Stealing The Steelers Way? … Saturday Cup O’Chiefs

If you are a Chiefs fan that pays attention to the words of team ownership then you’ve heard the fascination the Hunt Family has with the Pittsburgh Steelers and their operation.

Even more than the Patriots Way talk that comes due to the presence of GM Scott Pioli and his New England roots, Clark Hunt constantly refers to building the Chiefs in the manner of the Steelers. He speaks of their continuity in how they run the football side of their business.

(Dan Rooney foreground above and his oldest son Art Rooney II to the right have run the Steelers for the last 45 years.)

Unfortunately, the Hunts have no idea of how to run their team in the Steelers Way. Just as they really only have one man’s view of how the Patriots operate. It would be a much better idea if they simply created a Chiefs Way and molded the franchise in their own image and direction, rather than stealing (pun intended) from Pittsburgh’s methods or those of the Patriots.

They’ll get a chance to see the Steelers up close and personal Sunday night at Arrowhead Stadium when head coach Mike Tomlin leads his 7-3 team on the field. Once again, the Steelers are one of the better teams in the AFC, just as they were in 2010 – when they lost in the Super Bowl to Green Bay – and in 2008, the year they beat Arizona and won the league championship.

Pittsburgh comes in to play the short-handed Chiefs after enjoying their bye week and resting their bodies for the stretch run in the highly competitive AFC North with Baltimore and a resurgent Cincinnati. Over the last five seasons, the Steelers have won three division titles, two conference titles and one NFL championship. They were 51-29 in the regular season; only New England won more often with a 63-17 record, four division titles and one conference title.

There have been moments in their recent history when the Steelers have struggled. But it doesn’t last long and they tend to bounce back big. In 2003 they were 6-10. In 2004 they were 15-1 and in 2005 they won the Super Bowl.

How do they do it? What are their secrets that the Hunts could steal for the Chiefs?

Todd Haley can certainly talk about it, given his career in the league and his life growing up within that Steelers franchise as the son of one of their top personnel men, Dick Haley.

“I think it starts at the top there with the Rooney family,” Haley said this week. “They are just phenomenal, phenomenal people and owners and that’s given them great continuity from the top.

“I think they’ve generally just stuck with their philosophy of the way that they’re doing things. Again, I was privy to a lot of that growing up. They’ve stuck to their guns and stayed the course with how they want to do things, and that is finding good football players and then having good coaches that maximize those players’ abilities and use them in the way that they need to be used or the way that they see them best used.

“They’ve been able to build on that and understand that winning football games is the No. 1 priority and everything else generally takes care of itself.

It’s only natural that an NFL team trying to rebuilding itself would look to the biggest winners in the league for a road map or formula. Football – make that all sports – have always been great venues for stealing ideas. But to say you’d like to build your team in the manner of the Steelers because they have such great continuity in their organization does not take into account the fact that each situation in the NFL is different.

What makes it work in Pittsburgh, where they enjoy so much success on the field and have become almost a religion with the sports fans of that area? Here are the key factors.

ONE VERY BASIC GOAL

Haley said “winning football games is their No. 1 priority.” A simple and obvious statement, but that is the basis of all decisions made by the Steelers in the last 40-plus years.

Here’s another way to look at it from Steelers president Art Rooney II who has the job that was previously held by his grandfather Art and father Dan.

“My father, my grandfather, always wanted to keep it simple and the focus on the field,” Art II said several years ago. “Everything else flows from that.”

The Steelers have never been one of the NFL leaders in areas like marketing and promotions. They have no cheerleaders. They have no band. For years they did not play music at Three Rivers Stadium or Heinz Field during games. The most iconic element of the franchise is the “Terrible Towel” for which they do not receive a penny. Invented by the late Myron Cope, one of the team’s long-time radio broadcasters, all revenue flows to a Pittsburgh area school for special needs children and adults.

Consider this: about two years before the labor strife that so dominated sports headlines in the past year, Dan Rooney told reporters at a league meeting that he would rather keep the season at 16 games, than expand to 18 games and make more money. “I’d rather not have the money,” Rooney said, concerned about the physical effects of two more weeks of football each year.

