he Steelers will take the first step toward their 76th season Sunday when they open training camp, which could be their last under the Rooney family name.
Coach Mike Tomlin, entering his second season, acknowledged yesterday that the sudden uncertain future of the team's ownership could become a distraction for his players as they practice at Saint Vincent College in Latrobe.
"Potentially,'' is how Mr. Tomlin put the chances of it affecting his ballclub. "Because there'll be questions that I'll have to answer in regards to that and there will be questions that potentially our team has to answer in regard to that.
"I don't have the answer to those questions and neither does our football team; I'm here to coach; they're here to play. Those questions will be answered by the Rooneys.''
Mr. Tomlin did say that a "good" team won't let ownership issues or other off-field subjects become distractions.
"You got a good football team when they're capable of doing that," he said, "and not only on that specific subject, but on any subject that has nothing to do with playing football and preparing yourself to win football games.''
The five sons of franchise founder Art Rooney Sr., who own 80 percent of the Steelers, are negotiating among themselves and with others to try to determine who will own the team and how much of it. Some of the five brothers want to sell their shares as they look toward estate issues and also try to conform to the National Football League's ruling that they must divest themselves of ownership in their two casino-race tracks.
Stanley Druckenmiller, a billionaire and New York City hedge fund manager, emerged earlier this month as a potential buyer into the franchise. He is chairman of Pittsburgh-based Duquesne Capital Management. Team chairman Dan Rooney and his son, team president Art Rooney II, are trying to assume a controlling interest.
"One of the things I focused on throughout some of these questions along those lines,'' Mr. Tomlin said, "are the words of Dan Rooney and Art Rooney, the words they gave to our fans, that the excitement and expectations for this season will not change. I have a great deal of trust and belief in those two men, so that's the approach I'm taking, that's the approach that this football team will take. That is our focus at this point, readying ourselves to fight the battles that await us to be the very best that we can be and to compete for a Lombardi [Trophy] here in '08."
The trophy is awarded to the Super Bowl winner, emblematic of the NFL championship. The Steelers have won the trophy five times.
Mr. Tomlin said when he was hired that working for the Rooneys was one reason he coveted the job. Asked if the news that they might lose control of the team "rocked" him, Mr. Tomlin said it did not.
"I don't worry about that because I focus on competing and doing well and competing for championships," he said, "and if you do that, you don't have to worry about things such as job security and the like. That's never been my mentality and hopefully never will be."
Mr. Tomlin also broached other topics during his news conference at the team's headquarters at the UPMC Sports Complex, South Side, as he prepares to take his team to training camp Sunday in Latrobe:
• All of his players, as far as he knows, are healthy and will be ready to practice, although defensive end Travis Kirschke, who had bone spurs removed in June, might be somewhat limited. Pre-camp physicals ultimately will determine everyone's health status.
• Mr. Tomlin reiterated Kevin Colbert's prediction that both unsigned rookies, running back Rashard Mendenhall and wide receiver Limas Sweed, will have contracts by Sunday. Once both sign, one player must be removed from the roster to pair it to 81, which includes the international roster exemption, England's Marvin Allen, a wide receiver.
• This camp will not be as physically difficult as his first because the roster contains five fewer players than last year. He will not conduct as many true two-a-day workouts as he did in 2007.
• Among the more important issues entering camp are the development of the offensive line, a new third-string quarterback and new role players and to develop the second-year players such as linebackers Lawrence Timmons and LaMarr Woodley.
• The competition for the starting job at center between newcomer Justin Hartwig and last year's starter Sean Mahan will be "a hotly contested battle.''