Dating back to the Pittsburgh Steelers’ inception in 1933 by original owner Art Rooney, they have been under continuous ownership of the Rooney family. One of the most respected names in North American sports, the Rooney family has played a pivotal role in shaping the NFL into what it is today.
The Rooney family and early years of the Pittsburgh Steelers
Since the team’s inception in 1933, there has only been one family that has sat atop one of the most successful franchises in NFL history — the Rooney Family.
Hailing as Irish Catholic immigrants, the Rooneys came to North America in the 1840s during the Great Famine. In 1913, the family moved from Montreal to the Pittsburgh area.
Art Rooney’s affiliation with the NFL began in 1933 when he paid a $2,500 franchise fee to found a club based in Pittsburgh. Initially, he named the team the Pirates, the town’s MLB team. This was a common practice during the era.
Since the league’s start in 1920, the NFL had wanted a team in Pittsburgh, mainly due to its football ties with the University of Pittsburgh. It was not until 1933 that Pennsylvania relaxed their “blue laws” that prohibited sporting events from taking place on Sundays. After all, it is hard to play in the NFL if your state outlaws spots on the day they play.
In 1936, thanks to a parlay where he won $160,000 at Saratoga Race Course, Art Rooney was able to make some noise. As the owner, he hired the Pittsburgh Steelers’ first coach, Joe Bach, gave contracts to his players, and almost won a championship. Those winnings funded the team until 1941.
During World War II, with both teams sending so many players to fight in the war, the Pittsburgh Steelers and Philadelphia Eagles combined teams in 1943 to become the “Steagles.” While the NFL officially lists this as the “Phil-Pitt Combine,” the Steagles refer to the common unofficial name of the team.
Who is the Pittsburgh Steelers’ owner?
Art “The Chief” Rooney, fat cigar and all, ran and owned the Steelers from 1933 until his passing in 1988. He was the first president of the Pittsburgh Steelers from 1933 to 1974 and the first chairman of the team from 1933 to 1988.
Following Art Rooney’s passing, the Steelers’ ownership stayed in the family, transferring to his oldest son, Dan Rooney. During his tenure as owner of the Pittsburgh Steelers, the team was extremely successful. They won 15 division championships, eight AFC Championships, and an NFL record (at the time) six Super Bowl Championships.
In 2000, Rooney earned his selection to the Pro Football Hall of Fame for his contributions to the game. He also receives credit for spearheading a requirement that NFL teams with head coach and general manager vacancies interview at least one minority candidate. This is now known as the “Rooney Rule.”
The former Pittsburgh Steelers’ owner had been a part of the franchise since 1960 when he was director of personnel. Dan Rooney also served as the United States Ambassador to Ireland from July 2009 until his resignation in December 2012.
Upon his passing in 2017, front office operations passed from Dan Rooney to his son and current team president, Art Rooney II. He was initially named team president in May of 2003. He is one of only two third-generation owners in the league, the other being John Mara. Coincidentally, the families also have a connection.
The Mara family name used to be O’Mara, and their Rooney family ancestors originate in Newry, County Down, Northern Ireland. The families are also related by marriage.
What is the “Rooney Rule”?
It is one thing to be the owner of the Pittsburgh Steelers and find success. It is another to promote change and fight for equality. This is the legacy of Dan Rooney.
The Rooney Rule is an NFL policy that requires league teams to interview ethnic-minority candidates for head coaching and senior football operation jobs. The rule was named after Rooney, who was the former chairman of the league’s diversity committee.
Its creation was in response to the 2002 firings of head coaches Tony Dungy and Dennis Green. The moves puzzled everyone as Dungy had a winning record with Tampa Bay. Also, Dennis Green had suffered his only losing season in the last 10 years.
Shortly afterward, U.S. civil rights attorneys Cyrus Mehri and Johnnie Cochran published a study showing that black head coaches were less likely to be hired. Additionally, they were more likely to be fired than their white counterparts.
By the time of the rule’s implementation in 2003, only Tom Flores, Art Shell, Dennis Green, Ray Rhodes, Tony Dungy, and Herman Edwards had ever held head coaching jobs. Since the Rooney Rule’s implementation, progress has been stifled around the NFL. In 2006, the percentage of minority coaches jumped from 6% to 22%. However, that was its peak.
In 2019, there were eight head coaching vacancies. However, only one team, the Miami Dolphins, hired a non-white coach. In 2020, the NFL had three African-American head coaches — the same number from 2003 when the NFL first adopted the Rooney Rule.