Dan Rooney’s Most Tangible Legacy: The Rule That Bears His Name

You have likely spent the past week reading a series of articles recalling the life of Pittsburgh Steelers owner, president, and chairman Dan Rooney following his passing and how so many people from so many different walks of life held him in such high regard. He had far more of an impact in his life than most do, to be certain.

But the most tangible aspect of his legacy may well prove to be the guide that bears his name: the Rooney Rule.

The Rooney Rule began to take shape as a concept in the late 1990s and early 2000s upon reflecting on certain unavoidably obvious patterns in coaching hires. While the NBA’s coaching ranks became vastly more diverse in the 1990s, the NFL had just seven minority head coaches in its entire history.

Among those seven were Tony Dungy and Dennis Green, both veteran coaches, both of whom were fired during the 2002 offseason in moves that many questioned. In response, a study was released that showed that minority head coaches were less likely to be hired and more likely to be fired when accounting for variables.

Later that year, the diversity committee, chaired by Dan Rooney, passed the Rooney Rule, which requires that teams holding a head-coaching vacancy are required to interview a minority candidate for the job. The reasoning was that, aside from implicit and explicit bias, the coaching fraternity had become too incestuous, making it difficult for those who are not in the inner circle to move upward.

Since the passing of the Rooney Rule, there have been a great number of new head coaches of a minority background. Today, there are currently seven, including three in the AFC North with the Steelers’ Mike Tomlin, Hue Jackson in Cleveland, and Marvis Lewis of the Bengals. Todd Bowles of the Jets earned his first head-coaching opportunity in 2015. The Chargers and Broncos this offseason hired Anthony Lynn and Vance Joseph, respectively, who are rookie African-American head coaches. Ron Rivera of the Panthers is the sole non-African-American minority head coach. The Steelers interviewed Rivera in 2007, thus satisfying the Rooney Rule, prior to interviewing and ultimately hiring Tomlin.

Inclusion and opportunity have always been values that Rooney embraced. You can go back to the roles that the likes of Joe Gilliam, Tony Dungy, and Joe Greene have played in the diversification of the game over the past 50 years. The Steelers may currently have the most diverse coaching staff in the league.

It will be interesting to see what the future holds for the Rooney Rule. It has already expanded before, in 2009, when it was opened to all minority candidates rather than just African-Americans, as well as to all senior football operations positions.

The logical next step for the role would be for it to extend further into the coaching ranks to include coordinator positions. Going much deeper than that, however, may interfere too much with the hiring process, much of which is internal in nature.

Rooney helped spearhead the first incarnation of this rule, and it will bear his name for many years to come—beyond even when a younger generation of fans are unaware of whom it is named after. It will be perhaps his most tangible impact on the game, which also serves as a societal example.

About the Author

Matthew Marczi

Passionate Steelers fan with a bit of writing ability. Connoisseur of loud music. Follow me on Twitter @mmarczi.

  • Mark

    I’m proud to be a Steeler’s fan and appreciate the intent of the rule. However, the NFL is worst than corporate america in hiring African Americans into head coaching roles and most teams have made a mockery of the rule by bringing in African American for interviews with no intention of hiring of them just to satisfy the rule. It would be awesome to see the NFL live up to the Rooney Rule intentions. It’s a shame that the NFL has to have a Rooney rule in 2017!!

  • ATL96STEELER

    I understand the premise of the RR, (exposure) and at the time I think it was very much needed in the NFL simply because most black or minority coaches were not even reaching the coordinator level, thus never really within the eye site of an owner with a HC job opening.

    Because of the RR, today minority coaches are moving up the ranks from position coaches just like white coaches. Today many teams give the “token” interview just to fulfill the obligation and they move on and hire whomever they had intended to hire to begin with.

    That can be looked at as a negative, but the reality is at least imo, it’s still worthwhile for any candidate to go thru the HC hiring interview experience. If you use it the right way, even if you don’t get the job, if you have an honest interviewer you can find out what you were lacking, and work to improve that area of your presentation or resume.

  • Voice O’ Reason

    I’m all for the Rooney Rule, but most tangible legacy? The man was instrumental in building the league and football itself into America’s sport, not to even mention the 6 Lombardis.

    Tangibility aside, the fact that I can’t recall a single negative comment toward him by anyone during that time is pretty remarkable in this day and age too. I can’t think of a better legacy than going out with the respect, admiration and maybe even love of almost everyone you’ve ever met.

  • Nunya

    It’s actually an ok rule. The problem is, it’s misunderstood. For example, I am not a big Tomlin fan, but it drives me crazy when people say he was hired only because of the Rooney rule. Um, no. The Rooney rule requires that a minority candidate be interviewed, not hired. He was hired because Steelers brass felt he was the best man for the job…end of story.

  • Robert E Lil

    When you look back at the NFL prior to the “Rooney Rule” it is simply mind boggling to see what the coaching situation looked like.
    It’s a great rule – it’s incredibly important

  • Jefferson_St_Joe

    While the Rooney rule is important, I think a more significant accomplishment was his role in the negotiations that brought the salary cap structure that the NFL uses in exchange for free agency. He was they key player from the owners side in those negotiations and I believe it is that structure that preserves the competitive balance which keeps the NFL ahead of the major sports leagues.

