By BOB LABRIOLA
He was sworn in by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on July 1, and two days later Dan Rooney was in Dublin to present his credentials to Ireland President Mary McAlweese. With that, he officially traded one love for another.
Football, specifically the NFL and the Pittsburgh Steelers, has been the only job Dan Rooney ever wanted, and history proves he did it very well. His counsel to his father – franchise founder Art Rooney Sr. – began to have an impact on the direction of the franchise in the mid-1960s. It was Dan Rooney who urged his father to draw a line in the sand with mercurial coach Buddy Parker, and then it was Dan who impressed upon his father the folly of continuing to hire friends or friends of friends for that job.
And so it was that Chuck Noll begat Bill Cowher who begat Mike Tomlin, and the Steelers became the first NFL franchise to win six Super Bowls when they defeated the Arizona Cardinals last February.
Dan Rooney's influence extended to the NFL at large. His efforts were critical in arriving at the labor peace that has bathed the league in prosperity since 1993, and the initiative he championed to open opportunities for minorities is referred to as the Rooney Rule. He was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in August 2000.
But now, that part of Dan Rooney's life is over, at least it's on hold through the duration of his post as U.S. Ambassador to Ireland. His last day at his desk at the Steelers' practice facility – the UPMC Sports Performance Complex – was Monday, and before departing he granted an interview to Steelers.com.
Q. Why are you doing this?
When the President of the United States asks you to do something, especially this president who is a friend of mine, you want to look at it and say, "I should figure out how to do it," rather than, "Should I do this?" That was my primary thinking.
I did not support Barack Obama or do any campaigning for him to get anything in return. I wanted to get him elected, I did everything I could to get him elected. This (ambassadorship) came up afterward, and it has been received pretty well, talking about the people in Ireland. They might not be so excited after I've been there for two weeks, but the people in the government are pleased that everything is going well. It looks like it can be a plus. Everybody believes the relationship between Ireland and the United States is super, and it is great, but there are problems to be worked out.
Q. The two things in your life you have loved in terms of work have been football and Ireland. Is there anything other than Ireland capable of getting you away from football?
I would have considered anything President Obama asked me to do. I really would have. They did ask me if I was interested in the Vatican or Ireland. I said, "I'll do whatever you want." Either one would be fine if I am going to do it. There are a lot of people in the hierarchy who thought I would be good at the Vatican. As it comes down to it, there is no question that I could do more in Ireland for the United States.
Q. When you look at your career in football – six Super Bowls, the Rooney Rule, a member of the Pro Hall of Fame, being instrumental in this ongoing labor peace – did you ever get to the point where you thought you had accomplished everything you could in the NFL?
No, not from the standpoint of me accomplishing everything. The idea is that it's time to let other people be involved. My relationship with Roger Goodell is excellent. I talk to him all the time, and we get along very well. Doing things for him, I would have always done that. In fact, he had some reluctance with me taking this post because of some of the things I have done. As far as saying I have accomplished everything, I really didn't have that in mind. I did have in mind that it is time to pass the torch and move on, to let the young guys like Art (Rooney II) and Roger and many of the other young people involved in the league, let them get on with it.
Q. There have been many great players here. Can you pick out the Steelers' most important player?
As you say, there were so many great players, it's not easy to say you're going to pick just one. The guy who became the player who meant everything, and this isn't taking away from Chuck Noll or anyone else in the organization, but Joe Greene was a special guy. He formulated and got things going in the right direction. He started to get people to believe that we had a chance, and we could do this. Chuck was a big part of that, too, and you're almost talking about both of them when you get to establishing the attitude that the Steelers could win. But when you talk about a player, Joe was it.
Now, Franco (Harris) was a guy who was terrific and got a lot of attention for the Immaculate Reception and things like that. He meant a lot and did a lot, but nothing like Joe in terms of setting the tone, going and getting things straightened out if there was anything wrong, and things like that. That had much to do with putting us on the road to victory.
Q. Do you have any advice for the NFL as you leave?
The thing I would say to the league, as you ask this question, is the same as I could say for society, and that is: don't let money and individual fame get in the way. The thing the NFL has, the thing that makes us good – and this is what motivated me – is the game. I realized the game is it. I think it's the best game in the world.
The players are important. When (former NFLPA executive director) Ed Garvey said all those years ago, "We are the game," everyone on the management side got all excited. I never did. I'm willing to say the players are the game, but so is everybody else. So are the coaches and the staff.
We have good people here with the Steelers, and I think that is going to carry us on. We have had good people, because we have always tried to bring good people in. I think that has much to do with success. Everyone pulling in the same direction, everyone in this together. The National Football League, starting with the commissioner and going to the owners, on down to the players, coaches and staff on each team all are involved in the operation.