“He’s talking about he’d rather not have the money,” Steelers LB James Harrison said. “He’s truly concerned about the players. Other owners that are willing to go ahead and say give us 18 games don’t really care about the safety of players. They care about making money.”

The business of the Steelers and the Rooneys is football and the people who play and coach the game. They never lose sight of that.

OWNERSHIP

People see continuity in the Steelers because the primary owner of the franchise since inception has been the Rooney Family. The team was started by boxing promoter and legendary gambler Art Rooney, Sr., in 1933. He will go down as one of the men in league history that would be chiseled into an NFL Mount Rushmore.

More than 45 years ago, the man they called “The Chief” turned over control of the team to his oldest son Dan, who was part of the day-to-day operations of the franchise until three years ago, when President Obama named him Ambassador to Ireland. Direction of the franchise was turned over to Dan’s oldest son Art III.

Not only is that continuity, but it comes with extras. The Rooneys have always lived in Pittsburgh and western Pennsylvania. They were born there, raised there and understand not only the physical landscape, but that of the psyche and personalities of the region. They have always had their pulse on the finger of the community because they are the community.

In their upbringing, Art and his son Dan were really trained as sportsmen. Both had college degrees, but they worked only in sports and in Dan’s case, only for the Steelers. Art II is a lawyer and has worked outside the family’s football business for a law firm. While his grandfather’s background in the ways of sportsman in the 1920s and 1930s helped him start the franchise, Art II background as a lawyer provides extra help in this very different era.

Another very important key is that these three men have been the final say in the organization. There were no hired guns with fancy titles of President or Chiefs Executive running the show. Decisions have been made by somebody with the last name Rooney for just about every day of the last 79 years.

“Everybody talks about the Steelers Way; people on the outside ask, ‘well what is that?’” said Kevin Colbert, general manager of the Steelers. “My perception of it is you do the right thing in every situation. They (the Rooneys) have a knack for knowing what the right thing is, and they transfer that to everybody in the organization.”

But there has been great turmoil in the Steelers ownership over the last few years. There are five sons of Art Rooney and they all had a piece of the team. They also owned as a family several harness racing tracks, a dog racing track and in recent years, those establishments have added other gambling elements like slot machines.

Ownership of these types of ventures is forbidden by NFL rules and the Rooney family members were forced to make decisions. Some of the brothers sold their interest in the team, which for many of them was a little bit like selling one of their children. New partners have been brought in. They have limited say-so with their ownership percentage, as they agreed that the franchise should be run by Dan and Art III when they signed on.

Right now, the Steelers media guide lists 22 members of the Pittsburgh ownership group. Essentially, what it all means is that some day in the future, the Rooney family will no longer have control of the franchise and when that string of continuity is broken, and then there will be major changes.

“It’s the Rooneys, man,” said FS Ryan Clark when asked to explain what makes it work. “Very humble, even-keeled guys. You can see them walking around all day, eat lunch with them. They talk to us, shake our hands on a daily basis. That type of family atmosphere is bred throughout the whole team.”

HEAD COACH

The Steelers went through a lot of head coaches until 1969. That’s when Dan Rooney hired an assistant coach with the Baltimore Colts and a former player with the Cleveland Browns, Chuck Noll to take over. Noll (1969-91) coached through the 1991 season, winning four Super Bowls and establishing a Hall of Fame career.

Noll was replaced in 1992 by Bill Cowher, a Pittsburgh native who at the time was defensive coordinator of the Chiefs. Cowher would coach the Steelers for 15 years (1991-2006), appear in two Super Bowls and won one before he resigned the job.

He was replaced by Mike Tomlin (2007-2011) who in four completed seasons has appeared in two Super Bowls, winning one.

That’s 43 seasons with just three head coaches. The only common denominator between the three is the man who picked them, Dan Rooney. Cowher didn’t work for Noll, and Tomlin did not work for Cowher. There was no interconnection between the three.

Plus, the three had no previous connection with the Steelers, save for the fact that Cowher was a Pittsburgh native that rooted for the team as a child. They did not have roots with the Rooneys or any of the other people in the organization that were consulted on the position. And, finally none of the three had been a head coach before.

All of those factors are almost impossible to duplicate in another setting. Since Noll was hired, the Chiefs alone have had 11 head coaches. Other teams have had many more. Were the Steelers lucky? Maybe with Cowher replacing Noll, but there’s no way all three back-to-back-to-back is just luck.

