If you’re old enough, you can actually remember a time when the Steelers were a joke and the Browns a powerhouse, rather than the other way around. Dan Rooney would get unanimous support for sainthood in the city of Pittsburgh, but when he ran the team, he hired his drinking buddies as scouts, and based payroll decisions on whether he had a good day at the track. At one point during World War II, his finances got so distressed that he merged the team for a season with the Eagles and formed something called the Steagles. In the 50s and 60s, the Steelers were tenants alternately between the Pirates at Forbes Field and the University of Pittsburgh. Given the circumstances he faced, an argument could be made that keeping the franchise afloat for its first 35 years was a more impressive feat than winning six Super Bowls.
If at any point in the 50s or 60s Art Rooney had gone to the powers that be in the NFL and said, “Guys, I just can’t make this work anymore,” he would have gotten full support to take the Steelers out of Pittsburgh. The steel industry was beginning to fade, the population was declining, and there were plenty of Sun Belt cities beginning to boom where he could have made much more money, for both himself and the league. But Art put his son Dan in charge of all football operations, and Dan’s first move was to hire Chuck Noll as coach. His second move was to draft Joe Greene. Noll’s record his first season was 1-13. Three years later he won the division and the Steelers played the first playoff game in their history, featuring the “Immaculate Reception.” Two years after that they won the Super Bowl.
Contrast that with Art Modell. In 1994, the Browns were a wild card team and won a playoff game against the Patriots. They had Ozzie Newsome in the front office. The coach was Bill Belichick. The defensive coordinator was some guy named Nick Saban. Scott Pioli, Mike Tannenbaun, Mike Lombardi, and Jim Schwartz all worked in the front office. Phil Savage, Eric Mangini, and Kirk Ferentz were on the coaching staff. Thomas Dimitroff, who just reached the Super Bowl as GM of the Falcons, was on the freaking grounds crew! Modell looked at all that talent and said “I just can’t go on like this,” and decided to move to Baltimore a year later.
Modell’s argument at the time was that he needed special treatment because he was financing the team out of his own pocket, rather than relying on a windfall from some other business. He later told associates that he was trying to build a secure financial foundation for the team so that he could pass it on to his son, David. I don’t have first-hand knowledge, but I would bet a significant sum that at no point in their lives was Art Rooney’s net worth higher than Art Modell’s. The Rooneys made it work in Pittsburgh because they cared more about Pittsburgh than about the bottom line.
You can also make the argument that none of the Steelers’ success would have been possible if the city of Pittsburgh had not built Three Rivers’ Stadium and then Heinz Field, which buttresses Modell’s argument that Cleveland deserved to lose the Browns because they refused to replace decrepit Municipal Stadium, and that they took the Browns for granted while building new facilities for the Indians and Cavaliers. What we know for a fact is that Cleveland began work on a new football stadium within months after the Browns left. While you could say that the loss of their beloved team helped to focus the attention of city leaders, you could also say that the quickness with which they moved demonstrates that the wherewithal and willingness were there all along, and that Modell’s negotiating style of public threats and bluster was not conducive to reaching a solution. The Rooneys never used threats and bluster. They built relationships and showed loyalty, and the city of Pittsburgh recognized that the Steelers were a vital part of the culture and that a stadium would enhance the revitalization of the downtown area.
Art Modell died five years ago. The NFL Network did not alter its programming schedule for an entire afternoon, as it did yesterday when Dan Rooney died. His death was not mentioned on CNN or MSNBC, as Rooney’s was. There was no outpouring of emotion in Cleveland or even in Baltimore. The Modell family is no longer involved in football, because even with the sweetheart deal he got from the city of Baltimore, Modell needed financial help, and ultimately, minority owner Steve Bisciotti bought the whole team. Dan Rooney turned operation of the Steelers over to his son, Art II, a decade ago, and the team continues to operate as a model NFL franchise with hardly a hitch.
Dan Rooney was a nice man. He was a patient man and a humble man. He put others ahead of himself, and he made every decision based on what was good for his team, his city, and his league, not on what was popular or expedient. A large part of the city of Pittsburgh will come to a halt on Monday and Tuesday to mourn his loss, but more to celebrate his life and express their gratitude for what he meant to them.
It may be that we all end up the same after we die, regardless of how we live our lives. But the name Modell is all but forgotten, while the name Rooney will be revered for as long as there is a Pittsburgh.
You reap what you sow.