It was tremendously humbling to have been asked to serve on the Selection Committee for the Steelers’ Hall of Honor, and one of the things I came to understand as the meetings progressed through the summer was that the primary purpose was recognition, not necessarily competition.
Making the point that the Hall of Honor is about recognition might seem to be stating the obvious, and it is, but I came to understand it was about recognition without a hint of competition. And what I mean by competition is that in just about every other instance of halls of fame, or rings of honor, or other similar efforts to recognize greatness, there is significance placed on when an individual is recognized. A first-ballot Hall of Fame selection, as an example, is seen as better or more significant than an individual who has to wait a period of time before being inducted.
Not so much with the Hall of Honor.
The Pittsburgh Steelers have been a family business since Art Rooney Sr. founded the franchise in 1933, and that history also includes a tradition of treating players like family. This is something I have experienced first-hand during my time in their employ, and it didn’t take long for that attitude to reveal itself again during these meetings.
The Steelers love all of their great players and coaches and contributors equally, and with one notable exception there never has been any interest on the part of the franchise to prioritize the group that brought the first four of those six Lombardi trophies to Pittsburgh. The lone exception, of course, is Joe Greene, and to me what it meant when Dan Rooney and Art Rooney II decided to retire No. 75 was a public acknowledgment of what role he played in the dramatic turnaround of the franchise that had won nothing to that point in its history.
Joe Greene was special, and of all the different ways that can be stated and explained, the definitive evidence is this: when Dan Rooney was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame as part of the Class of 2000, he asked Joe Greene to present him for induction. Not Chuck Noll. Not Commissioner Paul Tagliabue or another member of NFL royalty. Not a member of his family.
Dan Rooney picked Joe Greene, and then from the podium on that induction day, he said, “Joe Greene, a real Steeler, is a person of integrity, whom I admire as a friend. I am privileged to have Joe present me to the Hall of Fame.”
Beyond Joe Greene, I truly believe that the disinterest in prioritizing was the driving force behind the size of this inaugural group to go into the Hall of Honor, and I expect it will be a factor in selecting subsequent groups as well. Fans and media might enjoy an enthusiastic debate over whether Mel Blount or Jack Ham was the more transformative player at their respective positions, or whether Jack Lambert or Mike Webster was tougher, or whether Lynn Swann or John Stallworth was the more dynamic receiver, or whether it was Terry Bradshaw or Franco Harris who was the hub of the offense throughout the 1970s.
But not the Steelers. Those kinds of discussions never happened in our meetings, and I don’t believe those kinds of discussions would’ve gained any traction if they had come up.
The Steelers announced 27 individuals who will comprise the Hall of Honor class.
One of the rather unique things with the Hall of Honor, and this certainly seems to be in keeping with the attitude just presented, is that there are no specific rules regarding class size. There is no minimum number of honorees per year, and more significantly at least in the early going is that there’s also no maximum.
The Steelers have been in existence for 84 years, and because they’re just now getting into the business of paying tribute to their own, there is a lot of catching up to do. I would imagine there could be some large groups selected for the Hall of Honor over the next few years, because as one member of the Selection Committee put it, “We have a duty to move the line along.”
And in closing, it never has been the Rooney way to self-promote, to congratulate themselves on a job well done. It’s part of franchise history that in the days immediately following the victory in Super Bowl IX, Art Rooney Sr. overheard the receptionist answer the telephone with, “World Champion Pittsburgh Steelers.” He quietly instructed her not to do that anymore. The Steelers also were the franchise first presented with the idea of titling themselves “America’s Team” by NFL Films, but that offer also was declined because the Rooneys saw themselves as “Pittsburgh’s team.”
I never got the impression that the Hall of Honor was a departure from that mind-set. It’s more a celebration of Steelers history, and maybe even a subtle attempt to educate fans about Steelers history while also letting those former players, coaches, and staff know that their contributions are appreciated and haven’t been forgotten.
There are a lot of things different about the Pittsburgh Steelers. About the things they consider important and the things they don’t. About how they treat their own. About how they can be completely uninterested in measuring their success by anything but winning, and yet still be able to know when it’s better to be inclusive.
I imagine the Hall of Honor, in that regard, will be a reflection of that.