Patience pays off for Rooneys

Published: Thursday, Oct. 8 2015 7:45 p.m. MDT

Steelers head coach Bill Cowher celebrates his team's 21-10 victory in Super Bowl XL on Sunday in Detroit. The title is Cowher's first and Pittsburgh's fifth. (Jeff Haynes, Getty Images) Steelers head coach Bill Cowher celebrates his team's 21-10 victory in Super Bowl XL on Sunday in Detroit. The title is Cowher's first and Pittsburgh's fifth. (Jeff Haynes, Getty Images)

ARLINGTON, Texas — Art Rooney II was glancing up at the enormous video screen and at the plush seats, taking in Jerry Jones' monument to revenue with a bemused smile. The Pittsburgh Steelers will probably never have a stadium quite like Cowboys Stadium, which will be host to the Super Bowl on Sunday. But this week Rooney, an owner and the president of the Steelers, had something that Jones, the owner and general manager of the Dallas Cowboys, wanted desperately: the opportunity to explain how his team kept

returning to the Super Bowl every few years, with the consistency of a metronome.

Rooney's explanations in the middle of Jones' lavish drama dome were in stark contrast to Jones' news conference later, when he had to explain how he so badly misjudged his own team this season.

"Panic doesn't seem to work; let's put it that way," Rooney said. "Enough people seem to have gone through that. Our philosophy is, you pick good people and try to stick with them. There's no guarantees. There are ups and downs in any sport. But if you have the people in place, you always have a chance to be successful. That goes back to my grandfather and down to my father. Keeping it simple and keeping the right people in place."

Pittsburgh coach Mike Tomlin, center left, is doused by his players as the Steelers won Super Bowl XLIII Sunday night over Arizona. (Charlie Riedel, Associated Press) Pittsburgh coach Mike Tomlin, center left, is doused by his players as the Steelers won Super Bowl XLIII Sunday night over Arizona. (Charlie Riedel, Associated Press)

More than by any player or coach, the Steelers are identified by the way they have done business for 40 years. They build through the draft, take care of their players, maintain financial discipline, eschew flashy hires and treat people well.

In the win-now world of professional sports, the Steelers have managed a twin bill that only a few other organizations, including the Green Bay Packers, can claim: They win now, and they set themselves up for the future, too. Of the 22 players who are expected to start for the Steelers on Sunday night, 18 were either drafted by the Steelers or signed as undrafted or rookie free agents. For some of those players, it will be their third Super Bowl appearance in six years.

It is a blueprint that has put six Lombardi Trophies behind glass in Pittsburgh, given the Steelers a chance to win a seventh, generated a devoted, nationwide fan base and left even other owners agog, although Rooney laughs a little when asked if the Steelers way has been codified. It has not, he said.

"I'm envious," the Indianapolis Colts' owner, Jim Irsay, said. "I've spent more than $100 million more than those guys in the last 10 years. You scratch your head and say wow. That's what makes it a bit stunning — how can you accomplish so much with such a disciplined business model? That's when you look at the whole thing and see a third generation. It's truly something special."

Art Rooney II's grandfather Art — the beloved Chief — founded the franchise. His father, Dan, steered it to the stunning success of the 1970s and became one of the NFL's most influential owners. And in recent years Art II has moved into the role of primary decision-maker. That seamlessness is at the root of the Steelers' philosophy.

The Steelers have hired only three coaches since 1969 — Chuck Noll was the first — and each has won a Super Bowl. With Noll, Dan Rooney and his brother Art Jr. formed a threesome that recognized the draft as the building block of a team. That philosophy remains. Offensive and defensive systems are not adopted and ripped up every few years, necessitating cyclical remakings of the roster.

When Mike Tomlin, an under-the-radar young coordinator, replaced Bill Cowher in 2007, his most critical decision was to keep the defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau and the 3-4 defense that is the cornerstone of the Steelers, even though Tomlin ran a 4-3 as a coordinator.

The continuity means everybody from the owners to the entry-level scout knows what Steelers players should look like. The team is able to draft prospects who will fit its system for years — because the system is not going to change — giving them time to develop without shoving them into service as the team is made over.

"Some teams change quarterbacks like underwear," the Steelers' Hall of Fame linebacker Jack Ham said. "Then you have this organization. Stability is the key and they let people do their jobs."

That lacks the glamour of splashy hires accompanied by well-attended news conferences that other owners seem to crave. But it is a path to success that the Packers share. Ted Thompson, the Packers' general manager, is friends with Kevin Colbert, the Steelers' director of football operations, and they have a common background steeped in the intense film study and constant travel of scouts.

Ernie Accorsi tells a story about Colbert, whom he calls the best general manager nobody knows about. Since Accorsi retired as the New York Giants' general manager, he has consulted with other teams looking to rebuild. One team was looking for a general manager. Accorsi called Colbert, who has been with the Steelers since 2000, a run that has included appearances in five conference championship games and three Super Bowls.

"I didn't even tell him the money," Accorsi said. "I said this is a good job. He said: 'I could never do that to the Rooneys. I don't care what they would pay.' Where you going to find that?"

If the strategy engenders unusual loyalty, it also requires patience and imperviousness to outside pressure that even Irsay acknowledges is rare in ownership circles.

"They've been successful doing it this way and they know there is going to be a year we're 6-10," Colbert said. "They don't want that year after year. They understand there will be a dip somewhere along the way."

Two weeks ago, when Dan Rooney, now the U.S. ambassador to Ireland, returned to Pittsburgh for the American Football Conference championship game, he spoke briefly to a handful of reporters about the NFL's labor strife. During that conversation he offered a bombshell of a quotation that summed up the Steelers' ability to take the long view of success.

"I'd rather not have the money," Rooney said about the proposed 18-game regular season.

That comment snapped a few heads around the league, particularly among owners who would very much rather have the money. But Rooney wonders why it is necessary to change something — 16 games for 32 teams — that has worked successfully for years. It is a mindset the Steelers have leaned on in the past — do not make sea change decisions in haste — when fans agitated for Cowher to be fired, or wondered why the Steelers were hiring Tomlin instead of someone they had heard of.

But it also resonated deeply in the Steelers' locker room. There, stories about the Rooneys' unusual affinity for the people who work for them are limitless.

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