And even if it was luck, or earned through all the prayer cards The Chiefs bought over the years, how does one duplicate that in different towns and situations.

FINDING/DEVELOPING PLAYERS

The Steelers have had three head coaches since 1969. Just as remarkable, they’ve had only four men in charge of player personnel – Art Rooney, Jr., Dick Haley, Tom Donahoe and Kevin Colbert.

Rooney and Donahoe were both fired because they were clashing too much with the head coaches at the time – Rooney was fired in 1987 for feuding with Chuck Noll and Donahoe resigned in 1999 after several years of not getting along with Bill Cowher.

The Steelers have never been an organization without controversy, but isn’t it interesting that when push came to shove, ownership backed the head coach in these disagreements. That was even the case when one of the guys fired was part of the Rooney family itself and a huge part of having helped build the 1970s Super Bowl teams.

What they’ve created for decades now is a rather remarkable ability to judge players and how they would fit into what the team wanted to do offensively and defensively.

“You need good football players, and I’m stressing football players, because I don’t think (they are) looking for quarterbacks or corners or guards,” said Todd Haley. “I think like we are, they’re looking for good football players that we feel like can fit within our team, and that’s what they do. You change your system accordingly when you have to, but they do a terrific, terrific job. Coach (Mike) Tomlin and his staff do a terrific job of coaching the guys and playing to their strengths.”

The Steelers do not play the same defense now that they played in the glory years of the 1970s – but they still find linebackers – Jack Ham, Jack Lambert, Mike Merriweather, Greg Lloyd, Chad Brown, Levon Kirkland, Jason Gildon, Joey Porter, James Harrison, LaMarr Woodley.

They are not the same offense that the team was just a few years ago when they had Jerome “The Bus” Bettis busting loose in the ground game. But then, as they do now with a more pass oriented attack, they’ve always been able to find wide receivers – Lynn Swann, John Stallworth, Louis Lipps, Hines Ward, Mike Wallace.

When mistakes happen, they do not rush to use free agency as the way to put a band aid on their problems. They never think of themselves as one player away, and thus do not make any sudden moves that alter the plan or tip over a whole line of dominoes.

They’ve never been afraid to lose a starter in free agency if they felt that player was near the end of his career or was going to demand a price tag that was too rich than the Steelers Plan. In situations where they lose a starter, they almost always seem to have a young player ready to step in.

CONCLUSION

Trying to copy the Steelers Way is a pipe dream for any NFL organization. It works well for them, but so much of how they do business can’t be duplicated. It’s not feasible or suggested. As they say in Pittsburgh, it’s a ‘Burgh thing.

“Our philosophy is you pick good people and try to stick with them,” said Art Rooney II. “There are no guarantees; there are ups and downs in any sport. But if you have the people in place, you always have a chance to be successful. That goes back to my grandfather and down to my father.”


12 Responses to “Stealing The Steelers Way? … Saturday Cup O’Chiefs”

  • November 26, 2011  - James says:

    Maybe a good first step would be for Clark Hunt to move to KC. What am I thinking, that isn’t going to happen.


  • November 26, 2011  - Milkman says:

    Great article,Bob. I’ve always wondered why everyone got so excited when Pioli was hired because we would soon be doing things the “Patriot way”. And it always bothered me to hear Clark Hunt continually reap praise for the Steelers. This man’s father was one of the most original thinkers in the history of all sports. Where would this league be without the vision of Lamar Hunt? We shouldn’t have to follow any other franchise if Clark Hunt has any of his father’s guts. You’re also right when you say the Steelers ways would not work here. We tried that back when we were loyal to a fault after we won our one and only championship. Who remembers the days of Jim Schaaf? When Clark Hunt comes up with an idea of his own and follows through with it, maybe we will finally start to see consistent winning football that all of us so desparately want.


  • November 26, 2011  - RW says:

    Put in another sense, the Chiefs have lost their ‘way’.


  • November 26, 2011  - Rick says:

    A perfect “twofer” for Bob.

    You get to crow about the Steelers, while bashing the Chiefs.

    That’s just f’ing great.


