This Nov. 2, 2014 file photo shows Pittsburgh Steelers Pro Football Hall of Famer Joe Greene, left, hugging Steelers chairman Dan Rooney following a ceremony to retire Greene's jersey number 75 at half time of an NFL football game between the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Baltimore Ravens, in Pittsburgh. The Steelers announced that Mr. Rooney died Thursday, April 13, 2017. He was 84. (AP Photo)
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As irony would have it, Joe Greene was discussing the Rooney Rule over lunch with former NFL scouting executives Thursday afternoon in Dallas.
Just two hours later, the Steelers announced that the man for whom the transformative NFL rule was named had died at age 84.
Dan Rooney was a great many things to a great many people, whether it was serving as Ambassador to Ireland or as a power broker in the NFL as Steelers chairman.
Rooney leaves quite a legacy, from his hiring of Chuck Noll as head coach to drafting Greene as the franchise cornerstone that turned the Steelers from four decades of losing to six-time Super Bowl champions.
But, decades from now, Rooney might be best remembered for forcing the NFL in 2003 to adopt a rule that requires teams to interview at least one minority candidate in the process of hiring a head coach.
“Whether it's the transformation of the Steelers or the transformation of the National Football League, opening the door for minorities to be head coaches and administrators, he probably wouldn't want to be identified with either,” Greene said. “It's a shared thing. That's the way he is, or was.
“If I had to pick one for him — with the emphasis on one for him — it would be the Rooney Rule.”
Greene was discussing the rule with John Wooten, a former NFL All-Pro guard who served as director of scouting for the Cowboys, Eagles and Ravens and is now chairman of the Fritz Pollard Alliance, an advocacy group that works with the NFL to help minorities find coaching, scouting and front-office positions.
Wooten shared with Greene what a trusted benefactor Rooney was to him and how important he had been in executing the Rooney Rule, a man who would listen to his concerns, whether he agreed or disagreed.
“When he spoke, you paid attention to him, but he spoke in a way that was very conversational, non-threatening, like there was a lot of wisdom in what he said so you listened to him,” Greene said. “There were many decisions he made for the club, for the city and for the National Football League that often go unrecognized. That's how he functioned, making tough decisions behind closed doors. When the Steelers had great times, you never saw him. When times were rocky, he was out front.”
That was Rooney, a diplomat long before he became ambassador, one who employed patience when the world around him demanded action. He was smart but shrewd. He hired Bill Nunn as a scout, then built a dynasty by drafting players from historically black colleges. He hired African-American assistant coaches like Tony Dungy and Marvin Lewis, who would go on to become NFL head coaches before the Rooney Rule took effect.
The Steelers have had as many head coaches — Noll, Bill Cowher and Mike Tomlin – as the league has had commissioners during Rooney's reign. Rooney was smart and shrewd, failing to allow personal sentiment to cloud his decisions. In replacing Noll with Cowher, he chose the Crafton native over Greene, whom he considered the greatest players in Steelers history.
“When Dan told me I wasn't going to be the next head coach, I was disappointed,” Greene said. “On my 20-minute drive home from the stadium to my house, I felt quite comfortable with the decision that Dan made. I trusted that he thought he was doing what was best for the team and I trusted him enough to know that he was making the decision for his team and the Pittsburgh Steelers. Did I want to be a head coach? Yes, I did. But I had no problem with it. Dan carries that kind of trust and belief, that there's no ulterior motive behind his decisions other than doing what's right for the Pittsburgh Steelers and the city of Pittsburgh.”
When Rooney replaced Cowher with Tomlin, it could have been viewed as the Steelers implementing the Rooney Rule. But Greene believes it had nothing to do with that, other than Rooney using the process to identify bright candidates and finding one in Tomlin. That decision was rewarded a year later with a sixth Lombardi Trophy.
“With the idea and class in the way Mr. Rooney presented it, there's no bias in it,” Greene said. “The Rooney Rule was incorporated to eliminate biases. There's no guarantee about who will be heard, but there is a guarantee that you will be heard. That's all you need. As long as the participants continue to keep trying to grow the game without bias like Mr. Rooney did with the Rooney Rule, the game is going to be better.
“The Rooney Rule and the aftermath in this short period of time is just that, a space in time. We've seen some positives because of that. The door was opened to African-Americans being in administrative positions, as head coaches and coordinators. When I first started playing, I couldn't name you a black assistant coach. It's just a space in time, that something has to happen to keep the game moving forward. Having African-Americans on the football field has been good for the game. Having African-Americans in the administratrive offices, as head coaches, assistants and coordinators has been good for the game. Let's hope we continue to grow the game.”
Let's remember Dan Rooney, not just for the rule he gave the game but the way he ran the Steelers, as the face of a family business that has represented the best of our city and its people for generations.