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Dan Rooney: Much more than just the Rooney Rule

by Donal Ware
boxtorow.com

People will remember former Pittsburgh Steelers president Dan Rooney, who passed away on Thursday at the age of 84, for the Rooney Rule. The Rooney Rule was championed by Rooney and was implemented in 2003, requiring all NFL teams to interview at least one minority candidate for a head coaching position. That rule was later expanded to interviews for senior level position.

And while it’s a shame that this kind of rule had to be implemented, look at the coaches that have benefited from the rule. Former Chicago Bears and Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach Lovie Smith and Carolina Panthers coach Ron Rivera benefited from the rule as well as others.

But no one probably benefited more than current Steelers coach Mike Tomlin. Rooney has often said that Tomlin was not interviewed to satisfy the rule, which has also been a detriment to some coaches who were interviewed just to satisfy the rule. Tomlin had only been a coach in the NFL for six years, only one as a (defensive) coordinator with the Vikings in 2006, before being hired by the Steelers in 2007 at the young age of 34 no less and replacing Bill Cowherd who retired.

All Tomlin has gone on to do is lead the Steelers to a Super Bowl victory in 2009, another appearance in 2011, rack up a .644 winning percentage with a record of 103-57 and has led the Steelers to seven playoff appearances in 10 years.

He comes from the Tony Dungy coaching tree. Dungy was a pioneer who was a precursor to the Rooney Rule and while successful as a head coach, could have and would have benefited from the Rooney Rule earlier in his career. As a matter of fact, it was in part because of he and former Vikings and Cardinals head coach, the late Denny Green, that the rule was implemented. Despite the success that Dungy had as the Buccaneers head coach, he was fired in 2001. The Bucs hired Jon Gruden and won the Super Bowl in 2002 mostly behind what Dungy had implemented in Tampa. Dungy was the first Black head coach to win a Super Bowl, leading the Indianapolis Colts to the title in 2007. Tomlin was second.

At times when Black coaches were rare and there were no head coaches or coordinators, no rule had to be implemented and no one had to mandate to Rooney, Chuck Knoll or the Steelers to interview or hire a Black head coach. They were ahead of the curve when they hired Dungy first as a defensive backs coach in 1981 and then as defensive coordinator in 1984.

The Steelers won six Super Bowls under Rooney. Four of those came under legendary coach Knoll in the 70’s. A significant amount of the contributing players on those Super Bowl teams came from players who played at HBCUs.

Bill Nunn, Jr., a graduate of West Virginia State was the former managing editor at the Pittsburgh Courier. In 1967, he was hired by Rooney’s father Art, to be a part-time scout, mostly because of his and the Courier’s coverage of HBCU Football. He was hired as the assistant director of player personnel in 1970 and held that position until 1987 and was semi-retired, staying on until his death in 2014.

The most notable players drafted from HBCUs during Nunn’s time included Pro Football Hall of Famers Mel Blount (Southern) and John Stallworth (Alabama A&M) and two players that were part of those vaunted Steelers defenses that should be in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Donnie Shell (South Carolina State) and L.C. Greenwood (Arkansas Pine Bluff). Other players include Ernie Holmes (Texas Southern), Earl Holmes (Florida A&M) and Greg Lloyd (Fort Valley State) to name a few. Greenwood and Ernie Holmes were two members of the famed Fearsome Foursome.

In his later years, he certainly scouted former South Carolina State star and two-time BOXTOROW Willie Davis Defensive Player of the Year Javon Hargrave, who the Steelers picked in the third round of the 2016 NFL Draft and had a very good rookie season.

Rooney leaves one of the great legacies of all-time. In addition to his football prowess, he was ambassador to Ireland under President Barack Obama, who he endorsed in 2008. He helped to orchestrate the end to the work stoppage in 1982 and helped to implement the salary cap. For his contributions, he was voted to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2000.

With all of his achievements and his name attached to a controversial rule that has been both good and bad, but has had some successes and led to opportunities for minority coaches who may have otherwise not been given opportunities as head coaches, he didn’t need to have a rule in his name to be a pioneer and champion for what was right.