt like we lost a member of our family.
I would occasionally see Rooney when I covered Steelers games and training camp. The thing I will always remember is the respect that he garnered from the people he met. Several years ago, at training camp in Latrobe, I saw a man in his 50s stop dead in his tracks as Rooney approached him, then remove his cap and step to the side. They exchanged pleasantries, and as Rooney walked away, the man just stood there smiling. That was the kind of reverence that most people in this town had for Dan Rooney.
Rooney used his position as one of the longest-running owners in the NFL to influence the game of football. Rooney’s biggest accomplishment was the push toward racial equality in the NFL’s hiring process. You’ve undoubtedly heard many times about the “Rooney Rule.” This league-wide policy, enacted in 2003, requires that minority candidates be interviewed for all head-coaching positions and senior football-operations jobs. Minorities were specifically being overlooked in the league for these positions. As head of the league’s diversity committee, Rooney got the necessary support from other owners, a lot of whom were initially reluctant to back the change. Before the rule, minorities held just 6 percent of these positions; it’s now 22 percent.
In addition to his work in football, Rooney was also a supporter of President Barack Obama and served as the U.S. Ambassador to Ireland from 2009-2012. Obama released a statement last week and it pretty much sums up the feelings of a lot of folks.
“I know the people of Pittsburgh who loved him not only for the Super Bowl championships he brought as the owner of the Steelers, but for his generosity of spirit, mourn his passing today,” Obama wrote. “Michelle and I offer our condolences to the Rooney family, some of the most gracious and thoughtful people we know — even as we celebrate the life of Dan Rooney: a championship-caliber good man.”