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Jim Rooney remembers his father’s outsized NFL legacy in new book

Jim Rooney, son of the late Pittsburgh Steelers owner Dan Rooney (Karl Roser/Pittsburgh Steelers)

There is no debate that the late Dan Rooney was an absolute giant in National Football League circles, ranking as one of the most influential figures in league history. Rooney, the son of Pittsburgh Steelers founder Art Rooney and himself later the team’s owner, helped oversee six Super Bowl champion teams as the Steelers became one of the most dominant sports brands in the world. 

Dan Rooney was also a powerful figure in league administrative circles, playing a key role in multiple labor negotiations with the NFL Players Associations and led the creation of the Rooney Rule, mandating that NFL teams interview at least one minority candidate for head coach and senior football administrative vacancies. Core elements of that measure have since been adopted by a wide range of companies in and out of sports.

Rooney’s son, Jim, believes there is still more to be told about his father’s outsized legacy. The younger Rooney – an entrepreneur, consultant, and business speaker – recently published A Different Way To Win: Dan Rooney’s Story From The Super Bowl To The Rooney Rule. The book, based in part on both his own recollections and interviews conducted with dozens of figures connected to Dan Rooney in some way, predictably delves into the Steelers’ rise into both a NFL and sports industry power, and the Rooney Rule’s outsized legacy in advancing minority hiring. 

But it also delves heavily into the elder Rooney’s tenure more away from football while US Ambassador to Ireland under President Barack Obama from 2009-12, a period in which Rooney visited each Irish county, brought Obama over to visit the country, and worked on a wide range of economic and security issues there.

The book, a mix of a business case study and family memoir, is also a story of family grief as Jim Rooney mourns not only the 2017 passing of his father, but also of three deceased sisters, to whom the book is dedicated.

“I wrote this book because I wanted to provide a story of a unique approach to leadership, management, and organizational culture,” Rooney writes in the book’s foreword. “I hope it will inspire the next generation of leaders.”

Rooney spoke recently with SportBusiness‘ US Editor Eric Fisher about not only Dan Rooney and his legacy, but also the current state of the Rooney Rule and NFL at large. 

Q: Your father has already been quite well chronicled, and there are a great many books about him and the Steelers’ history, including one he did himself. What was your approach and strategy to now telling a new part of his story?

A: What I tried to do is show what I observed which was he was as good as anyone in balancing the relationship between influence and power. He understood, and it was critical to him, that he used his influence for good, that he was accountable, that he was responsible. He wasn’t afraid to step up and be an influential person. But it wasn’t for self-gratification or some type of self-return. So I tried to tell that through four stories: the Steelers of the ‘70s [when the team won four Super Bowls in six years], the Rooney Rule, his work with the league particularly around labor, and his time in Ireland. 

Q: The Ireland piece was particularly interesting because that part of his life has been comparatively far less documented than his work in football.

A: There were so many rich experiences that he had there. But I was also trying to demonstrate that there was, again, a commitment to fairness in everything he did around his leadership there. He was about engagement there, too, trying to build consensus. He always felt that you should always bring everyone to the table. It didn’t mean he’d necessarily agree with you. But he always felt that dialogue was going to be the path to reconciliation. He had strong points of view, but he wasn’t afraid to listen to others’ points of view, too, and I think Ireland really epitomizes that for him maybe more than any other part of his life. 

Q: How was he managing his workload during those Ireland years? He seemed to be working rather long hours then for somebody his age.

A: It was amazing. I’m 52 now, and we’re talking about when I was in my mid-40s. I did maybe 10 trips back and forth [to Ireland] with him. He’s in his late 70s, early 80s at the time. He slept on the plane like everybody else. But once he got engaged in a meeting or a conversation there, there was never a hint of him feeling that exhaustion. It was all in, all the time. This was originally thought to be something of a retirement job for him. But we have so many people at the embassy say it was a great time to be there, to be in foreign service, but it tripled the workload. Everything increased and ramped up when Dan Rooney showed up. 

Q: You covered a lot in the book about the Rooney Rule and where that stands. How would you assess the current state of minority hiring and developing opportunities around sports?

A: If you talk to most people in the business world, they will tell you the mechanism itself  is as solid a mechanism as you can have. There are plenty of challenges to diversity. On the hiring side, if you’re looking at c-level, a high-level individual, we want to eliminate all the obstacles to opportunity. The main idea remains that you want to broaden the pool, but that you still have to complete [for the job]. So on that level, I think it’s still a good thing. We have learned clearly that more than one [candidate] in the pool [for a job] is a good thing. The NFL, I think, has done, a decent job around transparency, but that’s still a place we all have to get to. In the league office, they’ve actually done a good job, and the office there is much more diverse. It’s the teams where where you’re still seeing a struggle. The big things going forward are that, one, interviews are authentic and genuine, and two, is the pool itself. I know my brother [Steelers president Art Rooney II] and [NFL executive vice-president and general counsel] Jeff Pash and others are really thinking about the pipeline and how we keep that robust and where we are going with that. 

Q: What is your overall sense of the health of the league and football at large? TV ratings are obviously strong still, but there are some clear challenges in areas such as attendance and youth participation.

A: I think football is doing extremely well and [commissioner] Roger Goodell has done a really good job. I know he gets criticized in the media. But I think the business is strong in and of itself. I think the challenge we face is the [media] world you spend a lot of time in. I don’t think anybody has figured out what streaming is doing in terms of people’s behavior habits around entertainment. We will build a better relationship with a lot of the streaming partners. But if we get so used to choosing what type of content we want, whenever we want it, are we then going to be willing to go back to something’s that scheduled? Right now, I don’t really think about anything that’s scheduled on television other than a football game or a basketball game. But does that change so drastically that even sports can’t maintain that anchor? To me, that’s a bigger concern.  

Q: What do you see as the key international opportunities for the league, and where particularly do you see the Steelers participating in that?

A: My brother is on the international committee. I think we’re all hopeful we get a game in Mexico soon. We’ve played in London. If you took the Steelers into Mexico, we would fill any stadium there, and it would be full of Terrible Towels. And if you look at our following in other places on Facebook, like India, we have an absurd number of followers. We also have a massive following in the Philippines.

Q: Given the interest around your dad and the scope of his story, could you see some sort of biopic or big documentary being made about him?

A: There are so many ways to develop content now, and we’ve thought about all of them. Right now, I just finished the book and I’m on the tour. But the potential exists.

Q: What was your impression of the Steelers’ recent on-field brawl with the Cleveland Browns, and how the league handled the discipline [which included an indefinite suspension for Browns defensive end Myles Garrett]?

A: I’m staying away from the football side itself. But my conversations when I’ve talked to other folks about this is that the Browns-Steelers rivalry has many, many chapters. The Browns really helped the Steelers they came into the league. Cleveland’s only about two hours from Pittsburgh, and when Paul Brown brought them into the league they were critical to our bottom line. We were losing tons of money and the Browns fans helped fill our stadium and create what is our best rivalry and what became our most important game of the year until about the ‘70s when things kind of switched around. And my father was really the lead owner in helping bring the Browns back. So we had a great relationship with Cleveland. And that particular incident I don’t think reflects football in general and I don’t think reflects the Browns-Steelers rivalry.

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