To the public, however, the low-key Rooney was largely unknown. His years of involvement and intimate understanding of the organization's operations were not a matter of public record. So, as the team with a woeful past continued to frustrate its fans, they began to question whether Dan Rooney, the team's vice president and general manager, was the right man for the job or just the benefactor of nepotism. As the public looked for someone to blame for the team's lamentable state of affairs, Rooney, quite unfairly, became the target.
Not only was Dan being held accountable for the team's present situation, he was being blamed for the past. In a 1971 interview he related an example of the sometimes-ridiculous way in which he was expected to answer for some of the organization's past sins.
"A reporter called me yesterday, and the first thing he asked was, 'What happened with Luckman?'" Rooney said. "I told him, 'Just hold on a minute.'" The Steelers had in fact given away the draft rights to Sid Luckman, a future Hall of Fame quarterback, but that was in 1939, the year Rooney started grade school.
While there was nothing Dan Rooney could do about the failures of the past, he was determined not to repeat them in the future.
Following the departure of Parker, the head coach position was filled first by Mike Nixon, and then by Bill Austin. Rooney dismissed Nixon after one losing season and Austin after three. The message was clear. No longer was the team going to be mired in mediocrity. A new era was about to dawn in Pittsburgh, "The Dan Rooney Era."
Even Dan Rooney, however, can't pinpoint a specific move that transformed the bumbling Steelers into the pride of the NFL. One thing is certain, though, change came to Pittsburgh and it came on a fast track.
In 1970, the Steelers moved into a new home, Three Rivers Stadium. Here Dan demonstrated his wide range of organizational skills as he drew up a complex of offices and team facilities that became a model for new stadiums throughout the league, not to mention the envy of every team owner. "It's enough to give our players an inferiority complex," said then-Cleveland Browns owner Art Modell.
Another important element in the Steelers' successful transition was Dan's decision to separate scouting from coaching, recognizing that no coaching staff, no matter how hard working or competent, has the ability to search out and evaluate college football players. The results were immediate. The Steelers from 1969 to 1974 drafted seven future Hall of Fame players. But perhaps Rooney's most significant move came when he hired Chuck Noll as head coach.
"I interviewed Chuck Noll the day after his team, the Baltimore Colts, lost Super Bowl III to the New York Jets," he recalled. "It was right after the game, so there was no way he could have prepared for the interview. It struck me right then. Here is an extremely bright person who has his feet on the ground, knows what he is doing."
Noll was immediately put on Rooney's short list. "When I came back to Pittsburgh," he recalled, "I said to my father, 'Chuck Noll is a guy we have to keep on the list. Chuck Noll is a guy you have to meet.'" After meeting Noll, the senior Rooney agreed with his son's assessment and a deal was made. During Noll's 23-year career with the Steelers, the team won four Super Bowls and never went more than four years without making the playoffs.
As significant as it was for Rooney to hire Noll, it was equally significant that he was confident enough in his pick that he didn't fire him after he began his tenure with three losing seasons. Rooney had showed no such confidence in either Nixon or Austin.