Of Dan Rooney’s many decisions as Steelers president, the two most important ones since the turn of the century easily were bringing Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin into the family operation.
In 2000, Rooney plucked Colbert — like Rooney a North Side native and North Catholic graduate — from the Detroit Lions and tasked him with running the Steelers’ football operations.
Seven years later, Rooney waded through a list of more experienced candidates and hired the little-known Tomlin, a one-season Minnesota Vikings defensive coordinator, to succeed Bill Cowher as head coach.
Colbert helped turn around the Steelers fortunes – they had lost 15 of the previous 21 games before his predecessor Tom Donahoe was forced to resign – with six AFC championship game appearances, three Super Bowl trips and two championships on his watch.
Like Colbert, Tomlin enjoyed quick success. He won a Super Bowl in his second season, made another trip in his fourth and steered the Steelers back to the AFC championship game in January for the first time since the 2010 season.
The Steelers’ top football men weighed in on Rooney’s impact Friday afternoon, one day after the team’s chairman died at 84 of natural causes.
“Mr. Rooney touched everybody he ever met,” Colbert said in a statement. “Words cannot express the impact he had on me, my family and our organization on a daily basis. The virtues he taught us about faith, family and our great game of football will never be forgotten and always cherished.
“As we move forward, it is not only our obligation to carry on these wonderful virtues in our lives, but to share these same virtues with others the way he shared them with us.”
Rooney also had a profound impact on Tomlin, the first minority head coach in franchise history. It was the “Rooney Rule” that has helped African American coaches such as Tomlin get required interviews for head coaching vacancies.
“The passing of Mr. Rooney is a difficult time, not just for myself, the Pittsburgh Steelers organization and the National Football League. But for everyone in the City of Pittsburgh and Steelers Nation,” Tomlin said in a statement.
“In 2007, Mr. Rooney afforded me the opportunity to lead the football team he helped guide throughout his life. For that, I am forever grateful and am honored to have done so.
“After every game, win or lose, Mr. Rooney would enter our locker room, look me in my eye and shake my hand along with every player who stepped foot on the field. He embodied professionalism and was a man who created a family-like atmosphere that will continue on.
“Football examples only scratch the surface of how he impacted mine and the countless other lives he touched.”
Family and friends will be received on Monday, April 17, from 2-7 p.m. at the PNC Champions Club, Heinz Field, Pittsburgh, PA. His life will be celebrated at a Mass of Christian Burial on April 18, at 11 a.m. at Saint Paul Cathedral, 108 North Dithridge Street, Pittsburgh, PA 15213. Memorial contributions may be sent to Duquesne University or the United Way of Southwest Pennsylvania.
— Joe Rutter