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,” Jim said. “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? “