Trace an index finger along the Pittsburgh Steelers’ historical timeline, and you will find not only 496 wins and six Super Bowl titles since 1969, but also an ode to the power of inclusion.
In the early 1970s, they hired Bill Nunn Jr. as one of the league’s first full-time Black scouts, then used his contacts as a former newspaper columnist as a conduit to bring in foundational players from historically black colleges and universities, many of whom played key roles in the franchise winning four championships in six years.
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In 1984, coach Chuck Noll made 28-year-old Tony Dungy not just the youngest defensive coordinator in the league, but also its first African American defensive coordinator. And in 2007, the team hired Mike Tomlin, an African American with only one year of coordinator experience, as head coach. He needed just two seasons to win a Super Bowl and another two years to make a return appearance in the title game.
The person who fostered this culture of inclusion was Dan Rooney, the late Steelers owner who not only advocated for diversity in leadership positions but subscribed to it. According to his family, he believed it was right morally and made good business sense, a point that should not be lost on current owners who have struggled to hire Black head coaches.
Currently, there are only three among the league’s 32 teams, with two being hired this offseason. But before we go too far down this road, let’s change lanes and refocus on the larger point: If owners need a blueprint for how to hire coaches, Rooney provided it during his many decades running the Steelers.
He had a gift for hiring the right people, regardless of race, ethnic background or some other category. Fact is, no one has ever done a better job at identifying, employing and empowering coaches and scouts. Consider this: He hired Noll, Nunn and Bill Cowher, who are all in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He signed off on the promotion of Dungy, who is in the Hall of Fame. And he hired Tomlin, who likely is headed for the Hall of Fame.
That run of success is unprecedented, and it was the foundation of what we are still seeing with the Steelers, five years after Dan Rooney’s death. His impact was that significant. If his approach could be distilled to three elements, they might be people, prudence and purpose.
People: According to his grandsons, franchise founder Art Rooney Sr., commonly known as The Chief, believed there was dignity in everyone and, as the leader of an organization, it was important to respect those dignities. When people mention the Steeler Way, that’s essentially what they are talking about: the importance of people.
“No. 1, it’s a people-driven organization,” said Art Rooney II, Dan Rooney’s son and the Steelers’ current president, when asked to define the Steeler Way. “No matter what you’re trying to do in life or business, if you surround yourself with good people, you have a chance to succeed. That’s been the efforts going back to my grandfather and father, just try to bring in the best people we can find and have them help us find success.”
Prudence: Dan Rooney could be painfully deliberate when making hires. He liked to start with a large pool of candidates, then boil it down. According to family members, he believed the longer he waited, the greater the opportunity to gather information. It was not a coincidence that both Cowher, who followed Noll as head coach in 1992 and stayed in the role until 2006, and Tomlin were among the last hires during their respective hiring cycles.
“He always took as much time as he should in trying to get to know people and getting as much information in the door as he could,” said Art Rooney II. “I was around when we were in the process of hiring Bill Cowher, and I don’t even remember that being a long process, but people were wondering: What’s taking so long? My father always had an approach to things where he said, never make a decision until you have to make it.”
Jim Rooney, Art’s younger brother, recalls his father starting with as many as 37 candidates before Tomlin was hired. Then he reduced the pool to 12, then four.
“There was no talk of X’s and O’s with finalists for coach job with Tomlin,” said Jim. “That part of it was established early in the process. Those final questions, I know he asked Mike about his grandma, about his high school coach. He was looking for these cues to see how Mike related to people. Was he looking at people as objects he could step on to get further in his career, or was there this deep respect? Was he going to engage people in a way that was going to help him make the culture better and make the organization more successful?”
Purpose: Jim Rooney tells a fascinating and illuminating story in his book A Different Way to Win: Dan Rooney’s Story from the Super Bowl to the Rooney Rule. In 1962, a young Roman Catholic priest named Mark Glasgow was assigned to the Rooneys’ church. Many of his homilies were ripe with references to the fight for civil rights.
“Dan, now in his early 30s, was already involved in the Urban League and the NAACP chapters in Pittsburgh,” Jim Rooney writes. “But Father Glasgow’s homilies and private conversations persuaded him that he could be doing more. In 1965, after civil rights workers and advocates were beaten and, in several cases, murdered, he and a couple of other priests went to Selma. Father Glasgow invited Dan to join. In a decision that my father would regularly refer to as the biggest mistake of his life, he did not go.”
Reached by phone, Jim Rooney added: “The civil rights — all the marches and different activities — really had an impact on him. Father Glasgow really pushed him to think about this in a spiritual context. He had a great sense of humor and persona, but he was a very serious person. I think he took that spiritual element to heart and asked, Where can I have the biggest effect?“
The focus on purpose, prudence and people has carried over to Art Rooney II. Recently, he promoted Omar Khan as general manager. Khan is believed to be the first person of Honduran and Indian descent to hold that title. While significant historically, that fact was never a part of the decision-making process. For Rooney, it was all about the person and his capabilities.
With the Rooney Rule being named after his father — in its present state, the rule requires every team to interview at least two external minority candidates for open head coaching positions and at least one external minority candidate for a coordinator job or open QB coach position; at least one minority and/or female candidate must be interviewed for senior level positions — Art Rooney II said he did not feel pressure to fill his recent GM vacancy with a diverse candidate, and that’s how it should be. Interview a diverse pool and hire based on ability and qualifications, period.
That’s what Dan Rooney did, and a lot of owners could do well to follow his lead.
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