The king of Pittsburgh

 

PROFILE DAN ROONEY: He’s an old-school American football owner and a lifelong Republican who helped swing Pennsylvania, and the election, for Obama. His prize? The role of US ambassador to Ireland

AT PRESIDENT Barack Obama’s St Patrick’s Day reception at the White House on Tuesday evening, a short, slight man in thick-rimmed glasses stood unobtrusively in a corner, chatting quietly to a small group of friends. This was Dan Rooney, one of the most powerful figures in the American sports world and the man Obama named that day as the next US ambassador to Ireland.

“He will be an outstanding representative,” the president said. “Dan is a great friend. He and his family are as gracious and thoughtful a group of people as I know, and so I know that he is just going to do an outstanding job. And the people of Ireland I think will benefit greatly from him representing the United States there.”

A lifelong Republican, Rooney endorsed Obama for president last year, stumping for the Democrat throughout the key swing state of Pennsylvania. If his nomination is confirmed by the senate, he will be the most high-profile figure ever to represent the US in Ireland and one who can be confident that his calls will always be accepted at the White House.

The owner of the Pittsburgh Steelers, winners of this year’s Super Bowl and one of the most successful franchises in American football, Rooney (76) is hugely influential within the National Football League (NFL). He has helped to open up leading positions within the league to ethnic minorities through his authorship of the Rooney Rule, under which NFL teams are required to interview at least one minority candidate for top coaching jobs.

Rooney’s stewardship of the Steelers, which he and his four younger brothers inherited from their father, has made him a legendary figure in Pittsburgh, a 19th-century industrial city that saw its economic fortunes decline in the second half of the last century.

“The Steelers were really a lousy franchise for much of their existence but they first started winning Super Bowls in the late 1970s, at a time when the economy here was really in a pretty bad way because of the collapse of the steel industry,” says Jim O’Toole, political editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

“So I think a couple of decades ago they became a real rallying point at the time that the community really needed one. The economy in Pittsburgh now is relatively better compared to then and compared to other cities in the United States, so maybe the team doesn’t fill that niche like it did then. But, you know, everyone likes a winner.”

Born on July 20th, 1932 into a staunchly Catholic Irish-American family, Rooney has spent almost all his life in Pittsburgh, marrying his wife Patricia, who is equally active in Irish causes, when he was just 19. As a teenager, he seriously considered studying for the priesthood and he continues to attend Mass most days each week.

A graduate in accounting from Duquesne University, he has played a central role in running the Steelers since 1960, winning a reputation as a skilful negotiator in business matters. He helped to negotiate a collective bargaining agreement in the NFL in 1982, ending a strike that lasted half of the season and, a decade later, was one of the architects of a salary cap for NFL players.

FAMOUSLY MODEST IN his personal habits, Rooney lives in the house in which he grew up, in a formerly smart part of Pittsburgh that is now marked by parking lots and fast food restaurants. Unlike many NFL owners, he attends his team’s training sessions, travelling in the same aircraft as the players when the Steelers play outside Pittsburgh.

Rooney was caught up in controversy last year when he declined to discipline one of his players, James Harrison, who was arrested after slapping his girlfriend. Rooney initially appeared to excuse Harrison’s violence, which followed a disagreement with the woman over christening their son.

“What he was trying to do was really well worth it,” Rooney said. “He was doing something that was good, wanted to take his son to get baptised where he lived and things like that. She said she didn’t want to do it.”

Later the same day, after complaints from a local women’s shelter, Rooney clarified his remarks, insisting that he did not condone the player’s actions. All charges against Harrison were dropped after he completed an anger-management course.

“He upset some people, but I wouldn’t describe it as something that left a lasting mark,” O’Toole says of the controversy’s impact on Rooney’s reputation in Pittsburgh.

The evening before he was named ambassador, Rooney received a lifetime achievement award from the American Ireland Fund, which he co-founded with Sir Anthony O’Reilly in 1976. Since its foundation, the fund has raised more than $300 million (€220 million) for projects in both parts of Ireland.

Apart from the Ireland Funds, he supports the annual Rooney Prize for Irish Literature, which has helped the careers of writers such as Desmond Hogan, Kate Cruise O’Brien, Glenn Patterson and Colum McCann. He is also a major backer of the Ireland Institute of Pittsburgh, a programme founded in 1989 to promote mutual understanding between the communities in Northern Ireland and to support Ireland’s economic development.

Much of Rooney’s focus has been on Newry, where his father’s family came from, working with the SDLP’s Seamus Mallon to bring US investment to the town and arranging exchange programmes in Pittsburgh for Newry youth.

“He is unassuming, very self-effacing, truly humble, one of the smartest people I know. He won’t ever stand out in a crowd because that’s not his style,” says American Ireland Fund chairwoman Loretta Brennan Glucksman. “He has been active since the 1970s in helping in very quiet but effective ways in building bridges between the two communities.”

Glucksman predicts that Rooney will be as quietly effective as an ambassador as he has been as a businessman and a philanthropist.

“He won’t be splashy. His style is very laid-back and he lets others take the spotlight whenever he can,” she says. “He will be very hands on and the issues are what interests him. He will study the issues, although he’s very much up to speed on most of them and he’ll be a full partner to both the Obama administration and to the Irish Government.”

ROONEY’S UNIQUE relationship with Obama could play a crucial role in consolidating the new US administration’s relationship with Ireland as the global economic upheaval presents new challenges to the transatlantic friendship.

“Dan is a huge Republican, a very staunch, pro-life Catholic Republican, and yet he came out about as early as possible and stood very firmly for Obama,” Glucksman says. “The Obama campaign people really feel that Dan was the main reason they carried Pennsylvania, which was a crucial state for them to win. Basically, if they hadn’t had Pennsylvania, it could have gone a whole other way.”

The US is unusual in its practice of choosing political appointees to fill ambassadorial posts, but Glucksman believes that Rooney’s appointment represents a remarkable opportunity to build on the deep reservoir of goodwill towards Ireland that was evident in Washington this week.

“We’ve had the wonderful experience, as you know, in the last couple of days of seeing the potential between those two administrations. I don’t think I’ve ever seen Taoiseach Brian Cowen in such good form. He was relaxed, he was not defensive, he was clearly very comfortable with the Obama team and that bodes very well,” she says. “There’s a huge respect and indeed affection from president Obama towards Dan and that is always a nice thing to have in an ambassador, when you know that your ambassador has the ear of the president. That’s always very helpful.”

CV Dan Rooney

Who is he?Pittsburgh Steelers owner Dan Rooney

Why is he in the news? Named this week as next US ambassador to Ireland.

Most appealing characteristic?Modest, self-effacing generosity.

Least appealing characteristic?Occasionally clumsy in expression.

Most likely to say?“Go Steelers!”

Least likely to say?“Do you know how important I am?”