  • November 26, 2011  - johnfromfairfax says:

    Sometimes the truth is painful. I suspect if we are to find our “way” it won’t be a duplicate of the Steelers or Patriots or anybody else for that matter. Those franchises weren’t always held up as a model for others to follow. For any success in sports or other activities it’s necessary to take elements of what others have done and duplicate them while adding your own creativity and inspiration until it becomes your own brand or way of doing things. I suspect it will have to be that way with the Chiefs as well.


  • November 26, 2011  - Tenand6 says:

    The Patriot Way has the head coach over the GM on the organizational chart.

    Pioli is used to taking orders from the head coach and it worked quite well. Throw in a Hall of Fame quarterback and you’ve got the makings of a Steeler/Patriot Way.

    Scott Pioli has brought in people from the Patriot organization but that may just make him feel comfortable. It won’t re-create anything. Old maps work— in the city they were printed.

    I recommend everyone reading, “War Room.” It is a good examination of some of the guiding principles of Kraft/Belichick’s Patriots. Pioli and Dimitroff are discussed at length. They are good men who work hard. After reading that book, if Pioli and Dimitroff were still with the Patriots and available for hire, I would choose Dimitroff to help lead my franchise. I would not hire Pioli and that has nothing to do with work ethic or organizational skills. After reading the book I saw him as a gifted follower. Someone who would benefit from receiving direction of a more creative thinker. Like in New England.

    Dimitroff appears to be his own man. Using Patriot lessons as guides, not had and fast laws enforced with a death sentence.

    Quick story from the book: Pioli proudly told the writer he was committed to eliminating the wasting of Clark Hunt’s money. To that end, Pioli reported he would stay after meetings and collect pens to make sure they weren’t thrown away.

    Pens.

    If I’m Clark Hunt, I fire Pioli right after reading that passage. Small picture, penny-pinching workers belong at the bottom of organizational charts. They can stay to make sure the lights are turned off and the computers are powered down.

    A big picture guy might spend his time finding the next Tom Brady. Or, Ben Rothlisberger, depending on the franchise you hope to follow.

    This was a great column, Bob. Your knowledge of the inner workings of NFL franchises is impressive. Hope you share more on this topic going forward. So much we don’t know.


  • November 26, 2011  - Chuck says:

    Here’s a rare thought from the stratosphere. Since the Steelers seem to be the perfect picture of a great football team. Then why don’t we figure out a way to hire away from them all of their scouts and some of their key coaches. Even if we over pay lets do something radical for a change and really get the Chiefs back on the winning track. Right now Palko looks like a deer in the headlights. And Orton is just now seeing the Playbook for the first time ever.


  • November 26, 2011  - ED J says:

    Give it time guys its only Scott 3rd season with this team he did win division title last season. How we forget and tend to shift our opinions from one season to the next. Lets bring back Haley/Pioli regime with full offseason and lets see how next season goes.


  • November 26, 2011  - el cid says:

    We all have a view about how good or ill run the Chiefs are. Probably a thread of truth by everyone.

    NE or Pitt way, who cares. Get what you think you need for the roster and win some games. You win at home and steal a few on the road. You kick tail in the AFC West (like raiders?). Team was lousy when you got here, get some talent (major shortage, thanks scotty). It is all pretty simple but…..I fear Hunt on down will not leave their “comfort zone”. This team is surrounded by guys who are satisfied. Hunt got tons of extra money since Pioli got here (no team but money). Pioli sits in his ivory tower with his genius and saves money for his owner. Haley cannot find a OC who he can live with and, frankly, looks and acts like he lives under a viaduct between games. All three live and love in their comfort zone and it will be hard to get them to take a chance on anything or one. That is bad for us, no need to win, they got the market cornered in KC.


  • November 26, 2011  - cychief24 says:

    Edj, we finally agree on something! We did win the AFC West last year… with Matt Cassel at QB having a Pro Bowl season.
    I knew we could find some common ground eventually.

    Tenand6 thanks for the recommendation on “War Room” I’ll look for it. The pen story is simply frightening. It explains everything and cuts a deep gash in my hopes for the future.


  • November 26, 2011  - el cid says:

    tenand6, where did you find War Room, thought it was not do out until next week?


  • November 27, 2011  - Tenand6 says:

    I ordered it on Amazon.com. It has been out a few weeks.




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