Arthur (Art) Joseph Rooney Sr (Also known as "The Chief" (January 27, 1901–August 25, 1988) was the American founding owner of the Pittsburgh Steelers franchise in the National Football League.
The son of Irish Catholic immigrants from Newry in County Down, Ireland. Rooney was a lifelong resident of the Pittsburgh area having been born in Coulterville, Pennsylvania and raised on the North Side of Pittsburgh. He graduated from Duquesne Prep (later Duquesne High School, which closed in 2007). In keeping with his Catholic background, he then went on to Duquesne University. Since then, many members of the Rooney family have graduated from Duquesne and have made many endowments to the university.
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His affiliation with the NFL began in 1933 after he traveled to Saratoga Race Course in New York and won at least $2,500 in a parlay of longshot winners. He soon used that $2,500 to pay the required National Football League franchise entrance fee for a club based in the city of Pittsburgh, which he had named the Pirates (also the name of the city's long-established Major League Baseball club, which Rooney was a fan of as a child). Since the league's founding in 1920, the NFL had wanted a team in Pittsburgh due to the city's already-long history with football as well as the popularity of the Pittsburgh Panthers football team, an NCAA national championship contender during this period. The league was finally able to take advantage of Pennsylvania relaxing their blue laws that prior to 1933 prohibited sporting events from taking place on Sundays, when most NFL games take place.
The Saratoga Race Course parlay occurred in 1936 where he won about $160,000. He used the winnings to hire a coach, Joe Bach, give contracts to his players and almost win a championship. The winnings funded the team until 1941 when he sold the franchise to NY playboy Alex Thompson. Thompson wanted to move the franchise to Boston so he could be a five hour train ride to his club. At the same time, the Philadelphia Eagles ran into financial problems. Rooney used the funds from the sale of franchise to get a 70% interest in the Eagles, the other 30% held by Rooney friend and future NFL commissioner, Bert Bell. Bell and Rooney agreed to trade places with Thompson. Bell took the role of President of the Steelers that he relinquished to Rooney in 1946 when Bell became Commissioner. Rooney got his good friend and his sister's father in law, Barney McGinley, to buy Bell's shares. Barney's son Jack, Art's brother in law, retained the McGinley interest that passed to his heirs when he died in 2006. (from Screamer: The Forgotten Voice of the Pittsburgh Steelers by Murray Tucker)
Rooney sent shockwaves through the NFL by signing Byron "Whizzer" White to a record-breaking $15,000 contract in 1938. This move, however, did not bring the Pirates a winning season, and White left the team for the Detroit Lions the following year. The club did not have a season above .500 until 1942, the year after they were renamed the Pittsburgh Steelers.
During World War II, the Steelers had some financial difficulties and were merged with the Philadelphia Eagles in 1943 and the Chicago Cardinals in 1944.
After the war, Rooney became team president. He longed to bring an NFL title to Pittsburgh but was never able to beat the powerhouse teams, like the Cleveland Browns and Green Bay Packers. Although the Steelers were reasonably popular in the city during this time, they would remain second-fiddle to the Pittsburgh Pirates until the 1970s and were known in the NFL as the "lovable losers". The team also made some questionable personnel calls at the time such as cutting a then-unknown Johnny Unitas in training camp (Unitas would go on to a Hall of Fame career with the Baltimore Colts) and trading their first round pick in the 1965 draft to the Chicago Bears (who would draft Dick Butkus with the pick), among others.
Nevertheless, Rooney was popular with owners as a mediator, which would carry over to his son Dan Rooney. He was the only owner to vote against moving the rights of the New York Yanks to Dallas, Texas after the 1951 season due to concerns of racism in the South at the time. (Ultimately, the Dallas Texans failed after one year, and the rights were moved to Baltimore, Maryland, where the team became the second incarnation of the Baltimore Colts; that franchise is currently in Indianapolis.) In 1963, along with Bears owner George Halas, Rooney was one of two owners to vote for the 1925 NFL Championship to be reinstated to the long-defunct Pottsville Maroons.
Art Rooney statue outside of Heinz Field in Pittsburgh. The "Gate D" sign behind the statue is the last surviving relic from the Steelers former home, Three Rivers Stadium.
Following the AFL-NFL merger in 1970, the Steelers agreed to leave the NFL Eastern Conference and joined the AFC Central Division.
Through expert scouting, the Steelers became a power. In 1972, they began a remarkable 8–year run of playoff appearances. In Rooney's 41st season as owner, the club won the Super Bowl. They followed up with Super Bowl victories following the 1975, 1978 and 1979 seasons.
[Art actually turned over the reins to Dan in 1965]. After the 1974 season, Rooney reliquished the day-to-day operation of the club to his son Dan. He remained Chairman of the Board of the club until his death in Pittsburgh in 1988. In memory of "The Chief," Steelers wore a patch on the left shoulder of their uniforms with Rooney's initials AJR for the entire season. The team ended up finishing 5-11, their worst record since a 1–13 showing in 1969. He is buried at the North Side Catholic Cemetery in Pittsburgh.
Art Rooney received many awards during his career. In 1964, he was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Duquesne University named their football field in his honor in 1993. In 1999, The Sporting News named him one of the 100 most powerful sports figures of the 20th century.
A statue of his likeness graces the entrance to the home of the Pittsburgh Steelers, Heinz Field. He also has a street named in his honor on Pittsburgh's north side.
During his life, Rooney would usually have the Steelers use a late-round draft pick on a player from Pitt, West Virginia, and/or Penn State to give some of the local fans a player from one of the local college football teams, although that particular player rarely made the team. This is a trait the team occasionally still practices, but very seldomly do so nowadays and mainly focuses on talent in the entire draft as opposed to just the earlier rounds. Rooney also supposedly liked players from Notre Dame due to his Irish Catholic background, hence why he allegedly had the team keep Notre Dame alumni & wounded Vietnam veteran Rocky Bleier around. Bleier would go on to become one of the key members of the team's success in the 1970s; however, Bleier was ironically a German Presbyterian.
Art Rooney is the subject of, and the only character in, the one-man play The Chief, written by Gene Collier and Rob Zellers. The play debuted at the Pittsburgh Public Theater in 2003, and has been revived on three occasions since then. All productions have starred Tom Atkins as Rooney.
Today, Rooney is probably the city's most beloved figure. Few are talked about with as much reverence as Rooney. At Steeler games, (Especially during the Super Bowl XL season) there is a sign that shows a picture of Rooney with his beloved cigar and under the photo, the word "Believe."