  • Robert E Lil

    Funny thing is that back in say….1995…everyone said there WAS NO discrimination. They called the Rooney Rule (and still do) affirmative action. Well we see now that in 1995 there was massive discrimination. Time has given us that perspective. And there’s still discrimination todya

  • ATL96STEELER

    Hit the nail on the head here…while not every team has taken advantage of the opportunities the system Mr D. Rooney helped bring to the game, it’s (salary cap) made it possible for smaller market teams to have a legit chance to compete.

  • Robert E Lil

    Let me guess
    Minority issues aren’t even in your orbit.
    Once more, it’s been documented in just the past 2 days on major news outlets how the NFL is in crisis mode because some of its teams cannot survive and there is no competitive balance left in the NFL

  • Jefferson_St_Joe

    What crisis?

  • Robert E Lil

    4.16.17 / USA Today: “The Paul Brown Stadium naming rights issue in Cincinnati is one example of how the league revenue disparity is viewed differently by different teams – and how it might cause a team to look for greener pastures elsewhere as player salary expenses continue to march upward” Teams are now moving with increased regularity (Rams, Raiders). Once more, CNN just did an article about how the Browns are so bad for so long that many in the league are worried about a permanent NON COMPETITIVE balance that cannot be erased.

  • Darth Blount 47

    Maybe the Browns should have drafted Ben Roethlisberger…

  • Darth Blount 47

    When I talk to people about Pittsburgh, even Yinzers themselves, I’m struck by how many people mention how the city has a palpable racist undertone. I’ve always found that odd from cities in the North, where slavery wasn’t tolerated. Boston is another city that gets that racist label quite often. When you look back upon the life of Dan Rooney, thankfully “racist” is literally the last thing you’d ever associate with that great man. But I don’t think he was colorblind.

    You see, colorblind is a bad thing in my opinion. It’s a wonderful notion, but I think having pride in your heritage is a wonderful thing. I’m personally heartened when I hear about people and their cultures and how they have blended them all together in this racial and ethnic mixing pot of America. Yes, as Teddy Roosevelt said, assimilation is vital. But that doesn’t require one to lose their sense of self or completely discard their traditions. It means accepting each other, recognizing the fabric of the country, and being able to embrace our laws, our freedoms, and being proud to do so. Henry Kissinger famously said: “If you aren’t born in China, you can’t become a Chinese.”

    And that is what makes America special. You can be born anywhere, and still become an American. And that’s how I view the Steelers and Pittsburgh. You don’t have to be born in Pittsburgh, to become a Yinzer. And you certainly don’t HAVE to be drafted by the Steelers, to become a Steeler. Just ask Jerome Bettis.

    I’m so glad that we had the influence of Dan Rooney over this city, team, and league. His heart, passion, fairness, and loyalty, made him ideal for this rough and tumble city. His stewardship as a calm and steady hand, can’t be understated. He’ll truly be missed.

  • Robert E Lil

    Oh
    You’re telling me! Unreal, right?
    Nonetheless, the NFL has some bigger problems right now and ratings as well as franchise instability are key indicators of that

  • Jefferson_St_Joe

    In the case of the Browns, and every other unsuccessful franchise, bad management is the cause of their competitive issues., not a lack of revenue. The franchises that moved did so to maximize their revenue, much of which get shared with the other franchises and eventually the players. They didn’t move because they were losing money or couldn’t compete, they moved because they’re greedy and want to be richer.

    I didn’t mean to disparage any minority issues in any way. The Rooney rule is fantastic. Its just my opinion that the salary cap/revenue sharing structure of the NFL has been a bigger factor in the growth of the game. (I’m white, my girlfriend is black and we have a mix of kids. I understand the importance of the Rooney rule initiative.)

  • Matthew Marczi

    Todd Bowles was one of those ‘token interview’ guys for several years. He admitted himself that he didn’t consider himself a natural interview. That experience over the years of going through the process, however, ultimately prepared him for the interview with the Jets in 2015 that got him hired.

  • Matthew Marczi

    I’ve read studies over the years that actually indicate the north is more de facto segregated via community, and particularly within schools, than in the south. It seems counterintuitive, but it’s there, and it’s something we have to deal with. There are also studies that indicate that more diverse schools are socially and academically beneficial to both white students and minority students.

  • Darth Blount 47

    Hmm, that’s interesting. Perhaps that stems from the natural amount of say African-Americans, who were essentially stuck in the South, even after Reconstruction. And that fostered a sense of this being their “home,” no matter how forced or unfortunate many felt that to be. Which then led to a more natural homogenization, when it came to the blending of culture. Often having a bit more of a majority in a situation, leads to that happening.
    And now, I’ve read articles about how there is a “New great migration” of blacks returning to the South.

    As far as the schools, I think that level of diversity is important. Nobody is born racist, it is definitely taught. And kids are often the ones who though most impressionable, are also the most accepting. We can certainly learn a lot from each other when we are open and receptive. It allows the strengths of each culture to sort of sharpen the mind, the wit, and then soften the heart. I was glad that I attended public schools, even if it did drive me occasionally mad. Lol.

  • ATL96STEELER

    Great example.

  • dany

    The best part of it is that soon after, a minority coach won a super bowl. And two years later another did. Rivera almost won it last year too. Tomlin has to do it again this year