Q. You talked about bringing in good people. With the Steelers, that might best be exemplified by the fact you have had only three head coaches since 1969. What do you think was key to the process that you used to come up with those guys?
I think it was the process that was the right thing. We had myself and Art being involved when we hired Mike Tomlin, but also bringing in other people who were here at the time.
There are a lot of parts to it, but the big thing is the interview, and what the person has to say to show that he is a good person. Talking to other people about him isn't as critical, because almost everyone you would ask would have good things to say. You have to take that as part of the evaluation, and there might be things you find out from talking to other people that you want to look at further, even if they are good things.
Talking to the individual and how he reacts in those situations, and what he has to say, that's what I always saw as important. I just didn't have one interview and then try to list their qualities. I called them back, talked to them at night and brought them in again.
Bill Cowher would always say that when I would call him and talk to him, his wife Kaye would ask when we were finished, "What did he say?" He told her we would talk about anything, and then she would ask, "What did he say about football?" He would answer, "We didn't talk about football," and that was the truth. We didn't need to talk about football. We wanted to find out about him the individual. I know all these guys know something about football.
Q. Since you are going to become one now – a Steelers' fan – do you have anything you want to say to them?
There is no question that Steelers' fans are individuals who approach the game with such a strong feeling for us. They support us. One example that always stuck with me was during the one players' strike in the 1980s when we let anybody who wanted to turn their tickets in to do that, and then we hardly had anybody turn them in.
They travel with us and they support us in these towns that make it really difficult for them to buy tickets, which I think is pretty stupid. Those owners are better off having our fans in there cheering – it might help their own fans get excited a little bit. I just feel these fans continue to show their support. They are there for us and really motivate the players.
When I talk to the rookies, I tell them, "This is a special town, but there is good and bad with that. If you do something bad, I am going to hear about it the next morning. Don't think you can hide anything."
Q. What do you think you will miss the most?
I'll miss the people, being with the players and talking to them, kidding around with them. After the last Super Bowl, Peter King wrote a story in Sports Illustrated about how the Steelers are different than anybody else because they kid around with everybody, even the owner. That's the way it is here. Nobody is on any pedestal above anybody else. They just do what they should do.
I'll miss being with the coaches and talking with them, talking to Mike (Tomlin). We haven't said much about him yet, but Mike is a special guy. No. 1, he is a good person, which I have talked about before. No. 2, he is a bright guy who handles things so well. Here again, when I go to talk to him, we're not always necessarily talking about Sunday's game. We might be talking generally about football sometimes, but other times we're talking about his kids, talking about my kids, talking about other things that are involved with our lives.
Q. Would you rule out ever coming back to football?
When this diplomatic post is over – it's usually a three-year assignment – I would look at the thing and see how things are and see what I can do. I don't want to be a burden here. I don't want to be someone who is looking over Art's shoulder every time he does things. I don't want to be that.
I do think I probably have things that I could add, could contribute, and not only here but maybe with Roger Goodell. I wouldn't be looking over his shoulder, but there again, it would be like a friend wanting to talk. A lot of people don't believe you should be friends with people, but I have no problem being friends with everybody and being willing to talk.
Bringing President Obama back into it, he once made the statement that you have to be willing to talk to everybody. Don't only talk to your friends, but be willing to talk to people who have different opinions and are on a different side of an issue. With regards to the labor situation in the NFL, I stood up and said I'm willing to talk to these guys. I told the other owners that I'm willing to talk to Ed Garvey, I'm willing to talk to Gene Upshaw. Gene Upshaw and I became great friends, and he became someone I really cared about.
What I am saying is, when you grow older you see people's abilities. All my kids really have something to contribute to this world, and that's what I want them to do. They give me a bad time every once in a while, saying, "Don't talk to him about money, he doesn't know there is such a thing." Well, I just don't believe in making decisions based upon money. I don't think I have ever made a decision in my life on money. And I hope I don't.
Q. You have seen the Steelers repeat as Super Bowl champions. It happened twice in the 1970s. What does that take, based upon your experience?
It takes a special group of people and a special leader where you keep your eye on the goal. Your focus is there. We won two in a row two times. But we lost in 1976, which may have been our best team ever, and that's an illustration of the challenge of coming back and being able to win it again. There are things that come at you from the outside, and in that case it was injuries that the team just cannot deal with. When you're going for the whole thing, when you're going after a championship, it takes a lot of different elements all to come together at one time. Therefore, you need a few breaks."
The rest of this interview will appear in the training camp issue of Steelers Digest, available on Tuesday, July 28.