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Name: Rooney, Dan
Current Position: Previous Ambassador


Nominated on St. Patrick’s Day by President Barack Obama to be the next United States ambassador to Ireland, Dan Rooney is considered to be the most high-profile figure ever to represent the U.S. in Ireland, thanks to his ownership of the famed Pittsburgh Steelers of the National Football League (NFL). His connections to Ireland are unmistakable, but what most likely got the Irish-American the ambassadorship was his pivotal endorsement of Obama during the contentious Democratic primary in Pennsylvania in 2008.
Born July 30, 1932, into a Catholic Irish-American family, Rooney grew up the oldest of five sons on the blighted north side of Pittsburgh, PA. His father, Arthur “Art” Joseph Rooney, used his winnings ($2,500) from a horse race to start an NFL franchise, the Pittsburgh Steelers, in 1933. Dan Rooney attended North Catholic High School, where he played quarterback on the football team. As a teenager, Rooney seriously considered becoming a priest. Instead, the devout Catholic attended Duquesne University and graduated with a degree in economics in 1955. He married his wife, Patricia Reagan, at age 19, and they eventually had nine children together.
After graduation, he went to work for the Steelers, becoming director of personnel. He was appointed team president in 1975 and was given a great deal of power by his father. Following Art Rooney’s death in 1988, Dan Rooney became lead owner of the team, even though shares of the team were evenly divided between him and his four brothers (Art Jr., Timothy, Patrick and John), each with 16%, with the remaining 20% held by another Pittsburgh family, the McGinleys.
The Steelers are one of the most successful franchises in the NFL. Since 1972, the team has been AFC Central Division champions 14 times, AFC champions seven times, and Super Bowl champions six times—a league record.
While Rooney has generally avoided the spotlight, he has been an active owner behind the scenes. Rooney helped to negotiate the collective bargaining agreement of 1982 that ended a strike that lasted half of the season. He was one of the architects of the salary cap, which was implemented in 1993, and has been credited for coming up with the “Rooney Rule,” adopted in December 2002, which requires NFL teams with head coaching and general manager vacancies to interview at least one minority candidate. Rooney was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2000.
Since 2003, Rooney has somewhat limited his control of the franchise, giving more power to his son, Art Rooney II, who holds the title of team president. In July 2008, Dan and his son admitted what had long been suspected—that they were seeking to buy out Dan Rooney’s brothers because of their ownership of casinos and other gambling establishments. NFL rules prohibit owners from owning, directly or indirectly, any interest in gambling operations. The Rooneys own Yonkers Raceway, a harness racing track outside of New York City, and the Palm Beach Kennel Club, a Greyhound racetrack in West Palm Beach, FL. A deal was reportedly reached in November 2008, whereby the four brothers would gain $750 million for selling their shares to Dan Rooney and his son.
Although revered as a franchise and beloved by many Pennsylvanians, the Steelers and Rooney have not escaped controversy. In August 2004, it was reported that the Steelers received $5 million in state funds for a new $12-million amphitheater. This was in addition to the $158 million in public subsidies the organization received to build Heinz Field, where the team plays its home games. It was pointed out that because the Steelers don’t own any taxable property, the Rooneys have avoided paying city and county real estate taxes.
Rooney was caught up in controversy in 2008 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.
But perhaps the most controversial action Rooney ever took was to come out in support of Obama during the 2008 U.S. presidential campaign. Rooney—a lifelong, anti-abortion Republican—publicly endorsed Obama as he battled rival Hillary Clinton in the Pennsylvania primary. Rooney raised money for Obama, campaigned in the western part of the state for him, and presented the liberal Democrat with his own personalized Pittsburgh Steelers jersey. This act infuriated many Steelers fans who flooded the conservative-leaning Pittsburgh Tribune Review editorial board with letters.
Rooney’s son, Jim Rooney, explained why his father backed Obama: “There was just a visceral connection between my father and Obama. He loved how enthusiastic young people were getting for him, and when you get to my father’s age, you start to hope the future is bright for generations beyond.”
Rooney has been seriously involved in efforts to help Ireland. He is the benefactor of the 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 vice-chairman of The American Ireland Fund, which he co-founded in 1976 and has helped raise $300 million for peace and education programs in Ireland.
He is also a major backer of the Ireland Institute of Pittsburgh, a program 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, to help bring U.S. investment to the town and arrange exchange programs in Pittsburgh for Newry youth.
Rooney’s legacy in Northern Ireland is reflected in a Steelers-themed bar in a disused linen mill in one of the roughest parts of northwest Belfast.
Rooney, a millionaire several times over, thanks to the Steelers’ $900 million value, currently lives with his wife in the North Pittsburgh home he grew up in—a modest red brick, two-story house with a small front porch. The house is only blocks away from Heinz Field, and Rooney has often walked to games through the struggling neighborhood.
The king of Pittsburgh (by Denis Staunton, Irish Times)
Rooney Rule helps reward namesake (by Gene Wojciechowski, ESPN)
Why Dan Rooney Fell for Obama (by Gene Collier, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette)
The Rooneys of Pittsburgh Hold to Their Trusted Path (by Leonard Shapiro, Washington Post)
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