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Dan Rooney: A Big Life Lived Quietly

by on April 20, 2017 5:00 AM


A week ago Dan Rooney passed away suddenly, as suddenly as a man in his mid-80s can pass. For Steeler fans it marked a shocking and saddening day. Beyond Pittsburgh, our whole nation would be wise to remember that his life was about more than football, the Pittsburgh Steelers or even the NFL.

Mr. Rooney was a man of his generation, and as more and more giants pass each day, we’d all do well to learn from their lives.

Whether you knew him or not, even from a distance you could learn from him. The players talked about him with reverence and respect, but also mentioned how much they LOVED him. Coaches who worked for him recall getting paychecks that were handwritten and signed by him. Mr. Rooney personally handed out Christmas gifts to players.

The Steelers were a family business. Family mattered to Dan Rooney who, like many Irish-Catholics in big families filled a multitude of roles: loving son, father, husband, brother, grandfather and more.

No man is perfect, but there are those whose moral compass and value system always make them try to do the right things. Mr. Rooney was such a man. It is an important distinction that we forget in our knee-jerk reactionary times.

After Dan passed, some in certain media outlets immediately tried to point out flaws or manufacture some type of negative aspects to Dan Rooney’s life. That is pathetic, but sadly that is the world we live in.

In life, intentions matter, even when things go awry. Guided by a devout faith, Dan Rooney’s intentions were noble, and his heart was open.

The stories of his humility and heart are legion.

He was kind enough, even while he was still the U.S. Ambassador to Ireland, to visit my mother in State College to pay his respects after the loss of my father. While he was at our kitchen table he recalled stories about my father’s discussions with the Steelers in 1969. Joe Paterno often cited two NFL owners he could work for: Wellington Mara of the New York Giants and the Rooneys in Pittsburgh.

Mr. Rooney’s values and his humble leadership should be celebrated. Here understood that to whom much is given, much is expected. Despite immense success he never forgot his North Side roots.

Mr. Rooney was part of a generation that understood leadership is measured across time, not in 140 character bites on social media. Mr. Rooney’s true leadership was being willing to endure short-term criticism because he possessed an inner confidence knowing his values were right, his course was correct and that he would attain the long-term sustained excellence that defines tradition.

A few weeks ago in a business class lecture at the University of Pittsburgh, I used the Steelers as an example of sustained excellence through long-view leadership. Mr. Rooney understood that the path to a championship team, or a championship life was not a straight line and not always forward. There were setbacks, but with his loyalty to the people who shared his ideals he always righted the ship.

That is why, even in a tough season, everyone knew there was a wisdom that prevented panic in the Pittsburgh Steelers organization. Since hiring Chuck Noll in 1969 the Pittsburgh Steelers have had three head coaches… and all of them have won a Super Bowl. In that Pitt lecture, I contrasted that with the Cleveland Browns who in that time have had 18 head coaches.

But despite great success, Mr. Rooney’s values for the Steelers also reflected his personal humility.

In the spring of 2014 I visited him in his office and casually mentioned to him how much the Steelers’ offices reminded me of the offices at Penn State when I worked there. The Steelers’ complex was understated and simple. The only nod to their unparalleled place in history was a subtle display of the Vince Lombardi Trophies.

Mr. Rooney smiled and told this story. When they returned from winning their first Super Bowl, he went into the office the next morning. As he walked past the front desk the phone was ringing. The receptionist answered the phone saying “Good morning, thanks for calling the World Champion Pittsburgh Steelers.”

When she was done with the call he approached her and politely told her he did not want her to answer the phone that way. He did not want to brag, and told her if they don’t know we won, they don’t know. He was OK with that.

Humility at the height of success.

Mr. Rooney’s life should teach us all these lessons:

Dream big dreams, stay patient, serve others, keep your faith, be loyal, value respect over celebrity or fame and try to do right by all people and do it without calling attention to yourself. To those who watched this man from a distance and on some occasions up close that is what many of us will take away from Mr. Rooney and how he lived a big life quietly.

What a man. What a lesson. What values. And what a life for our time and for all times.



State College native and Penn State graduate Jay Paterno is a father, husband and political volunteer. He’s a frequent guest lecturer on campus and at Penn State events and was the longtime quarterbacks coach for the Nittany Lions. His column appears every other Thursday. Follow him on Twitter at
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