More than 15 years ago, the Pittsburgh Steelers partnered with UPMC Sports Medicine and the University of Pittsburgh, and the result was the kind of practice/training facility that became the model for all others that were built thereafter. During a news conference this morning, the Steelers and UPMC Sports Medicine announced a 15-year extension on the original 15-year deal, and in the process agreed on a renaming of the facility, now to be known as the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex.
"The alliance between a major medical institution with its sports medicine capacity and a championship football team in the Pittsburgh Steelers is very much the vision of Dan Rooney," said UPMC President and CEO Jeffrey Romoff. "It was his vision 15-20 years ago along with Dr. Freddie Fu that created what, as (Steelers President) Art (Rooney II) pointed out, was entirely unprecedented. And basically it spelled the future for the way sports – professional sports and college sports and amateur sports – are handled in this modern age."
The Steelers didn't have their own practice facility during their time at Three Rivers Stadium, and when the weather became a serious issue, the only indoor options available to the team were Pitt's Fitzgerald Field House or what was nothing more than some carpeted concrete at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center. Heinz Field was set to open for the 2001 season, and the year before that the Steelers first moved into the practice facility they have shared with the Pitt football team from the start. Actually, in 1999 Coach Bill Cowher started the process of having the players board buses at Three Rivers Stadium and ride over to the city's South Side so his team could have the luxury of practicing on a couple of natural grass fields, and by 2000 the rest of the facility had been opened and was fully operational.
"It's been a great partnership in all ways, and so that's why we're excited to be able to continue it, and enhance and improve our facilities," said Art Rooney II. "When we moved into this facility, I think it was one of the first of its kind in the NFL, and today almost every team has something similar. So it set the standard for what training facilities in the NFL would become. Now we're looking forward to expanding and improving the facilities."
The improvements on tap for the upcoming offseason include an expansion of the weight room and training facilities. Art Rooney II estimated the expansion will add approximately 5,000 square feet to the existing structure.
"The major piece of the puzzle will be an expansion of our training facilities on the first floor, which will include an expanded weight room and conditioning room," said Art Rooney II. "We're probably going to be able to add a little over 5,000 square feet to the workout facility on two floors. There will be some other improvements to the hydrotherapy area, as well as some in the indoor practice facility. We're really excited about it. Our winning percentage since moving here in 2000 is .642, and so it's been a great place for us to work and train."
All along, the idea of the Steelers practicing and playing on natural grass was of paramount importance to Dan Rooney, who still believes that surface is the best one for the well-being of the players. He regularly rebuffed any and all suggestions to install artificial turf at Heinz Field, and the two grass practice fields outside what now will be known as the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex are maintained meticulously year round by members of the team's playing surface staff. It was this level of commitment to the players that led to the renaming of the facility.
"We're thrilled with the name change and proud that the complex now will be known as the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex," said Art Rooney II, "and I just want to make sure we understand which Rooney we're talking about when we refer to that."
Said Steelers Chairman Dan Rooney, "I want to thank Jeffrey and UPMC Sports Medicine for their help and involvement in the effort we are making to take care of our football players. The Steelers have used UPMC Medical Health System for a long time. Our football players have been cared for by the great medical staff at UPMC for many years. The changes we are making are being done for the players' needs. The treatment they receive every day is excellent, and they will continue to receive that same care. The players are the reason we are making these changes, because we want these facilities to be the best in the NFL. I want to thank Jeffrey Romoff and UPMC for making these improvements possible."
The physical expansion of the facility and the improvements made within the structure are only part of the partnership between the Steelers and UPMC. The convenience of having sophisticated examination, diagnostic, and treatment options within walking distance is another layer to the care of the players that Dan Rooney long has championed.
"Injuries and injury prevention and the science of concussion and the science of taking care of people have been pioneered here at this sports medicine complex. It has been and will be the vision of Dan Rooney," said Romoff.
According to Art Rooney II, the expansion and improvements to the existing building will take place over the course of the upcoming offseason. He said the work is to be finished by the time the players return from training camp at Saint Vincent College next summer. The cost is estimated at $10 million, with that to be shared by UPMC and the Steelers.
"We have a little bit of a tight site here," said Art Rooney II, "so we have to squeeze a few things into the land we have, but I think it will work well."
"Right down the street now, we have the largest concussion clinic in the country," said Art Rooney II. "UPMC sees more concussion patients than anywhere else in the country, and so the research they're able to do because of that is very important. We're excited to be a part of that and excited to be able to continue to work with the professionals at the Concussion Clinic on understanding the injury, and most importantly, understanding how to treat the injury. They've made great strides over there, and we look forward to being able to help them continue that research."
Supporting that contention was the fact nearly 30 leading, independent concussion clinicians and researchers from around the United States convened at UPMC on Oct. 15-16 to propose standard guidelines on the best practices, protocols and active therapies for treating concussions today. For the first time in the relatively infant science of concussion, U.S. experts came together to discuss what the UPMC organizers call Targeted Evaluation and Active Management (TEAM) Approaches to Treating Concussion. Representatives from the National Institutes of Health and the U.S. Department of Defense, among others, also participated.
"Our players have access to the treatment that available right down the street, and as Dr. Micky Collins, the Director of the UPMC Concussion Clinic, will tell you, they feel strongly that active treatment, as they call it, is the way to proceed," said Art Rooney II. "It is a change in what was traditionally thought to be a treatment that required a lot of rest and staying in a dark room. The conference that was here in October addressed the idea that active treatment is something that is becoming the norm in concussion treatment, and we're looking forward to continuing to partner with them on researching how that should be rolled out across the country and making sure athletes around the country have access to that kind of concussion treatment."