Ron Cook: This Rooney book is a must-read
Tuesday, February 05, 2008
By Ron Cook, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Maybe it isn't a tell-everything book, but it comes pretty close. A dead giveaway is the part about President Jimmy Carter pinching Kay Rooney's behind during a Steelers' visit to the White House after one of their Super Bowls.
You think Art Rooney Jr. would make that up about his wife?
It's there on the pages of "Ruanaidh" -- that's Rooney in Gaelic -- which is due out later this month. Countless books have been written about the Steelers, including one just last fall by team owner Dan Rooney, but none is as candid and revealing as this one.
"The book honors my father," Rooney Jr. said. It's true -- the colorful life of Steelers founder Arthur J. Rooney Sr. is examined exhaustively, warts and all -- but there's so much more. Rooney Jr.'s prime credentials as an author are two. One, he is a fabulous storyteller with a great memory and an even better eye for detail. Two -- and this is the biggie -- he as the Steelers' personnel director and Chuck Noll as their coach were responsible for the construction of the Super Steelers dynasty of the 1970s. The result is a fascinating read that opens the door to the inner workings of the franchise.
Both the positive and not-so-positive inner workings, it should be noted.
In Dan Rooney's book, you won't find anything about how he fired Rooney Jr. -- his younger brother by three-plus years -- late in the 1986 season. You'll read plenty about it in "Ruanaidh."
"It was devastating for me and my family," Rooney Jr. said the other day in his South Hills office, where he said he was "exiled" to oversee the Rooney family's real estate interests.
"It was the end of a way of life for us. All of my friends were in football. Suddenly, I was out."
Rooney Jr. was so bitter after the firing that he never returned to the team's offices at Three Rivers Stadium. It made for some tense family gatherings, although Rooney Jr. and his brother managed to remain cordial in the interest of family business.
If nothing else good came from the firing for Rooney Jr., it gave him time to write his book. More than 12 years in the making and edited by legendary former Pittsburgh Press sports editor and columnist Roy McHugh, it can be purchased through artrooneyjr.com. Rooney Jr. published it himself at the cost of $30,000 because he wanted total literary control.
"I wanted this stuff on the record," he said.
"Roy tells me I'm the same stream-of-consciousness writer that James Joyce is except for two things. He says Joyce was a brilliant writer, and I'm not. And he says Joyce eventually gets to the point, and I don't.
"What an odd pair we make, doing this book."
What they made was magic, a book that, though heavy to hold -- nearly 500 pages -- is hard to put down. Once you jump into Rooney Sr.'s world and the Steelers' world, you won't want to leave.
It helps that Rooney Jr. is such an honest, likable character, a people person very much in the image of his father. He can be humble to the point of self-deprecation. "The only reason I got a job with the Steelers is because my mother insisted that my dad give me one. It was nepotism, pure and simple. My father was against it. He always said," -- and these words would come back to sting Rooney Jr. years later when he was fired -- " 'There's no room for two.' "
But Rooney Jr. isn't so humble that he'll pass up a chance to mention how former Steelers great Franco Harris sent him a note saying, "Thanks for making my career possible." It was Rooney Jr. and his staff who convinced Noll to draft Harris in the first round in 1972 instead of University of Houston running back Robert Newhouse. Four Super Bowls and a Hall of Fame career later ...
"My daughter, Sue, posed the two of us for a picture at the 75th anniversary gala," Rooney Jr. said. "Franco asked for a copy. I'll never forget that."
The fight about Harris was one of many Rooney Jr. had with Noll. Their often stormy relationship provides some of the juiciest reading in "Ruanaidh," the Kay Rooney pinch aside. Through it all, though, the two didn't just manage to co-exist. They produced the greatest draft in NFL history -- the 1974 class, which included Hall of Famers Lynn Swann, Jack Lambert, John Stallworth and Mike Webster -- and what still endures as the league's greatest dynasty, thanks to the New England Patriots' stunning loss Sunday night.
"My job was a passion for me," Rooney Jr. said. "Back then, the Rooneys always were looked at as being dumb and cheap. I guess I was dumb enough to think I could do something about that."
Noll had the final say about the Steelers' drafts, but, as the Harris story proves, he was willing to listen to reason. Rooney Jr. worked like a dog to earn his respect. His three nominations to the Pro Football Hall of Fame would come much later.
"Noll was the guy," Rooney Jr. said. "The scouts and I would meet with him for hours. It was like a private tutorial. He loved to teach and we loved to learn."
What Rooney Jr. and Noll loved to do most was win, which they did better than any personnel man-coach combo in NFL history.
Sadly, though, nothing lasts forever.
Rooney Jr., 72, writes poignantly about the deaths of his mother, Kass, in 1982 and his father in 1988. One passage about his mother's passing might be the most memorable in the book: "All I can say is my dad never meant as much to me as Kass did. I thought of them differently. He was Art Rooney. She was Mom."
You don't have to see Rooney Jr.'s office -- which is nothing less than a shrine to his father -- to appreciate the powerful meaning of that statement.
You just have to read the book.