Rooney Rule helps reward namesake

Steelers team owner Dan Rooney (left) and head coach Mike Tomlin chat in 2007. Tomlin's hiring was just the latest pioneering move made by team ownership. Getty Images

TAMPA, Fla. -- Dan Rooney has been around more sterling silver than a Tiffany's sales associate. His Pittsburgh Steelers have won five of those Lombardi trophies during the 76-year Rooney family ownership reign. Now they're going for an NFL-record six-pack of Super Bowl championships, or as some Steelers players call the quest, "One for the Other Thumb."

That's nice. But one of Rooney's lasting football legacies might have more to do with a rule than with another Super Bowl ring. And all because this gray-haired, slightly stooped, suspender-wearing wisp of a man decided enough was enough.

We know it simply as the Rooney Rule.

Enacted in December 2002, the Rooney Rule says any NFL team looking for a new head coach must interview at least one minority candidate. That's it.
Nobody is going to confuse the rule with the Emancipation Proclamation. At times, it's been barely a rule. The Detroit Lions completely ignored the edict in 2003, and who knows how many times other teams have compromised the rule with token interviews. But if nothing else, it was a start.

"I thought it was going to be good for one reason," former Indianapolis Colts head coach Tony Dungy said. "I didn't think it would do anything directly to get more minority hires, but I thought it would slow down the process. Everybody seemed to be in so much of a hurry. When you get in a hurry, you end up talking to the known quantities, the known names, the high Q ratings. When the process does slow down, the Mike Tomlins get unearthed."

Tomlin, hired as the Steelers' head coach two years ago, wasn't a direct product of the Rooney Rule. Actually, Ron Rivera was the first minority candidate Rooney interviewed for the opening. But Tomlin's hire still represents something vital.

"You know why [Rooney] makes a difference?" asked Doug Williams, a Tampa Bay Buccaneers executive and the first African-American quarterback to win a Super Bowl. "You see USA Today recently? On the front page -- it's Dan Rooney giving Barack Obama a jersey. Dan Rooney is a Republican. But Barack Obama is Mike Tomlin to Dan Rooney. In politics, that's Mike Tomlin -- the best guy for the job."

Williams isn't an advocate of the Rooney Rule, mostly because he hates the idea that America and its premier sports league need to be told to do the right thing.

"But I'm a Dan Rooney fan," Williams said. "I've told him a couple of times I appreciate it -- because of how he stood up and he bought what he was selling."

Said Dungy: "There's a lot of things about Dan that go way beyond the football field and the NFL."

This won't come as a surprise to those who know the Steelers' owner, but he doesn't call it the Rooney Rule. Not his style. He refers to it as "the rule" -- all lowercase. It's as if he doesn't want credit for doing what should have been done years earlier.

Figures. Dan Rooney was born in 1932. His old man, Art ("The Chief"), bought the Steelers in 1933. That was the same year Ray Kemp became the first African-American to play for the team. Twenty-four years later, the Steelers became the first NFL team to hire an African-American assistant coach, Lowell Perry. And in 1984, the Steelers were the first to hire an African-American as a coordinator. You might have heard of him -- Tony Dungy.

When in doubt, Rooney is about being low-key. Look in most NFL team media guides, and you'll find the owners' bios and mug shots placed prominently at the front of the book. Owner Bill Bidwill's 379-word bio can be found on Page 6 of the Arizona Cardinals' guide. You can't find Rooney's 80-word bio-ette until Page 328 of the Steelers' book.

So when you ask Rooney about the genesis of his very own rule, he speaks quickly and softly about wanting to give minority coaching candidates "opportunity." He doesn't say he came up with the concept; instead, he says, "We got this idea that we should do more," as if it were as easy as organizing a bake sale.

"It's worked out really well," Rooney said.

Not at first, it didn't. At first, there was some push-back from other owners.

"A little," Rooney said. "But we got it together and came together. They were satisfied. They were pleased that it happened."

The only people who weren't pleased were the owners and general managers who considered the rule an annoyance, an intrusion. How dare the league tell us we have to interview a minority.

But that way of thinking has faded. Or at least, let's hope it has faded.

"In the past, I think people would have thought guys were recycled," Cincinnati Bengals coach Marvin Lewis said. "[The Rooney Rule] cut some of that out."

Lewis wasn't recycled. Tomlin wasn't recycled. San Francisco 49ers coach Mike Singletary wasn't recycled. New Bucs head coach Raheem Morris wasn't recycled. We're slowly getting there.

Of course, Rooney is one of the few owners who could have persuaded his peers to agree to this bit of football seismic change. He'll tell you otherwise -- "I don't know if I have that much clout," he said -- but others know better.

"Dan Rooney is one of those guys who can get everybody to listen," said Dungy, who recently authored another book, "Uncommon: Finding Your Path to Significance." "Sometimes good ideas don't get listened to. But if Dan Rooney thinks this is a good idea, maybe we should try that."

Opportunity is always a good idea. So is fairness. Inclusion. Open minds.

"We've just sworn in our first black president of the United States," Williams said. "Thing is, we didn't need a Rooney Rule. Because it wasn't just black people who elected him. Everybody here had a say who the president was going to be. So there's no reason why a guy can't stand on his own merits, stand on his own opportunity."

A world without the Rooney Rule? Dan Rooney would vote for that.

Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. You can contact him at gene.wojciechowski@espn3.com.